Breadcrumb

Edith Bolling Wilson: Madam President or Dutiful Wife?

Lesson Author
Course(s)
Required Time Frame
One or Two Class Period(s) - 45 - 60 Minutes
Subject(s)
Grade Level(s)
Lesson Abstract
Studying primary and secondary sources to discern Edith Wilson's role in the presidency.
Description

This lesson will allow advanced middle school or high school students to analyze primary source documents concerning the administration of President Woodrow Wilson after he has a paralyzing stroke shortly after touting the United States’ involvement in the League of Nations. The stroke leaves President Wilson paralyzed on his left side and incapacitated for a few months. This allows his wife, Edith, to rise to the occasion and begin examining and deciding which matters of state were important enough to bring to the bedridden president. Some historians have said that Mrs. Wilson became the intermediary between her husband and the outside world, including his major advisors, and the US Congress. This gave rise to much criticism as she was labeled “Presidentress,” “Secret President,” “Gatekeeper Extraordinary,” and “Surrogate President.” After analyzing various primary sources, the majority from the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum website, in a cooperative learning environment (4-6 people), students will fill out a primary source document from the National Archives and Records Administration Written Document Analysis Worksheet. Students will present their findings in class for a discussion on the constitutionality of Mrs. Edith Wilson’s actions. Were they just?

Rationale (why are you doing this?)

The issue of a constitutional crisis is always a way to get students interested in history. For one year and five months, Mrs. Edith Bolling Wilson acted as a stewardess to President Wilson, who was suffering from “nervous exhaustion.” Mrs. Wilson firmly stepped in and began making decisions that directly affected the United States.  In retrospect, President Wilson should have resigned and had his Vice-President, Thomas R. Marshall, assume presidential duties. However, President Wilson and Mrs. Wilson had a personal dislike of Vice-President Marshall and the Wilsons kept Marshall uninformed about the president's condition to prevent Marshall from easily assuming the presidency. Many people, including cabinet officials and Congressional leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, urged Marshall to become acting president, but he refused to forcibly assume the presidency for fear of setting a precedent. On a side note – Marshall was perfectly content with the role of Vice-President. Historians debate whether her loving dedication to protect the President by whatever means were necessary might have been admirable for a love story, or if this was one of the most controversial decisions in presidential history. Mrs. Wilson revealed a selfish ignorance leading her to decide that the President, or her viewpoints, came before the normal functioning of the executive branch of government. Furthermore, Mrs. Wilson’s actions had major ramifications: costing the Democratic Party the Presidential Election of 1920, and possible inclusion of the United States in the League of Nations, which further isolated the United States from world affairs. Fascist leaders were able to rise to power in the 1920s and 1930s across Europe thanks to the absence of a strong League of Nations with United States leadership.

Lesson Objectives - the student will

Students will be analyze various accounts of President Wilson’s health during 1919 and how his personal doctor and the American public viewed the incapacitated President.

Students will be able to investigate, research, and debate the 25th Amendment (passed in 1967), which specifies what must happen when the position of president or vice president is left vacant for any reason.

District, state, or national performance and knowledge standards/goals/skills met

Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Social Studies Standards Grades K-12:

In Social Studies, students in Missouri public schools will acquire a solid foundation which includes knowledge of

  • 1. principles

  • 1. Principles expressed in the documents shaping constitutional democracy in the United States

  • 2. Continuity and change in the history of Missouri, the United States, and the world

  • 6. Relationships of the individual and groups to institutions and cultural traditions

  • 7. The use of tools of social science inquiry (such as surveys, statistics, maps, and documents)

Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Goals:

  • Goal 1.5 - Students will demonstrate within and integrate across all content areas the ability to comprehend and evaluate written, visual and oral presentations and works

 

  • Goal 1.8 – Students will demonstrate within and integrate across all content areas the ability to organize data, information and ideas into useful forms (including charts, graphs, outlines) for analysis or presentation

 

  • Goal 2.3 - Students will demonstrate within and integrate across all content areas the ability to exchange information, questions and ideas while recognizing the perspectives of others

 

  • Goal 2.7 – Students will demonstrate within and integrate across all content areas the ability to use technological tools to exchange information and ideas 

 

  • Goal 3.4 – Students will demonstrate within and integrate across all content areas the ability to evaluate the processes used in recognizing and solving problems

 

  • Goal 3.7 - Students will demonstrate within and integrate across all content areas the ability to evaluate the extent to which a strategy addresses the problem

 

  • Goal 4.1 – Students will demonstrate within and integrate across all content areas the ability to explain reasoning and identify information used to support decisions

 

  • Goal 4.3 - Students will demonstrate within and integrate across all content areas the ability to analyze the duties and responsibilities of individuals in societies

Secondary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed
  • Berg, A. Scott. Wilson. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013.

 

  • Caroli, Betty. First ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

 

  • Crispell, Kenneth R. and Gomez, Carlos F. Hidden Illness in the White House. 2d ed. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1988.

 

  • Swain, Susan. First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women. New York: Public Affairs, 2015.

Primary sources needed (document, photograph, artifact, diary or letter, audio or visual recording, etc.) needed

 

  • "The Constitution of the United States," Amendment 25.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fully describe the activity or assignment in detail. What will both the teacher and the students do?
  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has some great primary source document sheets for students to analyze various sources. The one used for this activity to analyze primary sources associated with Edith Bolling Wilson’s decisions can be found at: National Archives and Records Administration Written Document Analysis Worksheet.
  • Students can do this as an individual activity, but preferably, students should be placed in a pair or groups of 4-6 students. Each pair or group of students should have a set of Lesson Primary Sources (see above).

  • Students will use the National Archives and Records Administration Written Document Analysis Worksheet to analyze and use critical thinking skills on various primary source writings concerning the illness of President Woodrow Wilson and his wife, Edith’s, actions.

  • The teacher will identify how many National Archives and Records Administration Written Document Analysis Worksheet that he/she would like each individual student to fill out. If it is a one-day lesson, then 2-3 worksheets should be filled out and if it is a two-day lesson then 4-5 worksheets should be filled out. The goal of the activity is to allow students to analyze as many resources as possible and begin analyzing various accounts of President Wilson’s health during 1919 and how his personal doctor and the American public viewed the incapacitated President. If there is time, students should also analyze the 25th amendment (included in primary sources) investigate, research, and debate the 25th Amendment (passed in 1967), which specifies what must happen when the position of president or vice president is left vacant for any reason. Please see the rubric for grading measures.

  • After completion of the activity the teacher should have a discussion with the students as an opening bell-ringer or longer classroom activity the following day on analyzing various accounts of President Wilson’s health during 1919 and how his personal doctor and the American public viewed the incapacitated President and analyzing the 25th amendment.