The President’s Legacy: Wilson at 100

One hundred years ago today, on April 2, 1917, the President asked for war on Germany.

Addressing a special joint session of Congress, 28th President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) famously declared that “the world must be made safe for democracy.

We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.

With the Senate voting 82-6 on April 6th (eight senators abstained) an ebullient America entered World War I, a conflict that would cost 17 million lives, bankrupt the powers of Europe, and destroy Wilson’s very health.

It has been a century since Woodrow Wilson was in the White House. His frame, however, continues to loom large over American politics. Wilson’s leadership during the second decade of the 20th century informed our domestic agenda and foreign policy for the next 100 years. His stewardship during the first world war and instrumental role at the Paris Peace Conference, sufficient alone to secure his legacy, placed the United States firmly on the world stage.

Yet for all his accomplishments Wilson was also a product of his time and place, unable—or perhaps simply unwilling—to overcome the vestiges of prejudice and intolerance that permeated his worldview. Born at Stauton, Viriginia in 1856, Wilson’s father, an ordained minister, helped form the pro-slavery Southern Presbyterian Church when that denomination split over the issue.¹ Indeed, in a very early moment of hero worship,

Wilson would forever recall standing for a moment at General Robert E. Lee’s side and looking up into his face.

Just nine at the end of the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson would have a front row seat as Radical Reconstruction elected former slaves to offices of power and esteem. What may seem an eventuality to 21st-century eyes was nothing short of anathema to post-war whites. Their response included Klu Klux Klan-sponsored violence. This poisonous mix of racism and biblical venom, fueled in large part by his father, made a lasting impression on the future president. Years later, upon viewing D.W. Griffith’s racist film, “Birth of a Nation”, an emotional President Wilson reportedly proclaimed that

It [“Birth of a Nation”] is like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.

As the president of Princeton Wilson actively discouraged African-American students from applying for admission, preferring to ‘keep the peace’ between white students and alumni. He also published his tour-de-force History of the American People (1901), where the author defends black lynchings by arguing that the Klan “began to attempt by intimidation what they were not allowed to attempt by the ballot or by any ordered course of public action.”²

Wilson’s racism, sadly, did not end at Princeton. Upon arriving at the White House in 1913 the new President ignobly segregated the offices of the federal government. He soon met with a group of civil rights leaders, headed by William Monroe Trotter. When Trotter admitted his disappointment in Wilson’s position “that the separation [segregation] is not wrong, is not injurious, is not rightly offensive to you,” the President balked. “Your tone, sir, offends me.” Wilson then admonished the entire delegation: “If this association comes again, it must have another spokesman,” adding that he had never been so insulted as he was by Trotter. “You have spoiled the whole cause for which you came.” The President then ejected the entire group from the Oval Office.³

While he soon realized his gaff, telling a Cabinet member that he had “played the fool,” the President only regretted the effect of the incident upon his public image. “When the Negro delegate [Trotter] threatened me, I was a damn fool enough to lose my temper and point him to the door. What I ought to have done would have been to listened, restrained my resentment, and, when they had finished, to have said to them that, of course, their petition [would] receive consideration. They would have then withdrawn quietly and no more would have been heard about the matter.”* Note that the President described his encounter with Trotter as a “threat” which he “resented.”

By the time of World War I Wilsonian segregation was in full swing. Hundreds of thousands of African-Americans enlisted but were kept in segregated units. The majority never saw combat. When an African-American delegation protested the discriminatory measures, Wilson rebuked them:ª

Segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you.

Not even the Great War could curb Wilson’s views. The President’s greatest achievement, the Treaty of Versailles, is rife with discrimination. Article 231 of the treaty, infamously referred to as the “War Guilt Clause,” lays the blame for World War I wholly at Germany’s feet. Germany, says Versailles, is responsible for causing “all the loss and damage” as the consequence of a war caused solely by “their aggression.” So incensed and embarrassed were the German public that its political elite went to work undermining Article 231 and even subverting the treaty itself.°

That same sense of undermining and subversion would raise its head again scantly a decade later, when the newly-elected German chancellor, Adolf Hitler, openly flouted the conventions of Versailles. Average Germans, wasted by a crippling depression and disillusioned by a weak government, flocked to the inspiring leader who heralded economic prosperity. And German nationalists, still embittered by their humiliation at Versailles, were only too pleased to elevate Hitler’s jingoistic oratory.

_________________

There was, of course, no way Woodrow Wilson could have predicted the rise of Adolf Hitler or the Holocaust. Like so many others around him, Wilson was inextricably bound to the America of his youth, with its antebellum mores, and his iconic memories of the Civil War south. What haunts us about Woodrow Wilson today is what defined him as a person: no intellectual lightweight, Wilson was perhaps the most-informed thinker and scholar of his day. His capacity for mastering the minutia of specific legislation, while simultaneously guiding major policy, is legendary. Yet his scholarship and his record are weakened by his unyielding prejudices. His dedication to principle is extraordinary; so convinced was Wilson in the rightness of the League of Nations (forerunner to the UN) that his barnstorming campaign nearly killed him. In September 1919, while stumping in Pueblo, Colorado, the President collapsed. He suffered a debilitating stroke a few days later. Yet the same resoluteness that drove Wilson across the country also cost him the support of African-Americans and sullied his reputation.

His is, at last, a mixed legacy. Wilson’s pedigree groomed him for leadership but the same upbringing tinted his perspective. His experience illuminated his intellect but his egotism curbed his success. Perhaps it is these conflicts that draw us to Wilson even now. 100 years on, we would do well to heed his lesson.

 (Featured image: Detail from the official portrait of Woodrow Wilson, by F. Graham Cootes (1879-1960), painted in 1936. Cootes, a native of Wilson’s own Staunton, Virginia, portrays Wilson as an academic; the full portrait shows the President holding a book.)
-This post also appears on 28th U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), published by the Author.
________________________________________
¹ “Woodrow Wilson,” Wikipedia, wikipedia.org: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woodr… (accessed April 2, 2017).
² Ibid.
³ Dick Lehr, “The Racist Legacy of Woodrow Wilson,” in The Atlantic, theatlantic.com, November 27, 2015: https://www.theatlantic.com/politic… (accessed April 2, 2017).
* Ibid.
ª “Woodrow Wilson,” Wikipedia.
°
“Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles,” Wikipedia, wikipedia.org: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artic… (accessed April 2, 2017).
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