This is the grave of Woodrow Wilson.
Born in 1856 in Staunton, Virginia, Wilson grew up in the heart of the Confederate South. His father was a Presbyterian minister and a slave owner. In 1858, the family moved to Augusta, Georgia and claimed his first memory was hearing that Abraham Lincoln had been elected president in 1860. He lived in Augusta until 1870, when his father became a theology professor at a college in Columbia, South Carolina.
Wilson attended Davidson College for a year and then transferred to what is today Princeton, which was already the Ivy for the southern elite. He did well, attracting the attention of Henry Cabot Lodge among others for his writings on government. He attended the University of Virginia School of Law but had to drop out after poor health. He did work on the bar though and did very briefly practice in Atlanta. But by 1883, he figured out that he wanted to be a professor. He entered the new university of Johns Hopkins and finished his PhD in 1886. His first book, Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics, was a big hit and received major critical approval. He was a rising star. He took a job at Bryn Mawr, teaching history and political science there from 1885-88. He then spent two years at Wesleyan before Princeton hired him in 1890. He continued publishing. The State, which was a text that was basically a Progressive vision of government, was a staple in political science classes well into the 1920s. He wrote a bunch of history books too, including by all accounts a pretty bad biography of George Washington and a history of the Civil War and Reconstruction published in 1893 called Division and Reunion that was a staple in U.S. history courses for a long time.
That Wilson’s vision of American history was deeply racist is of course well known and we will get to this more in a bit. This was the era of the Lost Cause. Wilson was a southerner and descendant of a slaveholder. One of the many sad things about the Gilded Age is how the southern vision of the Civil War became the dominant narrative among northern whites as well. And the reason for this basically is that northern whites were also racist and it was a story they were very happy to accept because they did not want to deal with Black rights any longer. The commitment of even many abolitionists to Black freedom after the technical end of slavery was often pretty limited. What Wilson was writing about this entered a market, South and North, that wanted to hear the story told this way. Of course, there were exceptions, even among whites. But they were far too few.
Wilson parlayed all this into becoming president of Princeton in 1902. A very active president, Wilson summed up both the good and the bad about the Progressives. He worked to improve standards at the school and get rid of the image of it as a place where the southern gentry would skate by and graduate with a poor education. He vastly improved fundraising. He hired the first Jews and Catholics in the school’s history. And he also fought hard to make sure it did not allow any African-Americans in. This is the paradox of the Progressives. Whether they are useful models or not depends on how you look at them. More on this soon.
New Jersey was a strongly Republican state in the late nineteenth century, after having been something of a swing state earlier. Republicans had won five state gubernatorial elections. With Wilson a rising star in the state, Democrats decided to ask him to run for governor, more because he had no experience as a politician than despite it. This was a bosses’ gambit, thinking they could control him. But they could not. They nominated him and he immediately threw his support to the Senate candidate they did not want. He then won the general election in 1910. His reformist governance led to a bill that required primaries of all elected offices so that the bosses could not pick the candidate. He signed bills improving factory conditions and improving standards for female labor and banning some child labor. He created a state Board of Education with the power to enforce standards. And he reduced the power of sheriffs to select juries, especially in antitrust cases. Of course, this split the Democratic Party and the infighting allowed Republicans to take back the legislature. But still, he was an effective governor and one of the Democrats’ leading Progressives.
In 1912, with the Progressive movement at the height of its influence, no one stood a real chance that did not identify with the movement in some way. This divided the parties, for there were many, many Republicans and Democrats who hated the Progressives and resented the move away from the Gilded Age. Of course, Republicans divided between Taft and Roosevelt after party bosses denied the latter a real shot at the nomination. This opened the door for Wilson, who had won the nomination over Champ Clark and Oscar Underwood. In the remarkable general election, which also marked the height of the Socialist Party’s influence under Eugene Debs, Wilson won with only 42% of the popular vote but 435 electoral votes.
Wilson governed initially as a moderate Progressive. He brought the lion of the left win of the Democratic Party, William Jennings Bryan, on as Secretary of State. Bryan was wildly unsuited to the job, but his influence was felt throughout the first term. William Gibbs McAdoo became Secretary of the Treasury and would soon marry Wilson’s daughter. James McReynolds became Attorney General. Josephus Daniels was Secretary of the Navy. All in all, it was a pretty capable Cabinet, more despite Bryan than because of it. The New Freedom did not transform the nation, but it did move forward strong, Progressive goals. The creation of the Federal Reserve was a huge step in rationalizing American monetary policy. With the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment for the income tax, Wilson and other Democrats got their wish to lower tariffs. The Clayton Act, major new anti-trust legislation, would not prove particularly effective, but was seen as a huge victory for reformers at the time. The Adamson Act created the 8-hour day for railroad workers, the first time that any federal hours legislation for private sector workers had become law, infuriating business interests. He really wasn’t interested in anti-immigrant politics and rejected restrictive laws that would shut out eastern and southern Europeans. And he wanted to move toward independence in the Philippines.
