Early YearsEdith Bolling was born on October 15, 1872, in Wytheville to William Holcombe Bolling, a circuit court judge, and Sallie Spiers White Bolling. She was the seventh of eleven children, nine of whom lived to adulthood. The Bollings were a prominent Virginia family, counting , , Martha Washington, and as relations. After the (1861–1865), the full family moved from its Bedford County plantation to a commercial building on Main Street in Wytheville, and in the postwar years up to twenty people lived on the building’s second floor. A few of the family’s remained as domestic servants. “The poor things could not comprehend” freedom, Bolling wrote in her autobiography, My Memoir (1939), insisting that they stayed out of loyalty to the Bolling family. The building’s first-floor businesses provided substantial income to the Bolling family, about $1,200 per year.
Bolling had little formal education, studying at home with her paternal grandmother, Anne Wigginton Bolling, until October 1887, when she matriculated at Martha Washington College, a finishing school for girls in Abingdon. Homesick and, apparently, denied adequate heat and food, she remained for only a semester. In the autumn of 1889, she enrolled at the Richmond Female Seminary, also known as Powell’s School after its founder, John H. Powell. The school closed the following spring when Powell was injured in a streetcar accident. Rather than continue her education, Bolling’s parents sent her brothers to school.While visiting her married sister in Washington, D.C., Bolling met Norman Galt, a prominent jeweler and business owner. They married at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, in Wytheville, on April 30, 1896, and lived in the capital for the next twelve years. A son was born on September 23, 1903, but lived only three days, after which Galt was unable to have children. In 1904, Galt received an electric car, a Columbia Elberon Victoria Mark XXXI, as a gift from her husband, and multiple sources, including her own memoir, suggest she was the first woman to drive such a vehicle in the capital. President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice drove an electric car in Washington at some point during the same year.
Shortly after the couple’s marriage, Norman Galt became the sole owner of the family’s business, Galt & Bro. Jewelers. On January 28, 1908, he died unexpectedly, leaving the business, and its debts, to his wife. She hired a manager, Henry Bergheimer, and lived sparsely until the debts were cleared. She owned the business until 1934, when she sold it to the store’s employees.
Courtship and Second Marriage
Woodrow Wilson took office as the twenty-eighth president of the United States on March 4, 1913, and on August 6, 1914, his wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, died of kidney disease. In the absence of a First Lady, Wilson relied on his cousin, Helen Woodrow Bones, to serve as the official White House hostess. Edith Bolling Galt’s close friendship with Bones eventually led her to be introduced to the president in March 1915. He proposed marriage on May 4 after knowing her for only two months. In her memoir, Galt wrote that she was shocked, telling the president, “You can’t love me, for you don’t really know me; and it is less than a year since your wife died.” In a letter dated May 5, however, she showed a willingness to accept his proposal. A month later she confessed love, and on June 28 she agreed to marriage.
Newspapers criticized the relationship by spreading rumors of scandalous affairs and suggesting that Edith Galt may have been behind the First Lady’s death. (Wilson did reportedly conduct some kind of affair during his first marriage and was in contact with the woman even while courting Galt.) The president’s advisors worried that the relationship could affect Wilson’s chances for reelection, and some privately suggested that he was distracted by Galt and dependent on her attention. However, after Wilson announced the engagement on October 6, 1915, the press reacted positively, with the Washington Post publishing several stories highlighting Edith Galt’s descent from Pocahontas. The couple received a marriage license on December 16 and were wed two days later at Galt’s Washington home. They honeymooned at the Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia.
First Lady and Advisor
Before meeting the president, Edith Galt Wilson had not been involved in politics, but she soon became his helpmate, providing emotional support, acting as a sounding board, offering informal advice, and accompanying him on domestic and international trips. To the dismay of Wilson’s advisors, she sat in on White House meetings and later, in private, offered him advice on domestic and foreign affairs. Despite the sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania by a German submarine in May 1915, killing nearly 1,200 people, including 128 Americans, Wilson vowed to keep the United States out of the Great War, then raging in Europe and around the world. Edith Wilson accompanied the president as he campaigned for reelection. He won at the polls on November 7, 1916. Increased German hostility led to a change in public opinion and ultimately to Congress’s declaration of war on April 2, 1917.
With her social responsibilities diminished during wartime, Wilson found more practical and symbolic ways to support the president. She set an example for resource conservation by participating in “Meatless Mondays,” “Wheatless Wednesdays,” and “Gasless Sundays,” and became the first First Lady to christen warships. She volunteered for the American Red Cross and brought together the wives of cabinet members, family, and friends, to publicly support the purchase of War Savings Bonds, adopt soldiers overseas, sew clothing, make bandages, and prepare items for fighting soldiers.
