Woodrow Wilson was US President from 1913-1921, during World War I and its aftermath. Here, Kate Murphy Schaefer follows her articles on Abigail Adams (here) and Eleanor Roosevelt (here), by looking at both of the first ladies to Woodrow Wilson: Ellen Wilson and Edith Wilson, who have contrasting legacies.

Woodrow and Edith Wilson in 1920.

Woodrow and Edith Wilson in 1920.

Conventional wisdom tells us “the past doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”[1] It makes sense there would be some overlap in the experiences of American first ladies: only 46 women have known how it feels to be thrust into that kind of spotlight. Some embraced their new role; others simply tried to make the best of it. Many took on the weight of shaping and maintaining their husband’s legacy: Abigail Adams, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Jackie Kennedy come to mind. Two very different first ladies took on responsibility for the legacy of President Woodrow Wilson, however: Ellen and Edith Wilson.

 

The First Mrs. Wilson

Ellen Louise Axson was dedicated to her art, even winning a medal at the Paris International Exposition in 1878. This focus did not go unnoticed by the eligible bachelors in Rome, Georgia, earning her the nickname “Ellie the Man Hater.”[2] This changed when she met Woodrow Wilson. She set aside studio art in favor of the art of compromise, supporting her husband and his dream of entering national politics. Ellen was much more adept than her husband at making the connections and cultivating the relationships that would make presidential candidacy a reality. For example, she knew Woodrow would not win the Democratic nomination without the support of Congressional giant William Jennings Bryan, so she invited Bryan to dinner. She seemed to instinctively know how to make people feel at ease and how to portray her bookish college professor husband in the best light. Though she saw herself as the “most unambitious of women,” Ellen Wilson made President Wilson possible.[3]

She admitted “life in the White House has no attractions for me,” but vowed to make the best of her stay. She supported women’s suffrage, increased rights for African-Americans, and championed restrictions on child labor. She also worked for housing reform in Washington, D.C. A woman of her time and product of her Southern upbringing, she was not as progressive as some, but she was considerably more progressive than her husband. Evidence of her work lived on in the Alley bill passed by the House of Representatives after her death.[4] Ultimately chronic kidney disease, not lack of drive or dedication, kept Ellen from achieving all she wanted to achieve. She died on August 6, 1914. Devoted to Woodrow to the last, her final words were “take good care of my husband.”[5]

                 

A New Mrs. Wilson

Woodrow Wilson grieved bitterly for his wife, but a new Mrs. Wilson was on his horizon. Hoping to break the president out of his depression, Ellen’s former secretary, Helen Bones, invited him to tea with her friend Edith Bolling Galt. Edith had lost her first husband six years before and was not inclined towards another romantic relationship. Wilson, on the other hand, was completely besotted. He proposed within three months, pursuing her even after she declined the first proposal. Initial reluctance aside, Edith seemed to know from the beginning that her future led to the White House, describing meeting Wilson as “an accidental meeting which carried out the adage of ‘turn a corner and meet your fate.’”[6] The couple married in December 1915. Edith was not Ellen: she was not as educated or as knowledgeable about social issues and politics. Where Ellen worked for several causes, Edith had only one: Woodrow Wilson. Fate, whether stumbled upon at tea or grasped head on, is a fickle mistress. On September 25, 1919, Wilson suffered a massive stroke in the residence of the White House. The Mrs. Wilson least prepared to take on politics became the woman in charge of the President and the presidency itself.

Following the stroke, Woodrow Wilson was “paralyzed, unconscious, (and) almost vegetative,” leading Edith to hide the severity of her husband’s condition.[7] Only the most senior White House officials knew the truth, and they were sworn to silence in the name of preserving Wilson’s legacy. Medical records and notes taken by the presidential physicians at the time were buried until 1991. They told a story much different than the one Edith insisted on. The stroke trauma was “so extensive…it would be impossible for him ever to achieve more than a minimal state of recovery.”[8] But the President was not dead, and the Constitution was vague about how to replace a living president that could not serve. (It would take nearly fifty years for the 25th amendment to be ratified.) Edith insisted her husband could still perform his duties as president, albeit with a few changes. She did not allow any visitors and was present in all meetings in his stead. She became the conduit to the President, and “access became tantamount to power.”[9]

