Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, April 19, 2021

President Wilson's Stroke: Governing the Nation

Edith Wilson and the Ill President's Daughter,
Margaret, Accompany Him on an Outing

In recent years, the discovery of the presidential physicians’ clinical notes at the time of the illness confirm that the president’s stroke left him severely paralyzed on his left side and partially blind in his right eye, along with the emotional maelstroms that accompany any serious, life-threatening illness but especially one that attacks the brain. Only a few weeks after his stroke, Wilson suffered a urinary tract infection that threatened to kill him. Fortunately, the president’s body was strong enough to fight that infection off, but he also experienced another attack of influenza in January of 1920, which further damaged his health.

By February of 1920, news of the president’s stroke began to be reported in the press. Nevertheless, the full details of Woodrow Wilson’s disability and his wife’s management of his affairs were not entirely understood by the American public at the time. What remained problematic was that in 1919 there did not yet exist clear constitutional guidelines of what to do, in terms of the transfer of presidential power, when severe illness struck the chief executive. What the U.S. Constitution’s Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 on presidential succession does state is as follows:

In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.

20 June 1920: the President and First Lady

But Wilson, of course, was not dead and not willing to resign because of inability. As a result, Vice President Thomas Marshall refused to assume the presidency unless the Congress passed a resolution that the office was, in fact, vacant, and only after Mrs. Wilson and Dr. Grayson certified in writing, using the language spelled out by the Constitution, of the president’s “inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office.” Such resolutions never came.

For the remainder of her life, Edith Wilson steadfastly insisted that her husband performed all of his presidential duties after his stroke. As she later declared in her 1938 autobiography, My Memoir:

So began my stewardship, I studied every paper, sent from the 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.

Over the last century, historians have continued to dig into the proceedings of the Wilson administration and it has become clear that Edith Wilson acted as much more than a mere “steward.” She was, essentially, the nation’s chief executive until her husband’s second term concluded in March of 1921. Nearly three years later, Woodrow Wilson died in his Washington, DC, home at 2340 S Street, NW, at 11:15 a.m. on Sunday, 3 February 1924.

Source: PBS News Hour, 2 October 2015, Dr. Howard Markel, Correspondent


  1. Certainly a timely post given what is currently going on in DC with Uncle Joe and his loyal Bolshevik/Joseph Goebbels sycophants.

  2. And yet his wife's inability to get him to compromise on the League of Nations and Versailles debate in the Senate is often brought up. It can't be both. If he was the one who refused to compromise at his wife's insistence, she wasn't really running the country.

    She was probably akin to a very powerful Chief of Staff. Only allowing what she thought was important come to his attention.