History has a way of putting things in perspective. I wonder what history will say about the past four years.
Presidential reputations change through the lens of history. President Wilson’s is an example of a President whose reputation has changed a lot as values have evolved.
During his term, President Woodrow Wilson was hailed as one of the best presidents ever. He was viewed as an intellectual, a global thinker, a progressive reformer, and the premier statesman of his time. An idealist, Wilson pursued a progressive agenda, lowering tariffs, creating the Federal Reserve System, championing antitrust legislation, establishing an income tax, improving protections for workers, and establishing the Federal Trade Commission. Wilson believed that federal government should regulate the economy, expose corruption, and improve society. He led us into World War I, creating a global image of the United States as a beacon of democracy. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919.
But in the lens of the values of our time, he comes off as arrogant, compassionless, and moralistic; an intellectual whose lofty ideas masked his lack of concern for the people that he governed.
The most egregious actions of his presidency were his treatment of African Americans. He allowed his white supremacist Cabinet secretaries to implement racial segregation and discrimination within their departments. During Wilson’s presidency, the Treasury, the Post Office, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the Navy, the Interior, the Marine Hospital, the War Department, and the Government Printing Office became segregated. Black supervisors were dismissed, cut off from promotions, and segregation became the pretext to adopt whites-only employment policies. Segregation persisted in the civil service over the next several decades. A Southerner, Wilson accepted segregation as part of a policy to “promote racial progress…by shocking the social system as little as possible.”
Black American leaders were not fooled. When W.E.B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter protested re-segregating Federal office buildings, Wilson replied:
“Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”
Wilson enabled Jim Crow laws to be instituted in Washington DC.
During Wilson’s presidency, D. W. Griffith’s film, The Birth of a Nation (1915) was the first motion picture to be screened in the White House. The film portrayed blacks as dangerous and ignorant and glorified the Ku Klux Klan as the Savior of the white population. His first Supreme Court appointee (his Attorney General, James McReynolds) famously turned his chair around to face the wall when African American attorneys addressed the court.
Wilson was equally insensitive to women’s rights. While he is credited with supporting the 19th amendment, that only occurred after years of ignoring and imprisoning Suffragette protestors. Privately, he was concerned that rights for women would result in men not getting their meals, children not being cared for. Publicly, he indicated that it wasn’t time yet for women (his exact rationale for his treatment of Black Americans). He had peaceful Suffragette protestors arrested, force-fed, and given extended prison terms. Finally, women’s activities in the war effort and his concern that America would not be viewed as a leader of democracy allowed him to change his position. Even so, to appease Southern opposition, when he endorsed a national right to vote, he still argued that it was a state matter.
Wilson ran on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” but German aggression and his vision of a global role for America, caused him to support entry into the war. To explain the purpose of the war, Wilson issued his Fourteen Points, which laid out a vision of a world where all nations demonstrated mutual cooperation and a League of Nations peacefully resolved all international disputes.
But he believed that once he had declared war, the American people needed to support it. He launched a sweeping propaganda campaign to instill hatred of both the Germans and those who did not support the war. To Wilson, disloyal individuals had “sacrificed their right to civil liberties” such as free speech and expression. He and Congress passed two unconstitutional laws, the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, which criminalized any “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the U.S. government or military. These laws, now perceived as the most egregious violation of the 1st Amendment, resulted in the prosecution and imprisonment of 2,000 Americans.
Regrettably, the Supreme Court upheld the Acts as constitutional limits on free speech in a time of war. The Sedition Act was repealed in 1920. But a portion of the Espionage act survives today and, Attorney General William P. Barr considered charging BLM protestors with sedition.
Some historians argue that the US entry into WWI caused WWII. Wilson’s inability to control the Allies resulted in vindictive surrender terms which required the German government to inflate its currency creating a runaway inflation that wiped out Germany’s middle class from which Hitler recruited his Nazis.
Further, Wilson’s refusal to compromise doomed the League of Nations. The 25th amendment was passed after his leadership was continued despite his stroke.
His fatal flaw was arrogance.
Compare him to Lincoln whose stature has soared over time. Lincoln cared deeply for humanity. He demonstrated great empathy and a willingness to be wrong, to listen to opposing viewpoints. Despite an initial unwillingness to address slavery, he eventually came to understand the need to end it. When the South surrendered, he was quick to forbid retribution. Wilson had an idealist vision, Lincoln cared for humanity, warts, and all.
And I believe that is the lesson that we can take from these two Presidents…a great President leads his people, forging their humanity with his own. A great President is humble and willing to listen to other viewpoints. He accepts his limitations and corrects his mistakes. Most importantly, a great President can forgive and look forward. Biden recognized Lincoln’s words were as true then as they are now.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.