 

The Price of Devotion

 

“I studied every paper, sent from different Secretaries or Senators, and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President. I myself never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.”[10]

 

What Edith called her “stewardship,” others called her regency. Some referred to her as “Mrs. President.” Title aside, there was little doubt the first lady was making decisions of her own accord. Politicians who spoke ill of her or her husband were soon cut off. She even fired the Secretary of State because he dared to call a Cabinet meeting without her.[11] Congressional and White House officials alike learned not to question Edith even as they quietly doubted the words she scrawled on their correspondence were from the President’s lips. Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall was aware of his precarious position as the lame duck vice president in Edith Wilson’s White House. Explaining his predicament to New York Times reporter Arthur Krock, he said “no politician ever exposes himself to the hatred of a woman, particularly if she’s married to the President of the United States.”[12]

Edith Wilson was more devoted to the President than to the ideals and nation he swore to protect. In hiding the president’s condition, she lied to Congress. In acting in a role for which she was not elected and far from equipped, she showed blatant disregard for the Constitution. Shaping the present to one exclusive purpose, she also shaped the future. The fallout from her prioritization of Wilson’s legacy would impact American and world history for years to come. As she shuffled papers from one side of the White House to another, the fate of the League of Nations, and the fragile peace of the 1918 Armistice, hung in the balance. Prior to his stroke, Wilson struggled with certain articles of the League, but Vice President Marshall was a staunch supporter. Many historians argue a Marshall presidency would have resulted in the United States joining the League of Nations, ensuring its success. With Edith’s decision to take over her husband’s presidency, the world lost an opportunity to head off the conflicts that would spark into another world war. “What was lost was a generation of experience in leadership,” explained John Milton Cooper.[13]

Historians also wonder whether Ellen Wilson would have made the same decision in Edith’s place. Her persistence in winning support for Wilson in Washington demonstrated her dedication, but would the woman for whom the White House held no attraction have been as eager to take control of the West Wing? It is impossible to know for sure, but remains a tantalizing debate. Devotion, like love, is a tricky thing. Both Mrs. Wilsons loved Woodrow Wilson, and both felt some responsibility for guiding and preserving his political career. Still we remember Ellen Wilson as everything a first lady should be, and Edith as everything she should not.

 

Do you agree with the author? Let us know below.

 

[1] Though not verified, this quote is often attributed to Mark Twain.

[2] John Milton Cooper, “Ellen Axson Wilson/Edith Bolling Wilson,” in Susan Swain and C-SPAN, First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women (New York: Public Affairs, 2015), 241.

[3] “Ellen Axson Wilson,” The White House.gov, accessed June 15, 2018, https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/first-ladies/ellen-axson-wilson/.

[4] The bill did not become a law until 1933 when it was championed by another progressive first lady: Eleanor Roosevelt.

[5] “Ellen Wilson,” White House Historical Association, accessed June 5, 2918, https://whitehousehistory.org/bios/ellen-wilson.

[6] Edith Wilson quoted in Erik Larson, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, (New York: Crown Publishers, 2015), 38.

[7] William Hazelgrove, Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson, (Washington, D.C.: Regency Publishing, 2016), e-book.

[8] Medical records quoted in Phyllis Lee Levin, Edith and Woodrow: The Wilson White House. New York: Scribner, 2001), 344.

[9] Levin, 11.

[10] Edith Wilson quoted in Hazelgrove.

[11] Katie Serena, “Was Edith Wilson Actually America’s First Female President?,” All That’s Interesting, accessed June 5, 2018, http://allthatsinteresting.com/edith-wilson.

[12] Thomas Riley Marshall quoted in Levin, 342.

[13] John Milton Cooper, “Edith Ellen Axson Wilson/Edith Bolling Wilson,” in Susan Swain and C-SPAN, First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women (New York: Public Affairs, 2015), 248.

Sources Cited

Cooper, John Milton and Kristie Miller, “Ellen Axson Wilson/Edith Bolling Wilson,” in Susan Swain and C-SPAN, First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women. New York: Public Affairs, 2015.

