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Love And Guilt: Woodrow Wilson And Mary Hulbert
April/May 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 3
Edith Galt and Woodrow Wilson were married on December 18, 1915, at her Washington home. To an excited public and press and to Mary Hulbert as well the romance had all the appearance of an ideal and orderly development. Behind the scenes, however, Wilson’s friendship and correspondence with Mary Hulbert had given rise to a false story that almost caused Mrs. Galt to break the engagement. The story (that Mary was showing Wilson’s letters and “doing him much harm”) was concocted among his political allies who feared that an engagement, and most certainly a marriage, so soon after Ellen Wilson’s death, would undermine Wilson’s chances at re-election in 1916. When the story reached Wilson (through his son-in-law, William G. McAdoo) he still trusted Mary Hulbert, but he was worried about the gossipmongers. Rather than risk the possibility of insidious rumors reaching Edith Galt, he decided to tell her all about “Woodrow Wilson and Mary Hulbert.”
On Saturday afternoon, September 18, 1915, when Edith received Wilson’s note asking that he be allowed to come to her home to discuss an important matter, she was disturbed that any new problem should be weighing heavily on the President. Wanting only to listen and be helpful, she was prepared for almost anything except what Wilson told her: that he had something in his past which he now regarded as a brief period of madness, an episode of foolishness on his part that he had since despised and regretted. He confessed that he felt he was coming to her tarnished and unworthy.
That his confession was wrenchingly emotional we know because of the torrent of letters exchanged between them during the next week. But by Edith Wilson’s express stipulation-made many years later when she turned over her husband’s papers to the Library of Congress—these letters may not be quoted directly until they are published in The Papers of Woodrow Wilson in l980 or l981.
Edith long since had lost her heart to Wilson. She had seen him as almost godlike, feeling that the air around him was charged with a purity that made her a better person for having breathed it. His confession of September 18 abruptly shattered the idol.
As she listened that evening she was stunned and hurt, as she wrote him later. Nevertheless, she collected herself sufficiently to assure Wilson of her love before he returned to the White House at 11:00 P.M. Yet she still needed time to weigh her choices. She spent the rest of the night sitting by her window wrestling not only with her own future but with that of the President of the United States. At dawn she wrote a letter to him that probably was delivered while Wilson was attending worship at the Central Presbyterian Church. At 7:20 that same morning he had been at his desk writing to her of his night of turmoil.
Edith, a woman of strong emotions and strong mind, had tested the quality of her love for Woodrow Wilson and had found it equal to the blow. She wrote him that she would forget the idol and superman created by her blind adoration; that she could and would love trustingly, and with understanding, Wilson the tender human being. For the brief time that she had faltered, had even considered deserting him, Edith begged his forgiveness.
The President was unspeakably happy. Not only was Edith’s love invincible, but he explained in reply that he had unburdened himself of a secret that had caused him to be dominated by fear of discovery. Now he had been set free. The matter had also been resolved for Wilson the Calvinist: he had sinned, and there is evidence that he felt he had been punished by Ellen Wilson’s death. He had repented; he had implored forgiveness in like measure to his punishment; the gift of Edith was overwhelming proof of God’s forgiveness. Moreover, he told Edith that he had tried to make amends for this brief folly through disinterested service, pointing out to her that a far greater portion of his life had been spent dutifully. It is clear that Wilson regarded her acceptance of his love as redemption from everything in his past except the bitterness of having disappointed her.
Edith’s hurt continued to smolder for several days, but the overall effect of his confession was to seal their relationship against all else that might threaten it. The political scheming had served to hasten rather than to postpone their marriage.
Wilson was narrowly re-elected in November, 1916, but the rumormongers had a field day during the campaign. In fact, Wilson’s biographer, Arthur S. Link, states that “Republicans conducted against Woodrow Wilson in 1916 what must have been one of the dirtiest whispering campaigns in American history.” Gossips said that Ellen Axson Wilson had really died of a broken heart because of Wilson’s affair with Mary Hulbert; that Mrs. Hulbert had prepared to institute breach-of-promise proceedings against the President; and that Louis Brandeis, Wilson’s go-between, had purchased Mrs. Hulbert’s silence for seventy-five thousand dollars.