Presidential Illness: Constitutional Crisis?

Presidential Illness: Constitutional Crisis?
Edith Wilson: Law, Politics and Govt

Skill: Middle School
Time Required: Two to three class periods


   While Edith Wilson was First Lady, her husband, President Woodrow Wilson, suffered a stroke.  Without the medical knowledge we have today, the full effects of the stroke took their toll, and the President was unable to fulfill his duty for many months during his presidency.  Mrs. Wilson became the "go-between" between her husband and the outside world, including his major advisors and the Congress.  This gave rise to much criticism, and also to questions about who should "take over" if a President is too ill or injured to fulfill his duties.


Students will investigate past and current instances when Presidents have become incapacitated, as well as research the 25th Amendment (passed in 1967), which attempts to solve the problem of "absent" Presidents. 

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet Access to print materials


1.  Explain the general issue to students and ask them what they think would happen if the President, today, were seriously ill. Who would take over?

2.  Using the websites listed below, divide students into several groups to research the following:

  • President Wilson's illness
  • Edith Wilson's actions at the time
  • The illness of Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan during their presidencies

3.  Engage students in a discussion of what has been the case until now, and what they think needs to be done in the future, if anything, paying particular attention to the following questions:

  • Should the 25th Amendment be strengthened in any way?
  • Should the President's wife, as the person closest to him, act as his "voice" while he is ill or injured?
  • Under the circumstances, did Edith Wilson do the right thing? Why or why not?  

Extending the Lesson:

To extend this lesson, and using the First Ladies Curriculum Timeline to see what was going on in the world, the class might research further on the medical histories of our Presidents, charting their serious illnesses and discussing how history might have changed because of them.

Sources & Resources:



This lesson was developed by Marian Maxfield, Kent State University