Woodrow Wilson accomplished much in his two terms in office. Rarely mentioned, however, are his antidemocratic policies and racist beliefs.
Woodrow Wilson is remembered for leading the U.S. to victory in World War I, his Fourteen Points of Light, and for championing the League of Nations – a precursor to the United Nations. Not commonly known, however, are his antidemocratic policies and his deeply held racist beliefs.
Though no one can question the accomplishments of the 28th president of the United States, the ever present and long standing practice of glossing over any short-comings or simply blotting out ideological faults, makes our leaders super humans of sorts. The implied perfection makes untouchable, unreachable heroes out of flawed, ordinary men though they may have accomplished extraordinary things.
Woodrow Wilson attended Princeton University and served as its president for eight years followed by a stint as Governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913. Virginia born Wilson was the first southerner elected to the White House since the 1844 election of James Polk, and was only the second Democrat to take the White House since Reconstruction—Grover Cleveland being the other.
Wilson and the Question of Race
Wilson took his southern outlooks and feelings towards race with him to the White House. Almost upon taking office, he fired most of the African Americans who held posts within the federal government, and segregated the Navy, which until then had been desegregated. Many of the newly segregated parts of Wilson’s federal government would remain so, clear into the 1950s.
In an article that appeared in the 1999 Canadian Review of American Studies entitled “Race and the Southern Imagination: Woodrow Wilson Reconsidered”, Michael Dennis explores Wilson’s racism and gives some insight to why such feelings might not have been viewed as severe as they actually were. Dennis states that during this time in history when crowds would gather from all around “to watch Henry Smith lynched, his feet seared with a red-hot iron, the word “Justice” emblazoned on the scaffold, his grisly demise captured in souvenir photographs, whites who promoted segregation seemed comparatively mild.”
Dennis goes on to write that due to historians’ desire of an example of a southern silent liberal, many have “held up Wilson as an example of racial enlightenment” and have even called him “benevolent towards blacks”. Given that Wilson was not an advocate of violence in dealing with what he called the “race question”, his desire to simply keep blacks and whites separate seemed almost genteel. Yet, when one looks at the terrible long term effects that Wilson’s policies had, it is anything but. When it came to his attitudes and treatment towards African Americans, Wilson was neither enlightened nor benevolent.
Wilson’s Racism Eternally Endures in his Writings
Wilson’s two-volume book, “A History of the American People”, was so racially biased that D.W. Griffith quoted the sitting president’s writings in his 1915 silent film, The Birth of a Nation, “The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self preservation… until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.” Not only did Wilson proudly stand by those words, but he also had a private showing of the movie at the White House. In the book “Lies My Teacher Told Me”, Professor James W. Loewen quotes the president’s words after seeing The Birth of a Nation, “It is like writing history with lightning, my only regret is that it is all so true.”
Loewen states that a new incarnation of the KKK is directly attributed to the great success of Griffith’s film. The Klan soared in popularity thanks in part to support stemming from the highest office in the land.
Woodrow Wilson took advantage of his presidency to help correct many of what he considered to be the wrongs of the Reconstruction. Wilson believed white southerners to be the only real citizens and feared what might arise from a south “ruled by an ignorant and inferior race.”
Wilson remains a controversial historical figure—with both his supporters and detractors. He is viewed a scholar and a man of peace. He is also regarded as a white supremacist. There is an abundance of historical documentation to support all aspects of his professional and personal life. Wilson’s accomplishments over his two terms as president should be praised, but his shortcomings as a person, shouldn’t be ignored. The only way to learn from history is to examine it all. Not just the pleasant parts.
- Dennis, Michael. Canadian Review of American Studies, “Race and the Southern
- Imagination: Woodrow Wilson Reconsidered”1999, Vol. 29 Issue 3, p109
- Freund, Charles Paul. Reason; “Dixiecrats Triumphant” Mar2003, Vol. 34 Issue 10, p16
- Funk and Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia 2002
- Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me.Touchtone. New York. 1995