President and the Wilson Wives

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The two wives of President Woodrow Wilson provide a glimpse into the ways that circumstance and coincidence affect history.

There is a certain fascination with history that is only understood by those devoted to its chronicles. Despite the vast popularity of the mystery, interest in history is reserved for the enlightened few who know a good game of “What if?” when they see one. The story of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson and his two First Ladies provides a double dose of inspection for the academic parlor.

Woodrow Wilson was the second and final United States President to remarry while in office; the first was John Tyler. Wilson’s first wife was Ellen Louise Axson, a Georgia girl whom Wilson had known since childhood. Axson and Wilson were both children of Presbyterian ministers.

Ellen Axson had professional quality art skills and was graced with dignity. She was the consummate homemaker, but never felt assuming in the political arena. Their marriage took them from Princeton University to the governor’s mansion in New Jersey, and finally to the White House in 1913.

Axson’s days in the Washington were brief, but distinguished. She was responsible for the creation of the famous White House Rose Garden and influenced her husband on child labor laws. As a descendant of slave owners, Axson devoted time to improve the living conditions of the Negro population in Washington’s slums. Legislation was passed at her death in 1914.

The second Mrs. Wilson was the antithesis of the first. Edith Bolling Galt assumed control of the family jewelry business upon the death of her first husband. She often traveled to Europe and blended into the role of socialite. She met the grieving President in Washington through mutual friends and they soon married.

Though competent in normal spousal affairs, the demands of the nation required much more from Galt. She supported Wilson during his reelection campaign in 1916, led fund raising and public service efforts throughout World War I, and became the President’s primary confidant.

Galt accompanied the President to Europe for the Paris Peace talks at Versailles and socialized with reigning European monarchy. This was the occasion when the First Lady of the United States became synonymous with the aristocracy of the world.

Once stateside, Galt joined the President in an exhaustive, though futile, effort to garner support for the Versailles peace agreement and for U.S. membership in the new League of Nations. A Republican-led Congress would reject U.S. involvement.

The close companionship of the first couple provided Edith Galt with keen insight into political negotiations that would prove invaluable. When President Wilson succumbed to a stroke in the latter days of his service, it is reported that his wife assumed the responsibilities of office, filtered which issues to address, and guarded his failing health from Cabinet members and Congress.

What if Ellen Axson had not died? Would President Wilson have traveled alone to Europe, stumped across the United States, and relinquished his Presidency to a vice-president? What if Edith Galt had been more open to compromise when dealing with a Republican Congress? Perhaps the Versailles Treaty would have passed in the U.S. and a League of Nations entrenched. Perhaps none of these alterations would have changed the course of history, but it certainly makes for good conversation.