Know Your Presidents: Woodrow Wilson

August 19, 2009 at 10:13 pm | Posted in Historical | Leave a comment
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Woodrow Wilson and wife riding in backseat of a carriage to second inauguration, March 5th, 1917 (Library of Congress)

Woodrow Wilson and wife riding in backseat of a carriage to second inauguration, March 5th, 1917 (Library of Congress)

Wilson’s historical reputation is that of a far-sighted progressive. That role has been assigned to him by historians based on his battle for the League of Nations, and the opposition he faced from isolationist Republicans. Indeed, the adjective “Wilsonian,” still in use, implies a positive if idealistic vision for the extension of justice and democratic values throughout the world. Domestically, however, Wilson was a racist retrograde, one who attempted to engineer the diminution of both justice and democracy for American blacks—who were enjoying little of either to begin with.

Wilson’s racist views were hardly a secret. His own published work was peppered with Lost Cause visions of a happy antebellum South. As president of Princeton, he had turned away black applicants, regarding their desire for education to be “unwarranted.” He was elected president because the 1912 campaign featured a third party, Theodore Roosevelt’s Bullmoose Party, which drew Republican votes from incumbent William Howard Taft. Wilson won a majority of votes in only one state (Arizona) outside the South.

What Wilson’s election meant to the South was “home rule;” that is, license to pursue its racial practices without concern about interference from the federal government. That is exactly what the 1948 Dixiecrats wanted. But “home rule” was only the beginning. Upon taking power in Washington, Wilson and the many other Southerners he brought into his cabinet were disturbed at the way the federal government went about its own business. One legacy of post-Civil War Republican ascendancy was that Washington’s large black populace had access to federal jobs, and worked with whites in largely integrated circumstances. Wilson’s cabinet put an end to that, bringing Jim Crow to Washington.

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