November 13th, 2019


Presidents and Impeachment: Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Marshall

Woodrow Wilson was never impeached. But he presidency offers an interesting question about his deception about the true state of his health amounted to an impeachable offense. Woodrow Wilson used a series of deceptive measures to hold on to the presidency, following a severe stroke that incapacitated him. The remarkable thing is not about any congressional investigation into Wilson's deception, but in the fact that Congress did not investigate the matter to a greater extent or take any action.

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After the signing of the armistice treaty which ended the first world war, Wilson traveled to Europe to attend the Paris Peace Conference, making him the first U.S. president to travel to Europe while in office. Wilson remained in Europe for almost six months, where he worked on the peace treaty to formally end the war. The defeated Central Powers had not been invited to the conference. Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, and Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando became known as the "Big Four," the Allied leaders with the most influence at the Paris Peace Conference. At the conference Wilson continued to advocate his idealistic Fourteen Point plan. But many of the other allies were not interested. First and foremost on their minds was revenge, and making the Germans pay for starting the war. Clemenceau especially sought onerous terms for Germany. Lloyd George supported some of Wilson's ideas but was afraid of public backlash if was too generous to the defeated Central Powers.

Wilson pursued the creation of his proposed League of Nations. In order to achieve this as part of the treaty, Wilson conceded several points to the other powers at the conference. France wanted Germany to pay a huge sum in war reparations. Wilson thought this unwise, but Germany was still required to pay war reparations and subjected to military occupation in the Rhineland. A clause in the treaty specifically named Germany as responsible for the war.

The Covenant of the League of Nations was incorporated into the conference's final version of the Treaty of Versailles. Wilson himself led the committee that drafted the covenant, which bound members to oppose "external aggression" and to agree to peacefully settle disputes through organizations like the Permanent Court of International Justice. During the conference, former President William Howard Taft cabled to Wilson three proposed amendments to the League covenant which he thought would increase its acceptability to the Europeans: (1) the right of withdrawal from the League, (2) the exemption of domestic issues, and (3) the inviolability of the Monroe Doctrine. Wilson reluctantly accepted these amendments.

The conference ended its negotiations in May 1919, at which point German leaders viewed the treaty for the first time. Germany signed the treaty on June 28, 1919. For his efforts, Wilson was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize. The defeated Central Powers saw the terms of the treaty as unduly harsh.

Wilson faced a battle to ratify the treaty back in the United States, as Republicans largely opposed it. Ratification of the treaty required a two-thirds vote of the Senate, where the Republicans held a narrow majority. Public opinion on the treaty was mixed. The strongest opposition from most Republicans, Germans, and Irish Catholic Democrats. Wilson returned to the United States in a weakened physical condition following the Paris Peace Conference. In spite of this, he decided to try to bypass the senate by taking the case for the League of Nations to the people. Wilson decided to barnstorm the Western states. He scheduled 29 major speeches as well as some shorter talks to rally support. While on the tour, Wilson suffered a series of debilitating strokes. After collapsing while speaking in Pueblo, Colorado on September 25, 1919, Wilson cut his trip short. He returned to the White House.

On October 2, 1919, Wilson suffered a serious stroke at the White House that almost totally incapacitated him. It left him paralyzed on his left side and blind in his left eye. He was confined to bed for weeks, sequestered from nearly everyone but his wife and his physician, Dr. Cary Grayson. Together the two conspired to insulate him from negative news and downplayed for him the gravity of his condition.

Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, a Republican, led the opposition to the treaty in the Senate. Republicans were outraged by Wilson's failure to discuss the war or its aftermath with them and his refusal to take a bipartisan delegation to Paris. An intensely partisan battle developed in the Senate, as Republicans opposed the treaty and Democrats largely supported it. Fourteen Senators, mostly Republicans, become known as the "irreconcilables", They completely opposed U.S. entrance into the League of Nations. They sought the removal of Article X the League covenant, which purported to bind nations to defend each other against aggression. Another group of Senators, known as "reservationists," accepted the idea of the league, but proposed changes to the League to ensure the protection of U.S. sovereignty. Former President Taft and former Secretary of State Elihu Root both favored ratification of the treaty with some modifications.

