Sunday, August 18, 2013

100 Years Ago: Woodrow Wilson

In 1913 progressive candidate Woodrow Wilson won the White House, inspiring hopes that a new direction from the Republican years (Taft, and before him Teddy Roosevelt) would soon make itself felt, much like in the Clinton and Obama years more recently.

As with Clinton and Obama, Wilson proved to be a disaster.  Innocent as a child, he never doubted, always believed, taking direction from what he took to be a monarchical God steering history to the fulfillment of Grand Designs.  From the perspective of this Almighty, the hierarchies of sex, race, and property were among the eternal verities demanding to be upheld. Wilson did his best to see that they were.

He restored segregation to official Washington and reversed longstanding practice by appointing white ministers to Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  (He later invaded and occupied both countries). During his recent tenure as president of Princeton University,  he had upheld a policy of non-admittance of blacks, which was unique among Ivy League institutions at the time.  To Wilson, this was a simple matter of biological destiny.  He attributed the purging of blacks from voting rolls and public offices in the wake of Reconstruction not to racism, but to the “inevitable ascendancy of the whites.”

He considered women good company, so long as they were physically attractive, but he felt they should know better than to soil themselves with public affairs.  Far better that women remain “in their own sphere,” where their “deeper sensibilities” and “finer understanding” could be turned to proper account.  The unnatural ones that put themselves forth as public speakers provoked a “chilled scandalized” feeling in Wilson, who considered it self-evident that female intellectual accomplishments lacked merit.

On issues of class, he was a fierce proponent of the Open Shop (no unions), and regarded the 1877 and 1894 railroad strikes as proof that labor unions were "special interests" that incited violence.  On the other hand, President Grover Cleveland's crushing of the 1894 rebellion with federal troops was public interest bloodshed. 

He felt that the best of all possible worlds was a conservative, corporate America governed by a benevolent elite. (Sound familiar?) Although he considered transparent government a virtue, he condemned efforts to expose corporate behavior as “socialistic” subversion.

Hailing a “New Freedom,” Wilson imposed segregation on federal offices, let a suffrage bill languish in Congress for seven long years, and destroyed a vigorous American socialist movement by plunging the country into the bloodiest war in human history (WWI).

“I honestly thought segregation to be in the interest of the colored people as exempting them from friction and criticism in the departments...a number of colored men with whom we have consulted have agreed with us...”
----Woodrow Wilson to Oswald Garrison Villard

“Public segregation of civil servants in government employ, necessarily involving personal insult and humiliation, has for the first time in history been made the policy of the United States government.”

“In the Treasury and Post Office Department colored clerks have been herded to themselves as though they were not human beings. We are told that one colored clerk who could not actually be segregated on account of the nature of his work had consequently had a cage built around him to separate him from his white companions of many years.”

-----W. E. B. DuBois to President Wilson

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