Woodrow Wilson: Most Anti-Black President of the 20th Century

“Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”–Woodrow Wilson

“When we lose the right to be different, we lose the privilege to be free.”–Charles Evans Hughes, Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 presidential election opponent

A. Scott Berg, whose biography of Woodrow Wilson came out this month, made a startling admonition to President Obama. He said, “Be more like Wilson.” The statement made my jaw drop, because out of all the presidents who have held office from the Civil War to the present, Andrew Johnson is probably the only one who would be more appalled than Wilson if he saw that the United States has a black president. With the exception of Andrew Johnson, one would have to look before the Civil War to find a president more bigoted toward African American than Woodrow Wilson was.

In order to understand the roots of Woodrow Wilson’s racism, it is vital to examine his family background and early life. Neither of Woodrow Wilson’s parents came from the South. His father was a native of Steubenville, Ohio, the hometown of Edwin Stanton, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War. His mother had been born in England but spent most of her childhood in Ohio. In the 1850s, however, they moved South, and Woodrow was born in Staunton, Virginia in 1856. A year later, the family moved to Augusta, Georgia, where they remained until Wilson was thirteen, at which point they moved to Columbia, South Carolina. At age sixteen, Wilson went to Davidson College in North Carolina before returning home from an illness the following year. While Wilson would achieve most of his pre-presidential prestige in New Jersey, he did not live in the North until 1875, when he transferred to Princeton University. His earliest childhood memory was of hearing the news that Abraham Lincoln would be elected president and that there would be a war. Wilson’s father, Reverend Joseph Ruggles Wilson, fully embraced the culture of the antebellum South. In 1861, he delivered a proslavery sermon in Augusta entitled, “Mutual Relation of Masters and Slaves as Taught in the Bible.” According to Reverend Wilson, God, “has included slavery as an organizing element in that family order which lies at the very foundation of Church and State.” Antislavery Northerners were “infidels.” When the Presbyterian Church, Reverend Wilson’s denomination, split over the issue of slavery, Wilson sided with the proslavery faction. He served as a Confederate military chaplain. To quote the Bible, “the son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father.” Woodrow cannot be blamed for the fact that his father defended keeping human beings of a different race in chains.

Yet the evidence shows that the son followed in his father’s footsteps. In 1880s, Woodrow Wilson questioned whether or not black suffrage had been a good idea. He referred to blacks as “an ignorant and inferior race.” Wilson wrote sympathetically of the “Black Codes” that had been passed by Southern states in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. These codes, according to Wilson, were motivated by, “the sudden and absolute emancipation of the Negroes,” who he viewed as, “a host of dusky children untimely put out of school.” Wilson also claimed that, “the domestic slaves, at any rate, and almost all who were much under the master’s eye, were happy and well cared for.” He even argued that Reconstruction, not slavery, was the cause of current racial conflict. In 1902, Wilson became President of Princeton University. While president, he made sure to avoid admitting black students to Princeton’s undergraduate program. When a black man from South Carolina wrote of his desire to attend Princeton, Wilson wrote back and “politely” informed him that blacks were not welcome at his school, though also suggesting that he apply to Princeton’s Theological Seminary, an institution separate from the main university.

Is Wilson being held to 21st century standards if he is condemned for his policies as president of Princeton University? It is instructive to compare him to Teddy Roosevelt, another president of his generation who, like Wilson, was racist against blacks. Around the time that Wilson began his inglorious reign at Princeton, a bill desegregating the New York public school system was passed by the legislature. Teddy Roosevelt was governor at the time and signed the bill. According to Roosevelt, his own children had black classmates, and it had not impacted them negatively. It is also worthwhile to compare Princeton University’s level of racism to that of some other schools. For instance, black students had graduated from Dartmouth, Harvard, Yale, Brown, and Rutgers before Woodrow Wilson became president of Princeton. Dartmouth, for example, had a black student graduate almost thirty years before Wilson was even born.