“Ellen Wilson,” White House Historical Association, accessed June 5, 2918, https://whitehousehistory.org/bios/ellen-wilson.

Larson, Erik. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. New York: Crown Publishers, 2015.

Levin, Phyllis Lee. Edith and Woodrow: The Wilson White House. New York: Scribner, 2001.

Hazelgrove, William. Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson. Washington, D.C.: Regency Publishing, 2016.

Serena, Katie. “Was Edith Wilson Actually America’s First Female President?,” All That’s Interesting, accessed June 5, 2018, http://allthatsinteresting.com/edith-wilson.

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

Steve Strathmann considers what the three presidents most closely associated with World War II did during  that other great war of the twentieth century – World War I.

 

In 1917, Woodrow Wilson led the United States as it entered the First World War. In his speech to Congress asking for a declaration of war, Wilson presented Germany’s submarine warfare as the primary reason to go to war, but he also stated a greater goal:

The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.

 

The two men who held the office before him supported the nation’s entry into the war. Theodore Roosevelt, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, asked to personally raise a division of troops to be sent to Europe. Wilson met with Roosevelt and politely declined the offer, explaining that the ranks would be instead filled through a draft. Another strike against Roosevelt going to Europe was his poor overall health; he would barely outlive the conflict, passing away on January 6, 1919.

William Howard Taft spoke publicly in support of the war. On June 13, 1917, he repeated Wilson’s “war for democracy” theme, declaring “...Now we have stepped to the forefront of nations, and they look to us.” Taft would be tapped by President Wilson to chair the National War Labor Board, a panel set up to handle labor/management disputes during the war.

While other future presidents would make contributions to the war effort (especially Herbert Hoover, whose work during and after the war would make him internationally famous), what did the three presidents most identified with the Second World War do in 1917? As we shall see, these three men all served their nation’s military in different ways.

 

The Assistant Secretary

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   FDR, with Secretary Daniels and the Prince of Wales, in Annapolis, 1919   
  
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FDR, with Secretary Daniels and the Prince of Wales, in Annapolis, 1919.

While the war raged overseas, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Theodore’s cousin) was a member of the Wilson administration serving as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. At the start of war, Roosevelt publicly called for an increase in the size of the US Navy by 18,000 men. This got him into trouble with Wilson and Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels, who were trying to maintain a state of neutrality. Roosevelt had to recant his statement, and learned not to step on his superiors’ toes.

By July of 1915, the administration was coming into line with Roosevelt’s beliefs on naval expansion. Increased action in the Atlantic Ocean, including the sinking of the Lusitania, convinced Wilson that the military needed to be updated and enlarged to improve the nation’s defenses. Daniels and FDR presented a plan calling for the construction of 176 new ships, including ten battleships. This was approved by the president and Congress.

Even with these preparations, the US Navy was relatively small when war was declared. This had changed by the end of the war, when the force had expanded to almost a million sailors on over 2,000 vessels. Roosevelt had a hand in this, proving to be so good at gathering military supplies that he had to be asked to share the navy’s material gains with the army.

According to biographer Jean Edward Smith, FDR’s greatest wartime work was the creation of a North Sea antisubmarine chain of mines. While the initial plan was not Roosevelt’s, his promotion of the idea and the technology to accomplish it was what led to it being implemented. The chain wasn’t installed until the summer of 1918 and it was never fully tested, but estimates of German U-boats destroyed by the mines range from four to as many as twenty-three.

Above all, Franklin Roosevelt wanted to serve in the military during the war. He knew how his cousin’s military exploits helped with his political career and wanted to follow in his footsteps. Theodore Roosevelt even encouraged Franklin to enlist. Unfortunately for FDR, his talents working for the administration meant that Wilson and Daniels would never let him leave his post.

Roosevelt did eventually make it to the Western Front, but not as a soldier. In the summer of 1918, he was sent as part of a Senate committee to inspect the situation in Europe. He insisted on going to the French battlefields, including Verdun and Belleau Wood, and came within one mile of the German front lines. Little did he know, his future vice president was serving in an artillery unit not too far away.

