America’s Forgotten Female President —- Edith Wilson
In 1919, after conducting at 9,000 mile speaking tour of the United States, President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke with left him partially paralyzed, partially blind, and mostly incapacitated. His doctors advised that Wilson should no longer take part in politics, essentially Wilson was no longer able to carry out the powers of the presidency.
Until the passage of 25th Amendment, there really were no hard and fast rules governing succession of powers. Generally it became tradition that if the President died, resigned, or became incapacitated, the Vice President should take over. However this was not always the case, and even the legitimacy of Vice Presidents who inherited the office was often questioned. The ambiguous wording of the Constitution didn’t help either.
After becoming incapacitated, Woodrow’s wife, First Lady Edith Wilson essentially became the unofficial acting president. Edith despised Woodrow’s Vice President, Thomas Marshall. A number of cabinet members and advisers also were of the opinion that it would be a bad idea for Marshall to assume the Presidency. Thus as the closest person to the President, Edith unofficially assumed the executive powers of her husband. For his own health Woodrow was secluded from the public. Government officials, congressmen, and even the Vice President were prohibited from seeing or visiting the President. If someone needed to speak to the President, they saw Edith instead, who decided if the business was important enough to pass on to her husband. This also had the dual purpose of hiding the severity of his illness, which would give grounds for Marshall to demand presidential succession.
For 17 months Edith acted as de facto President of the United States. In her husband’s stead she met with congressmen, ambassadors, foreign dignitaries, and heads of state. If a bill was presented to the President, she would read it, determine if it should pass or be vetoed, then present the bill to her husband for signing. 28 bills even became law without signature but a statement from Edith proclaiming, “my husband approves of this.” Her and Woodrow’s physician, Dr. Cary T. Grayson, even wrote the 1919 and 1920 State of the Union Address, which was delivered by letter to Congress.
By 1920 the secret of the President’s poor health became public knowledge. However, Vice President Marshall refused to assume the Presidency out of loyalty for Woodrow. Woodrow Wilson’s (and Edith’s) second presidential term ended on March 4th, 1921. He did not seek re-election, neither did Edith. Woodrow Wilson died three years later.
Using Edith Wilson’s “presidency” as an example, the 25th Amendment was adopted in 1967, officially making the Vice President the successor to the President.