Woodrow Wilson was the first president born in a Confederate state since Andrew Johnson and the first to actually be elected since Zachary Taylor. (Andrew Johnson entered office by virtue of Lincoln’s assassination and did not run for a second term.) His Cabinet contained Southern segregationists, like Josephus Daniels and William Gibbs McAdoo, and Northerners like William Jennings Bryan who firmly believed in white supremacy and felt that previous presidents like Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison, and Teddy Roosevelt had brought the country too close to racial equality. Wilson and his merry band of bigots, however, found that though Washington, D.C. was thoroughly segregated, the offices of the federal government were not. With the president’s approval, the U.S. Railway Mail Service, the U.S. Postal Service, the Treasury Department, the Interior Department, the State Department, the War Department, and the Navy became segregated. Those applying to become federal employees now had to include photos of themselves so that their race would be apparent. In some cases, black and white employees were separated by screens. Employees who objected were shown the door. The NAACP protested, but to no avail.

Even the League of Nations, widely considered Wilson’s crowning achievement and vision, was marred by his racism. When a covenant for the League was being written, Japan attempted to insert a clause mandating racial equality. Not wanting the United States to be brought up on charges of human rights violations, Wilson helped nix the clause.

Certainly, Wilson looks bad when compared to the minority of whites in the early 1900s, such as Wendell Phillips Stafford, Mary Ovington, the Spingarn brothers, William English Walling, Anna Strunsky, Charles Edward Russell, John Dewey, Frank Sanborn, Horace Bumstead, Jane Addams, William Hayes Ward, Henry Moscowitz, Wilbur Thirkield, Rabbi Stephen Wise, Albert Pillsbury, Moorfield Storey, and the Garrisons, who favored racial equality. Yet he also looks bad next to other moderate, early 20th century political leaders. It has already been discussed how Wilson was more reactionary on race than Teddy Roosevelt. It should also be noted that his successors, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, called for federal anti-lynching legislation and a national conversation on race. Were they racist? Certainly. But their records look a sight better than Wilson’s. Charles Evans Hughes, Wilson’s 1916 Republican opponent quoted at the beginning of this post, also warrants attention. What course would Hughes have pursued on civil rights if he had beaten Wilson in 1916? It is hard to imagine him doing as badly. Years after losing to Woodrow Wilson, Hughes was appointed Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He was not exactly a civil rights crusader, but he did make major decisions against exclusion of blacks from juries and voting primaries, helped chip away at segregated schooling by ruling that in the absence of an in-state school for blacks, the University of Missouri had to admit a black student, and upheld the right to boycott racist businesses. While the story is difficult to verify, it was said that during Hughes’ time as Chief Justice, a Marshall of the Supreme Court complained about black people eating in the Supreme Court’s cafeteria, Hughes threatened to fire him if he did not take a more enlightened attitude. Wilson was not only racist but abnormally so for his era.

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6 responses to “Woodrow Wilson: Most Anti-Black President of the 20th Century

