“His Warts As Well As His Good Things”: Reimagining Wilson’s Legacy with Linda

There is a famous story involving Woodrow Wilson and D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, one that historians love to tell and retell as prime instance of the president’s notoriously unenlightened racial views. Wilson screened the movie at the White House upon its 1915 release (this much is fact) and loved it, the story goes. “It’s like writing history with lightning,” he is said to have exclaimed. “My only regret is that it is all terribly true.”

Somewhere between Coolidge and Clinton, this anecdote hardened into legacy. For nearly a century it has provided prime fodder in academia and popular history alike, for social liberals, who for years have expressed disgust with Wilson’s staunch segregationism, as well as fiscal conservatives (“this is the architect that destroyed our faith,” exclaimed Glenn Beck, who reportedly keeps a framed 1924 newspaper headlined “Woodrow Wilson Is Dead” by his desk).

That Wilson was by modern standards unapologetically racist is today well understood. After packing his Cabinet with fellow Jim Crow southerners, Wilson gladly permitted their segregation of the Postal Service, the Treasury Department, and the Bureau of Printing and Engraving; “during Wilson’s administration the number of black government employees actually declined,” writes Paula Span in a fantastic (and fascinating) American History discussion of Wilson’s legacy. Even W.E.B. Du Bois criticized the failure of Wilson’s progressivism to extend to the color line. “We need scarcely to say that you have grievously disappointed us,” wrote the African-American writer and civil rights leader at the close of Wilson’s first term.

Fact: Wilson did screen Birth of a Nation at a White House gala in 1915. And surely he agreed at least in part with the film’s portrayal of the KKK as a noble force in the Reconstruction south.The president’s two-volume History of the American People was even quoted in the film. “The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self preservation,” wrote Wilson, “until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.” But did he really publicly endorse the film? Has the story been distorted, misrepresented at Wilson’s expense?

Linda MacNeil knows Wilson was never so advanced on issues involving race. She is lead interpreter at Wilson’s Presidential Library and Museum; how can she not? But when I mentioned that one story—or even hinted at it (the word Birth never even made it out of my mouth)—she wasn’t having it. “That is a falsehood!” Linda told me. “He was caught!” For Linda, Wilson’s unabashed racism constitutes a minor, or at least demographically understandable, blemish on one seriously progressive domestic agenda: the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, the Clayton Antitrust Act, tariff reform, and so on and so forth. We shouldn’t deny Wilson’s white supremacy, Linda concedes. But why let it stain a legacy otherwise defined by economic progressivism and the creation of a democratic postwar new world order? Wilson’s museum notes that when the 28th president entered office in 1913, Britain remained the world’s major national power. When he left in 1921, “crows and thrones were toppled”; the U.S. had taken Britain’s place.

I asked Linda about Wilson, Staunton, Birth of a Nation, and the challenges of depicting Wilson’s legacy positively without masking or distorting his less admirable traits. In turn, she asked me about my project. “Blogging stuff bothers me,” she admitted, “but that’s alright. I’m not into that.”

Here’s the interview.

How long have you worked at the Woodrow Wilson Museum?

Since March of 2001. So ten years.

Have you always been interested in history?

Yes. I was an American Studies major in college, and I taught elementary school. I started off in American history in fifth grade, and then I went to other grades.

What is the value in preserving Woodrow Wilson’s birthplace?

Well, I think it helps people who lived long after he did to have an understanding of that time period and the challenges that were there that somehow still seem to be around today. I’m just looking at an article now that was in American History, on the internet, and it was about “how did Wilson become America’s most hated president?” It’s a pretty good article, it’s pretty balanced, it points out his warts as well as his good things.

Does this museum also point out his “warts as well as his good things”? To what extent does it serve as an active endorsement of Wilson’s legacy?

We had somebody today who was very pleased when he walked through the museum. He said, “You’re not covering up things. You mention his role in the race issue”—and that’s mentioned here, too. He was not very progressive in that area. But he was a product of his time. He grew up in the south with the Civil War and Reconstruction, and there was a different attitude than we have today.

What are some of the challenges in portraying Wilson’s legacy fairly and honestly?

Well, you don’t want to emphasize his negatives, but you don’t want to ignore them. At  the moment, we try to be balanced about that. We don’t highlight the negatives, but then again we don’t deny them. He had definite strengths, but he also had weaknesses as well.

How is Virginia’s identity informed by its rich history?

There’s a lot to see, there are a lot of historical places you can visit. And Virginia was early on a history-making place—we have Williamsburg, etc . . .

How did Woodrow Wilson’s southern origins impact his presidency or politics later in life?

Well, he only lived in Staunton a year. And then he moved to Georgia, he lived twelve years in Georgia. I think that’s the reason his race relations were not as progressive, because of the period he grew up in. I think his religion, his Presbyterian upbringing, probably had as much to do with his thinking and philosophy.

What are some specific examples of his less progressive racial views?

Well, when he became president, most of the office in the federal buildings were integrated, and during his presidency they were segregated. He didn’t do it himself, but he didn’t stop many of the southern members of his cabinet who did that.

And I know there’s a popular story about—

Yes, that is a falsehood! And—

What’s a falsehood?

The fact that he invited that and appraised it and was in favor of that movie!

Birth of a Nation?

Mm hmm. He was caught! And there’s an article about it I think I can find.

How was it misrepresented?

He knew the author of the book because he was a fellow student with him at Johns Hopkins. And this fellow—not a close friend by any means—was deceptive. He said there was a movie of his book, and he’d like him to see it, and didn’t say what the book was, didn’t say anything about it, and Wilson agreed to see it, and he saw it obviously in the White House because he was president at the time. We have a copy of the program that was printed up, and it’s all scrunched up. He walked out right after it and did not say what people say he once said! “It was like lightning,” whatever the quote is that they give. It was a very powerful movie, and it did cause a lot of harm because there were riots as a result of it. So no, that’s been taken way out of context, and I think it’s very unfair. He may have not disagreed with some of the things he saw in that, but he was not putting his stamp of approval on that film.

Would you have voted for Woodrow Wilson?

Absolutely.

Why?

Well, part of it is because I like his progressive thinking. I think he’s for the common man, and I think he had the right ideas. The parties were a little different in his time, because you did have a Republican who was progressive—at least had some progressive planks—and that was Roosevelt. Teddy. Today the Republicans don’t have any progressive legislation.

What about his foreign policy?

He was not as strong in foreign policy as he was in domestic policy, and he knew it himself. I think he made a mistake in going to Paris peace negotiations and not taking stronger Republicans with him. He took a Republican, but he was not a strong one.

This was when he was lobbying for the League of Nations?

Yeah. That was his major mistake. But he also made a mistake politically just before he went to Paris, when he was trying to get the Democrats to maintain their control of Congress, and he failed partly because he pushed too hard on that one. And, of course, after the peace treaty negotiations he struggled so hard to get the League, and he made some bad compromises.

What is most significant mark that Woodrow Wilson left on U.S. politics?

Well, I think his domestic reforms, and his efforts to put together a League of Nations.

What’s the best part of working at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum?

What makes it fun is the interesting people that come to visit. We’ve had Senator Warner here on occasion. The variety of interesting people from all over the world. We don’t just get Americans, I had Australians this morning, we get Europeans. People from all over.

SOURCES AND FURTHER READING:

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One Comment on ““His Warts As Well As His Good Things”: Reimagining Wilson’s Legacy with Linda”

  1. […] certainly have a positive view of Wilson, compared with pretty much anywhere. If you’ve read my interview with Linda, you can imagine her flash of anger when I hinted at the Birth of a Nation incident, the firm, […]


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