First Chapter: Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson by William Hazelgrove

Madam President Title: Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson
Author: William Hazelgrove
Publisher: Regnery
Pages: 352
Genre: Narrative Nonfiction

After President Woodrow Wilson suffered a paralyzing stroke in the fall of 1919, his wife, First Lady Edith Wilson, began to handle the day-to-day responsibilities of the Executive Office. Mrs. Wilson had had little formal education and had only been married to President Wilson for four years; yet, in the tenuous peace following the end of World War I, Mrs. Wilson dedicated herself to managing the office of the President, reading all correspondence intended for her bedridden husband. Though her Oval Office authority was acknowledged in Washington, D.C. circles at the time–one senator called her “the Presidentress who had fulfilled the dream of suffragettes by changing her title from First Lady to Acting First Man”–her legacy as “First Woman President” is now largely forgotten.

William Hazelgrove’s Madam President is a vivid, engaging portrait of the woman who became the acting President of the United States in 1919, months before women officially won the right to vote. Movie Rights Optioned by Storyline Entertainment.

For More Information

  • Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson is available at Amazon.
  • Pick up your copy at Barnes & Noble.
  • Discuss this book at PUYB Virtual Book Club at Goodreads.

First Chapter

President Woodrow Wilson lay with his mouth drooping, unconscious, having suffered a thrombosis on October 2nd 1919 that left him paralyzed on his left side and barely able to speak. The doctors believed the President’s best chance to survive was in the only known remedy for a stroke at the time; a rest cure consisting of total isolation from the world.

His second wife of four years, Edith Bolling Wilson, asked how a country could function with no Chief Executive. Dr. Dercum, the attending physician leaned over and gave Edith her charge.

“Madam, it is a grave situation, but I think you can solve it. Have everything come to you; weigh the importance of each matter: and see if it is possible by consultation with the respective heads of the Departments to solve them without the guidance of your husband.”  

From here on Edith Wilson would run the White House and by proxy the country by controlling access to the President, signing documents, pushing bills through, issuing vetoes, isolating advisors, crafting State of the Union addresses, disposing or censoring correspondence, filling positions, analyzing every problem and deciding what to give to the President and what to solve by her own devices; all the while keeping the fact the country was  no longer being run by President Woodrow Wilson a guarded secret.

A few guessed at the real situation. A frustrated Senator Falls from New Mexico pounded the Senatorial table when he demanded a response from the White House. “We have a petticoat government! Wilson is not acting! Mrs. Wilson is President!”  Clearly some would see a power grab Edith Wilson ensured by keeping Vice President Marshall from seeing the President and preventing the Constitutional transfer of power.  But Edith believed the doctors admonishment that any stress would kill her husband. From here on she would shield Woodrow Wilson from the world with one simple guiding principle in running the country; keep her husband alive.

Edith participated in the Wilson Administration in an extraordinary way. They were more like a couple today where both people are more of a team than was found in 1919. President Wilson made sure they were together constantly and valued his wife’s input and made Edith part of many of his decisions prior to his stroke. In this way he gave her hands on training for her “stewardship.”

“I tried to arrange my appointments to correspond with those of the President, so we might be free at the same times,” she would later write. Woodrow Wilson gave Edith presidential access to all his work and many times she was with him all day.  As she later wrote, “Breakfast was at eight o’clock sharp. Then we both went to the study to look in “the drawer” and  if nothing had blown up overnight, there was time to put signatures on papers or other official papers. These I always placed before my husband and botted and removed them as fast as possible.”

Edith’s participation in the Wilson White House allowed a woman, who just four years before was a widower living alone in Washington, the ability to deal with the demands of the United States while nursing her husband. The essential death of the President was felt from the failure of The League of Nations to get approved to the virtual standstill of foreign policy and domestic concerns. At a point, the White House simply began to cease to function

Edith Wilson had to step in and power followed. Literally we have a woman with only two years formal education making it up as she went along; approving appointments, making foreign policy and domestic policy decisions, orchestrating the cover up, and restricting access to her husband who at times was totally “gone.” When looking through the Papers of Woodrow Wilson, one is struck by how much correspondence from 1919 to 1921 was directed toward Edith. From America’s entry into the League of Nations to winding down the war to the recognition of diplomats, Edith was on the front lines.

Instead of My dear Mr. President in the Wilson Papers we now see My dear Mrs. Wilson. And these letters cover all matters of state.  The correspondence of the Edith Wilson Years would fill four volumes.  As she wrote to Colonel House the Presidents unofficial advisor, “My hands are so full that I neglect many things. But I feel equal to everything that comes now that I see steady progress going on.”

Americans wouldn’t see their President for five months. Appointments remained filled and correspondence piled up. Years later essential Presidential communications never opened in the White House were found in the National Archives. Like someone who can’t get to their bills, Edith had simply thrown them in a pile.

The cover up would last until our present day with historians and Edith Wilson herself taking part; her memoir written in1939 continued the cover up by calling her Presidency a “stewardship” and downplaying any significance to her role. Historians would seal the deal with many conceding  Edith Wilson was almost the President but that Woodrow Wilson was still in charge. Some would say she might have been the President for six weeks, but that was all.

It is still shocking to the majority of Americans to learn that President Wilson had a massive stroke in office. But to tell people that his wife, Edith Wilson, was the acting President for almost two years is unbelievable. The motivations among historians and the people at the time is simple. If you say Edith Wilson was President from 1919 to 1921,then you diminish the impact Woodrow Wilson had on the country and his legacy.

Power is given to those who can act upon it, and President Wilson, who remained in bed only to be wheeled out for movies and some fresh air, could not act upon anything. The question then is; who was Edith Bolling Wilson? Was she a woman singularly gifted enough to run the country and nurse her husband back to health; or was she a woman doing the best she could in a world of men who saw women as little more than second citizens?  Now almost a hundred years later, we ponder the very relevant impact of our First Woman President again.

But we have to go back to a train car outside of Pueblo Colorado in the Indian summer of 1919. It is here in the heat and dust on September 25th, that Edith Wilson’s Presidency began.