  1. smokedsalmoned

    Progressive Racism – Woodrow Wilson
    by Paul Rahe April 11, 2013 4:00 AM
    Today’s progressives should consider the sobering history of Woodrow Wilson’s segregation policy.
    One hundred years ago today, Woodrow Wilson brought Jim Crow to the North. He had been inaugurated on March 4, 1913. At a cabinet meeting on April 11, his postmaster general, Albert S. Burleson, suggested that the new administration segregate the railway mail service; and treasury secretary William G. McAdoo, who would soon become Wilson’s son-in-law, chimed in to signal his support. Wilson followed their lead. He had made a bid for the African-American vote in 1912, and he had attracted the support of figures such as W. E. B. Du Bois, but, as he put it at the meeting, he had made “no promises in particular to Negroes, except to do them justice.” Burleson’s proposal he welcomed, but he wanted “the matter adjusted in a way to make the least friction.”
    Today, self-styled progressives are wont, with considerable abandon, to label as racists those who object to their attempts at social engineering. They would do well to rein in their rhetorical excesses and curb their enthusiasm for the administrative state — for the Progressives of yesteryear, on whom they model themselves, really were racists in the precise and proper sense of the term, and in formulating public policy they were true to their principles.
    In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ordinary Americans may generally have been in the grips of ethnic prejudice of one sort or another. The Progressives of that time were not, however, ordinary men, and they knew it. Like their successors today, they dominated America’s universities. With some justification, they thought of themselves as an intellectual elite; and, with rare exceptions, they enthusiastically embraced eugenics and racial theory. That the inchoate racial prejudices of their contemporaries were grounded in fact they took to be a truth taught by science; and, being devotees of rational administration to the exclusion of all other concerns, they insisted that public policy conform to the dictates of the new racial science.
    Wilson, our first professorial president, was a case in point. He was the very model of a modern Progressive, and he was recognized as such. He prided himself on having pioneered the new science of rational administration, and he shared the conviction, dominant among his brethren, that African-Americans were racially inferior to whites. With the dictates of Social Darwinism and the eugenics movement in mind, in 1907, he campaigned in Indiana for the compulsory sterilization of criminals and the mentally retarded; and in 1911, while governor of New Jersey, he proudly signed into law just such a bill.
    Prior to the segregation of the civil service in 1913, appointments had been made solely on merit as indicated by the candidate’s performance on the civil-service examination. Thereafter, racial discrimination became the norm. Photographs came to be required at the time of application, and African-Americans knew they would not be hired. The existing work force was segregated. Many African-Americans were dismissed. In the postal service, others were transferred to the dead-letter office, where they had no contact with the general public. Those who continued to work in municipal post offices labored behind screens — out of sight and out of mind. When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Independent Political League objected to the new policy, Wilson — a Presbyterian elder who was nothing if not high-minded — vigorously defended it, arguing that segregation was in the interest of African-Americans. For 35 years, segregation in the civil service would be public policy. It was only after Adolf Hitler gave eugenics and “scientific racism” a bad name that segregation came to seem objectionable.
    If Wilson’s new policy encountered little opposition, it was because a change of sentiment had taken place. Jim Crow had not been the norm before 1890, even in the deep South. As C. Vann Woodward noted nearly 60 years ago, in The Strange Career of Jim Crow, it became the norm there only when it received sanction from the racist Progressives in the North. Their influence was profound and pervasive. In 1900, E. L. Godkin, founder and longtime editor of The Nation, saw the handwriting on the wall. In the pages of that journal, he lamented that “the Declaration of Independence no longer arouses enthusiasm; it is an embarrassing instrument which requires to be explained away. The Constitution is said to be ‘outgrown.’” Those who once “boasted that it had secured for the negro the rights of humanity and citizenship” now listen “in silence to the proclamation of white supremacy” and make “no protest against the nullifications of the Fifteenth Amendment.”
    Wilson championed the trend identified by Godkin. In his presidential campaign in 1912, he told his compatriots, “We are in the presence of a new organization of society.” Our time marks “a new social stage, a new era of human relationships, a new stage-setting for the drama of life,” and “the old political formulas do not fit the present problems: they read now like documents taken out of a forgotten age.” What Thomas Jefferson had once taught is now, he contended, utterly out of date. It is “what we used to think in the old-fashioned days when life was very simple.”
    Above all, Wilson wanted to persuade his compatriots to get “beyond the Declaration of Independence.” That document “did not mention the questions of our day,” he told his countrymen. “It is of no consequence to us.” He regarded it as “an eminently practical document, meant for the use of practical men; not a thesis for philosophers, but a whip for tyrants; not a theory of government, but a program of action.” For the rights of individuals celebrated in that document and for the limits on the scope of government implicit in its celebration of those particular rights, he had no use. They were, he recognized, an obstacle to rational administration of the very sort exemplified by his subsequent segregation of the civil service.
    For similar reasons, Wilson was hostile to the constitutional provisions intended as a guarantee of limited government. The separation of powers, the balances and checks, and the distribution of authority between nation and state distinguishing the American constitution he regarded as an obstacle to the formation and pursuit of rational public policy. “Government” he considered “not a machine, but a living thing . . . accountable to Darwin, not to Newton.” Nothing of that sort could, he believed, “have its organs offset against each other, as checks, and live.” Its health was “dependent upon” the “quick co-operation” of these organs, “their ready response to the commands of instinct or intelligence, their amicable community of purpose.” Wilson was the first to call for there to be a “living” political constitution “Darwinian in structure and in practice.” To this end, in running for the presidency he openly sought “permission — in an era in which ‘development,’ ‘evolution,’ is the scientific word — to interpret the Constitution according to Darwinian principle.”
    Today’s progressives eschew Social Darwinism and the pseudo-scientific racism espoused by their intellectual forebears, and they oppose racial segregation and the sterilization of criminals and the mentally retarded. But they are no less confident of their own righteousness than were the Progressives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and they have no more respect for the rights espoused in the Declaration of Independence, for limited government, and for constitutional forms than did their predecessors. On this day, the hundredth anniversary of Wilson’s segregation of the civil service, they ought to reflect on the terrible damage apt to be done by an unlimited government disdainful of the natural rights of man and dedicated to rational administration as envisaged by fallible men.

