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Woodrow Wilson, Mental Health, and the White House

The debate about the nature of Woodrow Wilson's health is intertwined with questions about his self-righteous character.
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In September of 1919, campaigning in Colorado for the League of Nations treaty, President Woodrow Wilson collapsed. The next month, a stroke left him incapable of conducting the nation’s business for six months. First Lady Edith Bolling Galt Wilson (disparaged as the “petticoat government” by those who felt she was more or less the first female President) and Wilson’s physician controlled access to the President while they fended off Vice President Thomas R. Marshall, the Secretary of State, and the English Ambassador.

Both Wilsons despised Marshall. Though Cabinet members and others urged Marshall to become acting President, the Vice President refused because of the precedent this would set. The 25th Amendment, which outlined the formal process of succession, temporary or not, in such cases, would not be passed for half a century. As a consequence, the White House was largely paralyzed for the remainder of Wilson’s second term. Wilson’s dreams of a just peace in Europe and American membership in the League of Nations were dashed by the harsh reality of domestic and international politics. Refusing to compromise with the Senate over the League, the bed-ridden Wilson saw the Senate refuse to ratify the treaty. During this period, the Los Angeles Times went so far as to insinuate that there was insanity in the White House.

Ever since Wilson’s final and terminal stroke in 1924, the interrelationships between his health, his self-righteous personality, and his decision-making have been the subject of heated debate among historians. How sick was he? How many strokes did he have? What was the source of his insecurity? Was dyslexia the reason for his late acquisition of reading at the age of 12? Why, finally, did he have such a destructive and self-defeating personality?