Edith Bolling Galt Wilson
|First Lady of the United States|
December 18, 1915 – March 4, 1921
|Preceded by||Ellen Axson Wilson|
|Succeeded by||Florence Harding|
|Born||Edith White Bolling
October 15, 1872
|Died||December 28, 1961
Edith White Bolling Galt Wilson (October 15, 1872 — December 28, 1961), second wife of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, was First Lady of the United States from 1915 to 1921. She has been labeled "the Secret President" and "the first woman to run the government" for the role she played after her husband suffered a severe stroke in October 1919. She has also been called "the first female president of the United States."
Edith White Bolling was born October 15, 1872 in Wytheville, Virginia, to William Holcombe Bolling, a circuit court judge, and Sarah "Sallie" Spears (White) Bolling. Edith was a descendant of English people who came to Virginia early in the British colonization of the Americas. Through her father, she was a direct descendant of Pocahontas, the daughter of the chief of the Powhatan tribe of Native American. The husband of Pocahontas was John Rolfe, one of the earliest English settlers of Virginia and the first man to cultivate tobacco as an export crop. Rolfe's granddaughter, Jane, married Robert Bolling, a wealthy planter and merchant.
Edith was the seventh of 11 children. Two of her siblings died in infancy. The Bollings claimed to have been quite wealthy prior to the American Civil War, but were forced to give up their plantation home after being unable to pay taxes on the land. William Bolling settled on his father's property in Wytheville, where most of his children were born. But the Bollings may also have fled their plantation simply to escape the war.
The Bollings were staunch supporters of the Confederate States of America, and Edith was very proud of her southern heritage. Her views about African Americans could be characterized as casually racist: She referred to African Americans as "darkies", and believed that her family's former slaves did not want their freedom. She held a distinct dislike of Northerners for her entire life. It was only after the war that William Bolling turned to the practice of law.
The Bolling household was a large one. In addition to the nine children, Edith's two grandmothers, several aunts, and some cousins also lived with the Bollings. Most of these female relatives had lost their husbands during the war.
Edith had little formal education. Her sisters were enrolled in local schools, but she was not. Her paternal grandmother, Anne Wiggington Bolling, played a large role in educating the girl. Grandmother Bolling was crippled by a spinal cord injury and confined to bed. Bedridden, Grandmother Bolling demanded that Edith wash her clothing, turn her in bed at night, and look after her 27 pet canaries. But Bolling taught Edith to read, write, speak a mish-mash of French and English, make dresses, to crochet, knit, and embroider. Edith also was taught an appreciation for poetry and music. Grandmother Bolling also instilled in her grand-daughter a tendency to make quick judgments and to hold strong opinions, personality traits Edith would exhibit her entire life. Edith's father, William Bolling, read classic English literature aloud to his family at night, and occasionally hired a tutor to teach his daughter. She also traveled with her father at times. Although Edith was close to her father, her relationship with her mother was distant and Edith later wrote very little about her.
During her childhood, Edith was particularly impressed by the songs and folktales she heard. Every day, the Bolling family would gather in Grandmother Bolling's bedroom and listen to the older woman sing songs and tell romantic stories of people who find true love. These songs and stories also left a deep impression on Edith. The Bollings were frequent church-goers, and Episcopalians. Edith would be a devout Episcopalian her entire life.
When Edith was 15 years old, she received her first formal schooling. Her father enrolled her at Martha Washington College (a precursor of Emory and Henry College), a finishing school for girls in Abingdon, Virginia. Her father chose it because it had a good music program. She was miserable there, largely due to poor food and cold rooms. The school was also rigorous and life there strictly regimented, which she disliked. She returned home after a single semester. When she was 17, her father enrolled her in Powell's School for girls in Richmond, Virginia. She later said it was the happiest time of her life. Powell's School closed at the end of the year after the headmaster suffered an accident that cost him his leg. Concerned about the cost of Edith's education, William Bolling refused to pay for any additional schooling for his daughter—choosing to send Edith's three brothers to school instead. By this time, Edith had read only a few books in her entire life and her handwriting was so poor as to be almost illegible.
While visiting her married sister in Washington, D.C., Edith met Norman Galt, a prosperous jeweler; in 1896 they were married. For 12 years she lived as a contented young matron in the capital, with vacations abroad. However, her personal life was not without tragedy: she gave birth to a son in 1903 who lived only for a few days (the difficult birth also left her unable to bear additional children). In 1908 her husband died unexpectedly. Edith Bolling Galt then chose a manager who operated the family's jewelry firm with financial success.
Marriage and early First Ladyship
In March 1915, the widow Galt was introduced to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson at the White House by Helen Bones, the president's cousin and official White House hostess since the death of Ellen Wilson, the president's first wife. A man who depended on female companionship, Wilson took an instant liking to Mrs. Galt, who was charming, intelligent, and plumply pretty. His admiration grew swiftly into love. In proposing to her, he made the poignant statement that "In this place, time is not measured by weeks, or months, or years, but by deep human experiences..."