Wilson might have won ratification of the treaty had he been open to some compromise, but Wilson consistently refused to accede to reservations. Many historians believe that this was due in large measure to the effects of his stroke.

In mid-November 1919, Lodge and his Republicans formed a coalition with the pro-treaty Democrats, and they had nearly enough votes for a two-thirds majority for a treaty with reservations. But Wilson rejected this compromise and the vote to ratify the treaty was defeated.

Wilson was confined to bed for weeks and sequestered from everyone except his wife and physician, Dr. Grayson. Doctor Bert E. Park, a neurosurgeon who examined Wilson's medical records after his death, wrote that Wilson's illness affected his personality in various ways, making him prone to "disorders of emotion, impaired impulse control, and defective judgment." Wilson was insulated from contact with the outside world by his wife Edith, who selected matters for his attention and delegated others to his cabinet. Wilson temporarily resumed a perfunctory attendance at cabinet meetings. His wife and aide Joseph Tumulty convinced journalist Louis Seibold to write a false account of an interview with the president. But despite his health problems, Wilson did not consider resigning, and he continued to call for ratification of the Treaty of Versailles without compromise.


It wasn't until February 1920 when the president's true condition was publicly known. Many expressed qualms about Wilson's fitness for the presidency at a time when the League fight was reaching a climax. Domestic issues such as strikes, unemployment, inflation and the threat of Communism (the "Red Scare") were demanding attention. But no one close to Wilson was willing to take responsibility to certify, as required by the Constitution, his "inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office". Some members of Congress encouraged Vice President Thomas Marshall to assert his claim to the presidency, but Marshall never attempted to do so. He did not want to appear anxious to replace Wilson or insensitive to Wilson's plight. Wilson's lengthy period of incapacity while serving as president was nearly unprecedented; of the previous presidents.

Marshall tried to meet with Wilson to personally determine his condition, but he was unable to do so. He, relied on vague updates he received through a bulletins published by Wilson's physician. Believing that Wilson and his advisers would not voluntarily transfer power to the vice president, a group of Congressional leaders tried to bring about a joint resolution to force the issue. However, senators opposed to the League of Nations treaty blocked the joint resolution because they believed that this would likely prevent the treaty's ratification. These senators believed that as president Marshall would make several key concessions that would allow the treaty to win ratification. Wilson, in his present condition, was either unwilling or unable to make those concessions and these senators preferred the status quo.

On December 4, Lansing announced in a Senate committee hearing that no one in the cabinet had spoken with or seen Wilson in over sixty days. A group of senators who wanted to see Marshall in charge requested that a committee be sent to check on Wilson's condition. They were nicknamed the "smelling committee" by several newspapers. The group was allowed to meet with Wilson, and while they found him to be in very poor health, he seemed to have recovered enough of his faculties to make decisions. Their report ended any support for a joint resolution.

At a Sunday church service in mid-December, a courier brought Marshall a message informing him that Wilson had died. Marshall was shocked, and rose to announce the news to the congregation. The ministers held a prayer, the congregation began singing hymns, and many people wept. Marshall and his wife exited the building, and made a call to the White House to determine his next course of action. An embarrassed Marshall learned that he had been the victim of a hoax, and that Wilson was still alive.

Marshall performed a few ceremonial functions for the remainder of Wilson's term, while First Lady Edith Wilson performed most routine duties of government by reviewing all of Wilson's communications and deciding what he would be presented with and what she would delegate to others. The resulting lack of leadership allowed the administration's opponents to prevent ratification of the League of Nations treaty.


Wilson began to recover by the end of 1919, but remained secluded for the remainder of his term. Marshall was prevented from meeting with him to ascertain his true condition until his final day in office. Wilson rode out the rest of his term in office and after the inauguration of his successor, Wilson and his wife moved from the White House to an elegant 1915 town house in the Embassy Row (Kalorama) section of Washington, D.C. In August 1923, he attended the funeral of his successor, Warren G. Harding. On February 3, 1924, Wilson died at home of a stroke and other heart-related problems at age 67.