 

Captain Harry

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   Harry S. Truman in France, 1918   
  
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Harry S. Truman in France, 1918.

Harry S. Truman volunteered when war was declared, and the former Missouri Guard member was elected an officer in the artillery formations being organized in the Kansas City/Independence region. After training in Oklahoma, the units sailed for France, arriving on April 13, 1918.

On July 11, Truman took over command of Battery D. The battery had had issues with their previous commanders, but Truman soon earned their respect. Indeed, according to author Robert Ferrell, these soldiers would in the future be Truman’s political base, willing to do anything to support the man they called “Captain Harry.”

Truman’s battery saw action in the Vosges Mountains, Meuse-Argonnes and Verdun. Before Meuse-Argonnes, the captain marched his battery for twenty-two nights to reach their destination. During the two weeks there, Truman’s men sometimes fired their guns so often that, according to the battery’s chief mechanic, “...they’d pour a bucket of water down the muzzle and it’d come out of the breach just a-steaming, you know.”

Verdun was a particularly grizzly posting. The area where the unit was stationed was part of the 1916 battlefield, so every shell that landed around the battery would churn up graves from the previous action. Truman would describe waking up in the morning and finding skulls lying nearby. The battery would serve at Verdun until the end of the war.

While Truman was learning to become a leader of men under fire, one of his future generals was fresh out of West Point, desperate to join in the action, but continually thwarted in his attempts.

 

Ike

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   Dwight D. Eisenhower, with tank, in Fort Meade   
  
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Dwight D. Eisenhower, with tank, in Fort Meade.

Dwight D. Eisenhower graduated from West Point in 1915, sixty-first in a class of 164. Despite his wishes to be posted in the Philippines, he ended up in Texas. When the United States entered the war, Eisenhower was appointed regimental supply officer of the new 57th Regiment.

Unfortunately for the ambitious Ike, he proved to be an excellent training officer and was turned down every time he requested a transfer to Europe. Like Roosevelt, he was too valuable to let go. He was soon transferred to Fort Meade to help organize the 301st Tank Battalion, one of the United States’ first tank units. He was supposed to leave for France with the 301st as its commander, but at the last minute was told that he would remain behind (once again) to set up a training base, Camp Colt, to be located on the old Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania.

Eisenhower did a fantastic job setting up Camp Colt, which soon held more than 10,000 men training on the site of Pickett’s Charge. Due to a lack of tanks, they would use guns mounted on flatbed trucks to practice firing at targets while in motion. Finally all was going well and Eisenhower was scheduled to leave for Europe with the next group of recruits, but the war ended just as they were preparing to leave.

 

War to End All Wars?

As the war ended, these three men probably thought what most others did: this war was the last of its kind to be fought. Eisenhower would remain in the army. Truman would return to Missouri and try his hand in business. Roosevelt would continue in politics, running for vice president on the unsuccessful 1920 Democratic ticket. Little did these three men know that they were destined to meet in just over a couple of decades, fighting the next world war.

 

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References

Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "U.S. Entry into WWI" StudyNotes.org. StudyNotes, Inc., Published November 17, 2012. Accessed May 16, 2014.

Duffy, Michael, ed. “Primary Documents- U.S. Declaration of War with Germany, 2 April 1917.” FirstWorldWar.com. Published August 22, 2009. Accessed May 16, 2014.

Duffy, Michael, ed. “Primary Documents- William Howard Taft on America’s Decision to go to War, 13 June 1917.” FirstWorldWar.com. Published August 22, 2009. Accessed May 16, 2014.

Ferrell, Robert H. Harry S. Truman: a life. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1994.

Korda, Michael. Ike: An American Hero. New York: Harper, 2007.

Smith, Jean Edward. FDR. New York: Random House, 2007.

 

Photos

http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/npc2007000705/resource/ (FDR, with Secretary Daniels and the Prince of Wales, in Annapolis, 1919)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Harry_S._Truman_WW_I.jpg (Harry S. Truman in France, 1918)

http://www.ftmeade.army.mil/museum/Eisenhower_with_Tank.jpg (Dwight D. Eisenhower, with tank, in Fort Meade)