The Wilsons famously introduced a flock of Shropshire sheep to the White House lawn, allowing the grounds crew to be free for wartime service. When the sheep were sheared, the White House divided the wool into fifty lots (one for each of the forty-eight states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico) and then those lots were auctioned to raise funds for the Red Cross—nearly $100,000 over several years. In the autumn of 1917 Edith Wilson accepted an invitation to serve as the first honorary president of the Girl Scouts of America, using the position to support the Scouts’ wartime service efforts. That same year, she became the first woman to sign a registration card for the U.S. Food Administration, promising to follow directions and advice as administered by the government.
Most evenings after dinner, the president and first lady worked together in the White House residence, pulling papers from the “drawer” (a metal locking “inbox”). She blotted Wilson’s signature on official documents and assisted in decoding encrypted messages. Wilson trained her to use his personal code, entrusting her to encode his handwritten replies into clusters of numbers. She came to believe she understood the president’s plans and desires, a fact that both enabled and emboldened her when he later fell ill. The war ended on November 11, 1918, and Edith Wilson attended the Paris Peace Conference the next summer. She sat behind a curtain because the presence of non-delegates was prohibited.
The President’s Incapacitation
Wilson later wrote in her memoir that the president’s doctor, Francis X. Dercum, had insisted that Woodrow Wilson remain in office because his resignation “would have a bad effect on the country” by imperiling ratification of the peace treaty and creation of the League of Nations. It would also have “a serious effect on our patient” by destroying the political motivation for Wilson to recover. Dr. Dercum went on to warn the First Lady against overtaxing the president and suggested that the office’s work should flow through her.
Historians have cast doubt on this version of events, arguing that a doctor would have been unlikely to advise a patient to remain in such a stressful job while also insisting he avoid stress. According to the historian Kristie Miller, the doctor’s purported comments, published only after his death, served as Edith Wilson’s “rationalization for assuming what she called her ‘stewardship.'” For seventeen months, until the president’s second term ended, she assumed this unprecedented and constitutionally ambiguous role. Among the responsibilities she took over, perhaps the most important was deciding which matters of state were important enough to bring to the bedridden president. “I studied every paper sent from the different Secretaries or Senators,” she wrote in her memoir, “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.”
The extent of her involvement in the White House’s administration and its consequences are the subject of historical debate. Scholars have raised the question of whether President Wilson’s October 22, 1919, veto of the Volstead Act, establishing the prohibition of alcohol, was his own work or perhaps that of his wife or chief of staff, Joe Tumulty; regardless, Congress overrode the veto. More consequential, perhaps, were the circumstances that led to the failure of Congress to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and its provisions for the League of Nations. At issue were fourteen reservations to the treaty proposed by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, of Massachusetts, the majority leader and a Republican. In two meetings with the president early in November 1919, Senator Gilbert Hitchcock, of Nebraska, a leader of Wilson’s own Democratic Party, was urged first to compromise and then to hold firm. The treaty, which Wilson helped to negotiate, ultimately failed and historians have wondered whether Edith Wilson’s control over information and visitors reaching her husband’s bedside played a role.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suspecting that the president may have suffered a stroke, questioned members of the White House staff. Senator Albert B. Fall, a Republican member from New Mexico, labeled Edith Wilson “the Presidentress who had fulfilled the dream of the suffragettes by changing her title from First Lady to Acting First Man.” When Fall demanded to visit the president in person in December 1919, the First Lady covered the president’s infirmed arm with a sheet and placed his bed in the shadows. The meeting, also attended by Senator Hitchcock, went well enough to ease the political pressure.
The controversy in part stemmed from a lack of constitutional guidance, which did not arrive until February 10, 1967, and the adoption of the Twenty-fifth Amendment. It detailed the terms of succession should a president die or become incapacitated in office.
Edith Wilson spent the rest of her life promoting the legacy of her husband. She served as a founder of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation to commemorate President Wilson’s birthplace site in Staunton. She donated their home on S Street to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the President Woodrow Wilson House Museum opened there in 1964. Both sites serve as main repositories for Wilson archives. Edith Wilson donated his presidential papers to the Library of Congress in 1939, and his personal library in 1946.
In 1924, she headed the Woman’s National Democratic Club’s board of governors during its first year in existence. Two years later, the Democratic Party considered her a viable candidate for vice president but she declined to run, citing disinterest in politics. In 1939, she became the third First Lady to publish an autobiography about her time in the White House. On December 8, 1941, Edith Wilson accompanied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Congress to ask for a declaration of war. Roosevelt saw her as a symbolic link to the April 1917 declaration of war occurring during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency. In 1961, she attended the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy and entertained Jackie Onassis Kennedy at her home on S Street.
Wilson died of congestive heart failure on December 28, 1961, on what would have been Woodrow Wilson’s 105th birthday. She is interred with the president at the Washington National Cathedral. They are the only presidential couple buried in Washington, D.C.
The Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Foundation was established in 2008 at the birthplace home of Edith Bolling Wilson in Wytheville. The museum is one of eight historic sites across the country dedicated to the interpretation of a First Lady, and one of two presidential historic sites located on an American Main Street.