Now, yes, Wilson was very racist. In fact, this is all he gets known for today, along with the failure of the League of Nations. Wilson absolutely did have Birth of a Nation shown at the White House. He added to the segregation of the federal government. There’s obviously no excusing this–he had been at the forefront of segregation and the historical remembrance of the Civil War in a racist way.
However….Wilson is more the norm than the exception. In terms of segregating the federal government, Wilson absolutely moved that process along, but McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft had already all contributed to it. In fact, the last Republican who had done anything at all for Black workers in the government was Benjamin Harrison. Roosevelt may have had dinner with Booker T. Washington in the White House, but he very much regretted doing so in the aftermath and his actions with the Black soldiers in Brownsville were particularly disgusting. If anything, the old corrupt Gilded Age Republicans were less racist than the Progressives, as Joseph Foraker, no one’s idea of a great leader, took up the mantle of the soldiers against Roosevelt. And let’s not forget that Roosevelt, an open eugenicist, had one of his best friends in Madison Grant, who wrote The Passing of the Great Race, which influenced Hitler. Taft had run roughshod over Latin America in his foreign policy and was a racist in his own right.
I say all of this not to excuse Wilson. Not at all. But part of what has happened today in our historical memory of Wilson is that he is serving us today as a uniquely racist American in the White House, someone to be damned like Andrew Jackson. And that’s not really correct. First of all, Wilson was actually a quite good president, especially on domestic issues. He is absolutely the most pro-labor president in American history before Franklin Roosevelt, even when one considers his role in the Red Scare, coming up here soon. He signed a great deal of excellent legislation. And he was a racist. But this also describes a lot of other presidents. Extreme racism was nearly ubiquitous in the entire political class of the Progressive Era. If we are targeting Wilson uniquely, we are leading Roosevelt off the hook.
Moreover, Wilson’s racism is also used as an attack on Progressivism generally. The Progressives were really complicated people. How one sees them depends on where one looks. On gender and the family, they were often terrible, very intrusive, taking children from mothers. On race, yeah, they were often really bad too. But attacking Progressives generally, as often happens today, is actually a reactionary position because it reinforces the economic individualism of the Gilded Age. And the Gilded Age was an awful time for Americans, not something to remember positively at all. When the state is not really functioning at all and the result is massive corruption, horrifying poverty, revolutionary ideologies that develop out of the desperation, state violence, lawful and unlawful racism and genocide, etc., then people are going to need to figure out for ways for the state to get involved. Did those people make mistakes and do some awful things, including Wilson? You bet. But as we are firmly within the New Gilded Age, with people losing faith in government, do we need to people fighting for competent and, yes, sometimes intrusive government regulation? Yes. Yes we do.
Now, we know that Wilson won reelection against a united Republican Party with a quite competent candidate in Charles Evans Hughes largely because of the situation in Europe. With Americans pretty opposed to involvement in World War I, even after the Lusitania, Wilson’s “he kept us out of war” slogan was very effective. In truth, Wilson’s foreign policy was not very good. The biggest problem with Wilson is that he was such a moralist. He imbibed his father’s southern Presbyterianism very strongly and he applied it to politics. So when faced with foreign policy problems, his response trended more toward “these people are evil” than “this is a problem we need to face.” That was first very true with his inept response to the Mexican Revolution, including the unjust occupation of Veracruz and then the ridiculously failed attempt to chase down Pancho Villa after the latter burned the town of Columbus, New Mexico. That he actually said, “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men.” says about everything you need to know in terms of not only Wilson’s vision of Latin America, but Progressives generally, very much including Roosevelt and Taft. Wilson sent the Marines not only into Mexico, but Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Some of these invasions are still nation-defining today, especially in Nicaragua, where the invasion eventually led to the rise of Cesar Augusto Sandino’s revolutionary resistance movement.
Wilson’s early preparation of World War I has always seemed pretty reasonable to me. He certainly didn’t rush into war, at least not at first. But it’s absolutely true that the nation was highly unprepared when, in 1917, Wilson did push for war. In fact, lots of Americans simply didn’t believe it and draft resistance was very high, not only among the Irish or Germans or radicals, but among southern white men who just didn’t think what happened in France and Belgium had anything to do with them and didn’t know what would happen to their farms.
Wilson prosecuted the war by centralizing power in the federal government in the way that Progressives had been preparing for. He created new federal agencies to promote or coordinate food conservation, wartime labor peace, war bonds (the famed Liberty Loans), and other ways of raising money for the war. He brought Samuel Gompers and other “responsible” labor leaders into the government in a way no president ever had before. It seemed to the AFL that a new day was dawning.
