The Clarion Call Goes Unanswered

A memorial plaque commemorating Vice President Thomas Marshall - which of course mentions Wilson's incapacity and Marshall's failure to act as President.

September 25, 1919

While engaged in his fight to get the United States Senate to ratify the agreement that would have brought the country into the League of Nations following World War I, on September 25, 1919 President Woodrow Wilson suffered a slight stroke.

A week later, he would be stricken by a second, far more serious stroke.  One that rendered Wilson - and the executive branch of the United States Government - almost completely paralyzed.

The Wilson Incapacity

Had the President's condition been known to the public, or even to Congressional leadership, Wilson would've almost certainly been forced to resign from office.  At minimum, Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall would have faced enormous pressure to force the issue, trying to step in and act as President.

But instead, a conspiracy was initiated between first lady Edith Wilson, the President's physicians, and others within his inner circle, isolating him as much as possible - and particularly Marshall, who wouldn't see the President in person until March 4, 1921, they're last day in office.

Following an April 1920 cabinet meeting (Vice Presidents of the time weren't as yet regular attendees), one of the participants wrote in his journal:  "The President looked old, worn, and haggard.  It was enough to make one weep looking at him... One of his arms was useless.  In repose, his face looked very much as usual, but when he tried to speak, there was marked evidences of his trouble.  His jaw tended to drop on one side, or seemed to do so.  His voice was very weak and strained... the President seemed at first to have some difficulty in fixing his mind on what we were discussing."

First lady Edith Wilson would assume many of her husband's routine duties, and is considered by some to have been the de facto President.  In her 1939 autobiography she basically admitted as much, referring to her role as a "stewardship" of the office.

In truth, it was a clarion call for comprehensive reform in the laws to address presidential disability.  And yet again... nothing was done.

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