They had been a romantic item for such a short period of time that Washington wags were quick to poke fun at the marriage. As one joke went, when Edith Galt heard the President propose marriage, she nearly fell out of bed. Additionally, a typographical error in a Washington newspaper was much closer to the mark than intended. Prior to their marriage, an item meant to describe the president's social evening at a local theater with Mrs. Galt included the phrase "rather than paying attention to the play the President spent the evening entertaining Mrs. Galt." What was printed in the first run of the Washington Post was the phrase "rather than paying attention to the play the President spent the evening entering Mrs. Galt." [emphasis added] The first run of the paper was recalled, but a few copies were not recovered.
Complicating matters were rumors, apparently groundless, that Wilson had been cheating on his first wife, or that he and Mrs. Galt had actually murdered the First Lady. Distressed at the effect all this might be having on his fiancée, Wilson offered Mrs. Galt the opportunity to back out of their engagement. She spurned the offer, replying that she would stand by him not for duty, pity or honor, but for love.
President Wilson, aged 58, married Edith Bolling Galt, aged 43, on December 18, 1915, at the home of the bride in Washington, D.C. The wedding, a small affair attended by 40 guests, was performed jointly by the Reverend Dr. James H. Taylor of Central Presbyterian Church and the Reverend Dr. Herbert Scott Smith of St. Margaret's Episcopal Church, pastors of the groom and bride respectively. The couple honeymooned two weeks in Hot Springs, Virginia and at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.
In 1916, the Swiss-born American artist Adolfo Müller-Ury (1862–1947) was commissioned by Colonel Edward M. House to paint a portrait of Mrs. Wilson, which he did in the White House. The painting always hung in the President's bedroom, but when Mrs. Wilson died she left it to the White House, and a copy was made to hang in the Woodrow Wilson House Museum.
Hostessing and the First World War
As First Lady during World War I, Mrs. Wilson observed gasless Sundays, meatless Mondays, and wheatless Wednesdays to set an example for the federal rationing effort. Similarly, she set sheep to graze on the White House lawn rather than waste manpower in mowing it and auctioned off their wool for the benefit of the American Red Cross, which likely sold it to soldiers at a handsome profit.
Though the new First Lady had sound qualifications for the role of hostess, the social aspect of the administration was overshadowed by war in Europe and abandoned after the United States formally entered the conflict in 1917, and she became the first person besides the President to receive permanent full-time Secret Service protection. Edith Wilson submerged her own life in her husband's, trying to keep him fit under tremendous strain. She accompanied him to Europe when the Allies conferred on terms of peace, the first such trip for a U.S. President while in office, and played a political role, being compared, in some circles, to royalty.
Her most significant contribution as First Lady, however, was her service as steward of the executive branch following the president's stroke in September 1919.
Unofficial acting presidency
Following his attendance at the Paris Peace Conference which began in January 1919, Wilson returned to campaign for Senate approval of the peace treaty and the League of Nations Covenant. However, his health failed in October, when a stroke left him partly paralyzed. The United States never did ratify the Treaty of Versailles nor join the League of Nations, which had initially been Wilson's concept. This is attributed to the facts that isolationist sentiment was strong and some of the articles in the League's charter conflicted with the United States Constitution.. Wilson was also unwilling to compromise on his position over the League of Nations, with Senator Lodge.
His constant attendant, Edith Wilson took over many routine duties and details of government. She carefully screened all matters of state and decided which were important enough to bring to the bedridden president. "I studied every paper sent from the different Secretaries or Senators," she wrote later of her role, "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."
Edith also strongly opposed allowing Vice President Thomas R. Marshall to assume the powers of the presidency. She selected matters for her husband's attention and let everything else go to the heads of departments or remain in abeyance. In My Memoir, published in 1939, she called her role a "stewardship" and insisted that her actions had been taken only because the president's doctors told her to do so for her husband's mental health. Most historians disagree with her version of events. Historian Phyllis Levin wrote that Edith Wilson was "a woman of narrow views and formidable determination".
In 1921, Edith Wilson retired with the former president to their home on S Street NW in Washington, D.C., nursing him until his death three years later. She later served as director of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. Her memoir appeared in 1939.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt went to Congress on December 8, 1941, he took pains to draw a symbolic link with the April 1917 declaration of war. To do so, he was accompanied by Mrs. Wilson.
She died of congestive heart failure at the age of 89, on December 28, 1961, on what would have been Woodrow Wilson's 105th birthday. On the day of her death, she was to have been the guest of honor at the dedication ceremony for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge across the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia. She was buried next to the president at the Washington Cathedral.
The Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Foundation owns and manages Edith Wilson's family home in Wytheville. The foundation works to educate the public about Wilson's upbringing, her actions as First Lady, and the example she set for women.
- Lamb, p. 119.
- Young and Johnson, p. 91.
- Schneider and Schneider, p. 191.
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- McCallops, p. 1.
- Mayo, p. 169.
- Gould, p. 237.
- McCallops, p. 2.
- McCallops, p. 3.
- Hagood, p. 82-83.
- Maynard, p. 309; Nordhult, p. 195.
- Hagood, p. 84; Wertheimer, p. 105.
- He Almost Changed the World:
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- Klapthor and Black, p. 65.
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- Wilson, Edith Bolling Galt. My Memoir. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1939.
- Young, Dwight and Johnson, Margaret. Dear First Lady: Letters to the White House: From the Collections of the Library of Congress & National Archives. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008.
Ellen Axson Wilson
|First Lady of the United States