And in doing all of this, he also demonstrated the regressive side of Progressives, using coercion when appeals to good government and self-defined political responsibility failed. Wilson was the best president for labor before FDR, but that has to include that he had absolutely no tolerance for the IWW or other radical labor organizations and openly sought to crush them. He created a government propaganda wing under George Creel called the Committee on Public Information that was really pretty scary, including the Four Minute Men, the propaganda posters that turned the Germans into animals, and anti-German movies. He signed the Espionage Act of 1917 and Sedition Act of 1918. Eugene Debs was thrown into prison for speaking out against the draft and radical immigrants such as Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were arrested and eventually deported. In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union was founded in 1917 as a counter to Wilson’s suppression of constitutional rights during the war.
When the U.S. and the rest of the Allies won the war, Wilson left the country for France to hammer out the Treaty of Versailles. Still on his moralistic path, he brought forward his Fourteen Points and threw them at the French, Italians, and British, much to their annoyance. These old men like Clemenceau and Lloyd George had no patience for a Presbyterian minister-acting president telling them what was moral. After all, they had suffered a lot more in the war than the U.S. The Fourteen Points had a lot of good in it. Its focus on self-determination had the potential to put the brakes on European colonialism. In fact, there’s a famous story that some of you no doubt know that I will tell here. Anti-colonial movements around the world heard about the Fourteen Points and thought Wilson might help them. Among them was Ho Chi Minh. Ho was in Paris and sought to meet with Wilson. But Wilson, a racist as we all know, had no interest in meeting Ho or thinking about anti-colonialism at all as part of the peace treaty, even if he was not really an imperialist. So he turned down Ho and many others and reinforced colonialism. This led Ho to the only other nation that promised a path of resistance to European colonialism: the Soviet Union. That would certainly come back to the haunt the U.S.
Wilson came back to the U.S. somewhat disappointed that he didn’t get everything he wanted in France, but still got the League. But in many ways, he doomed the effort to get the U.S. to ratify through his own arrogance. Henry Cabot Lodge, who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was also massively arrogant. And Lodge was angry that he was excluded from the process. Lodge was not really an isolationist. He might have gotten on board. But he set out to not allow the U.S. to join the League precisely because he so despised Wilson, even if his father had mentored him all the way back at Princeton. Even though other foreign policy elites such as Taft and Elihu Root did at least tentatively support it and even though Wilson took the road to promote it, Lodge did manage to kill it. The U.S. of course never joined the League of Nations, undermining it from the beginning and helping to lay the groundwork for World War II.
However, I will say that anyone who says that World War I and World War II are examples of history “repeating” or “rhyming” should be permanently banned from ever commenting on history and politics again and perhaps be sent to Guantanamo Bay. The failures of the League of Nations was a contributing factor to World War II, as was the punitive aspects of the Treaty of Versailles, but they were by no means the only causes and the history leading up to both wars were totally different.
While Wilson was going around the country promoting his League, he basically outsourced domestic policy to his advisors, who by this time were some real reactionaries like A. Mitchell Palmer, now the Attorney General, who sought to cleanse the nation of radicalism through the Red Scare. This was the Progressives at their most reactionary. Not only did this lay the groundwork for the anti-immigration legislation of the 20s and round up radicals for imprisonment and deportation, but it also put the 18th Amendment over the top as booze, especially beer, got connected with Germans and so Prohibition became equated with patriotism. What a disaster that was. Wilson finally did come around on supporting the 19th Amendment, but only after direct action by suffragists to put pressure on him by protesting in front of the White House.
In all of this, Wilson’s health was collapsing. He began to suffer strokes, with a serious one in October that incapacitated him. His inability to govern any longer was hidden from the public. He actually still wanted to be president for a third term, but this was obviously impossible. He was too sick to attend Harding’s inauguration in 1921. His health recovered a bit and he even tried practicing law again, but he hated it as much as he did when he was a young man and gave up. He was partially paralyzed from the strokes, but managed to write a bit more and work with Ray Stannard Baker on a three-volume biography of him. He spoke on the radio and attended Harding’s funeral. But his health was certainly not good and he died in 1924, at the age of 67.
In the end, Wilson’s legacy is actually very complicated. He was an effective president. He was a racist president. He was humane in many ways and very inhumane in others. He was tolerant in some ways and rigidly intolerant in others. What he wasn’t was a monster that makes him uniquely awful and someone we should completely reject today. He helped lay the groundwork for the New Deal among other things, which we desperately need to revive today. But like focusing on Andrew Jackson allows us to forget that genocide has been a central part of all of American history with a lot of presidents actively contributing to it (Jefferson, Van Buren, and Eisenhower being particularly guilty), focusing on Wilson as uniquely racist toward Black Americans is a useful way for us to sweep under the rug that nearly every single president has been horribly racist, very much including all the other Progressives. Let’s avoid simple discussions of the past that serve us poorly, even if they allow us one-liner dunks on Twitter and blog comments or whatever.
Woodrow Wilson is buried in the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.
If you would like this series to visit other presidents, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Benjamin Harrison is in Indianapolis and Harry Truman is in Independence, Missouri. Previous posts in this series are archived here.