    • There are several things I want to respond to here, but I agree with some of what you said and disagree with other aspects of it. I certainly agree that there was a strong link between Progressivism and eugenics and that some prominent progressives were segregationists. I also certainly believe that Jim Crow laws, as well as forced sterilization, serve as cautionary tales about big government. There are several points you made that I want to address, however, due to a difference of opinion. In the first place, I may be misunderstanding what you are saying, but I think it is a mistake to identify Wilson too closely with the North. While he rose to prominence in New Jersey, he was born and raised in the South and was deeply influenced by that background. Secondly, I would submit that Woodward underestimated the degree to which Jim Crow had existed in the South since colonial days, the degree to which a segment of white Northerners continued to champion racial equality during the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the fact that a significant number of politicians continued to show some interest in civil rights. With regard to Jim Crow in the South, for example, interracial marriage bans began being implemented there in the 1690s. In the North, the NAACP had a significant white presence from the beginning. And when a bill was voted on in 1915 by the House of Representatives that would have outlawed interracial marriage in Washington, D.C., the majority of (mostly Northern) Republicans who voted on it voted to keep interracial marriage legal. As far as Progressivism and race goes, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Most white progressives believed in white supremacy, as did most of the general white population in the Progressive Era. Certain prominent progressives, like Woodrow Wilson, were segregationists. But other prominent white progressives were significantly more supportive of civil rights, with Teddy Roosevelt being moderate, Robert LaFollette being fairly liberal, and some such as Joel Spingarn, Jane Addams, John Dewey, and arguably Wendell Phillips Stafford (not sure if he could be categorized as a progressive) taking part in the NAACP. Given the fact that progressives’s views on race ran the gamut, I’m honestly not sure whether they, as a group, were more racist than the general population. That said, many racists in pre-civil rights America were economic progressives. And in today’s society, where racism remains a major problem, it is certainly not found only among conservatives. Finally, I actually think it is an oversimplification to simply categorize the progressives of Wilson’s era as the predecessors of modern day liberals. Some progressives, like LaFollette and the NAACP supporters I mentioned, could definitely be considered the ideological ancestors of today’s liberals. However, quite a few other progressives, including Wilson, could best be categorized as social conservatives-fiscal liberals. Modern liberals and modern conservatives tend to each have areas where they want more government and areas where they want less. For example, most liberals take a libertarian position on issues like the legality of same-sex marriage, marijuana, and flag burning, while most conservatives take a libertarian position on issues like national health insurance, welfare, and taxes. Wilson and certain other progressives wanted more government mostly across the board, for example, favoring State-imposed Jim Crow AND economic regulation.

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