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Wilson, the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad president

Published in Blog on March 18, 2024 by Jakob Fay

“If you were dragging getting out of bed to start this week,” wrote National Review columnist Dan McLaughlin, “thank Woodrow Wilson. Daylight saving time is just one of a battery of ways that Wilson and his presidency changed America, most of them for the worse.”

Ironically, I already intended to write an article this week about the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Woodrow Wilson before I learned that we have this effigy of a president to thank for the nonsensical nightmare that is daylight saving time. In 1919, H. R. 3854, “An Act for the repeal of the daylight-saving law,” crossed the president's desk, an opportunity to rid the nation of this meaningless curse forever. Wilson, of course, vetoed it.

We may execrate the 28th president today for this unfortunate decision, but frankly, it ranks pretty low on his shockingly long list of faults. Over his many decades of public service, Wilson did worse. Much worse. In fact, Wilson was unequivocally, undeniably, and without reservation, one of the worst men ever to hold the office of president. If only we were wise, we would build a time machine, travel back to 1912, and campaign against this man with all our might. That's how bad he was.

And what made him so abhorrent? Here are four reasons why Woodrow Wilson’s name should cause every American to shudder:

1. He was insufferably racist

I get it. Woodrow Wilson was far from the only bigot to call the White House his home. But this Confederate native was racist — shockingly racist — in a way that was different, arguably more harmful, than all the rest; he was, as Vox put it, “racist — even by the standards of his time.”

Most notorious among Wilson’s myriad racist escapades is, of course, his screening of “The Birth of a Nation,” the racist revisionist propaganda film, at the White House. This so-called “Masterpiece of Racist Cinema” posits the view, embraced by Wilson, that the murderous “Ku Klux Klan… saved the South from the anarchy of black rule, but not without the shedding of more blood than at Gettysburg'' (actual words from the movie). Between the burning crosses, viciously anti-black retelling of history, and blackface, “the most racist movie ever made” was right at home in Wilson’s White House. 

But the president did more than just screen the movie. Wilson, who, as we will later see, possessed quite the knack for rewriting his “Lost Cause” fantasies into history, must have beamed to see his own words included in the film: “white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation… until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country,” “Birth” quoted from the president’s book.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the half of it.

While the movie incident was certainly appalling, it would have had little effect on the nation. What did affect the nation, however, was Wilson’s flagrant re-segregating of the federal government. The same man who somehow duped civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois into supporting his first bid for the White House, subsequently “mandated that the federal workforce be segregated by race.” Du Bois, disillusioned by Wilson's betrayal, described the dehumanizing consequences of this policy, with black employees in locations where segregation proved impractical being relegated to working in literal cages.

“Do you not know… that no President of the United States ever dared to propose such treatment?” an incredulous Du Bois inquired, shattering the notion that Wilson's racism was comparable to that of other presidents.

Additionally, the president allied himself with the openly pro-lynching Senator Benjamin “Pitchfork” Tillman, a man who once fantasized about “killing a thousand n*****s in the South before they learn their place again.”

2. He was pro-eugenics and pro-forced sterilization

For Wilson, radical views about race and history went hand in hand. The man who regarded “segregation… a benefit” sought to legitimize his views about race via eugenics. Back before a certain fanatical German Führer gave the reprehensible practice a bad name, this U.S. president publicly declared, “The whole nation has awakened to and recognizes the extraordinary importance of the science of human heredity, as well as its application to the ennoblement of the human family.” At the time, progressives, of whom Wilson was chief, often aimed at exactly that: the so-called “ennoblement” of humanity — a.k.a. the pseudo-scientific pursuit of racial hierarchy. 

To that end, Wilson also embraced compulsory sterilization for criminals and the mentally unfit, a full-fledged racial-genetic “cleansing.” As governor of New Jersey, he signed the nation’s first forced sterilization bill for the “hopelessly defective and criminal classes” after having campaigned for a similar bill in Indiana. Additionally — and perhaps most shocking of all Wilson’s legion of racist faults — the future president appointed Dr. Edwin Katzen-Ellenbogen, “a member of the Eugenics Research Association” to serve “as the chief eugenicist of his administration.” According to the New York Times, Katzen-Ellenbogen went on to become a Nazi doctor charged with war crimes for his deeds at the Buchenwald concentration camp. Indeed, the Nazi’s signature doctrine of racial “purity” seems to have borrowed heavily from that of Woodrow Wilson and his fellow Progressive Era apologists. As historian Edwin Black contends: “In the first years of the twentieth century, American eugenics crusaded to create a superior species…. Hitler discovered American race politics and made it the scientific and juridical basis of genocidal Nazi eugenics.”

In the end, Wilson, “one of America's greatest Presidents,” according to some, enjoys the unenviable distinction of being the only U.S. president to appoint a future Nazi to the eugenics department in his administration.

3. He rewrote history to fit his agenda

As we have seen, Woodrow Wilson was wrong about many things. But because of his status as the nation’s most educated president, professional academic, and two-term president of Princeton, his brass-necked wrongness was made dangerous. The only president to hold a Ph.D., Wilson ascribed to the ahistorical “Lost Cause” theory, a spattering of myths about the Civil War that recast Lincoln, Grant, and the North in a negative light, denied the South’s true motives behind the war, reinvented Robert E. Lee into a misunderstood military genius and hero, and largely sympathized with the marauding Ku Klux Klan. But Wilson, the teacher, did more than just believe these lies; he wrote them into history books (such as the one from which “The Birth of a Nation” quoted, “A History of the American People”). According to historian Dr. Wesley Moody, who debunks popular myths about the Civil War, “A History of the American People” is “steeped in Lost Cause mythology.”

Sadly, as Dr. Moody’s work highlights, many of the most prevalent Lost Cause-inspired tropes about the war linger today. Invented by now-obscure revisionists, including, most prominently, Edward Pollard, the myths received a regrettable boost from their most famous backer, Woodrow Wilson. 

4. He rejected the Founders’ system of governance as outmoded

Perhaps in no other area does Woodrow Wilson’s arrogance shine through so perceptibly as in his shameless shrugging off of the Founders’ brilliant and time-tested vision of governance. While the Founders fully expected their constitutional model to be improved upon by subsequent generations, Wilson seemed to believe that the Constitution, as one writer described, “was an obstacle to be overcome.” In his words, “All that progressives ask or desire is permission—in an era when 'development,' 'evolution,' is the scientific word—to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle; all they ask is recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine.” As he saw it, “The Constitution of the United States was not made to fit us like a strait jacket. In its elasticity lies its chief greatness.” Similarly, the Declaration of Independence, he threatened, would be “of no consequence” if progressive elites were not permitted to “translate its general terms into examples of the present day.”

It should come as little surprise that this president, who held such low views of the Founders’ system of checks and balances, which Wilson viewed unfavorably as a constraint on his all-important pursuit of “progress,” also held inflated — indeed, authoritarian — views about his role in the polity. “The President is at liberty,” he once declared, “both in law and in conscience, to be as big a man as he can. His capacity will set the limit.” In essence, Wilson, educated and proud, became his own “check and balance.” 

Historian Jill Lepore summarizes his position on the topic: “In 1908, Wilson published ‘Constitutional Government in the United States,’ in which he argued that the Founders’ theory of checks and balances was outdated…. The Presidency, like any living thing, had been evolving: ‘We have grown more and more inclined from generation to generation to look to the President as the unifying force in our complex system, the leader both of his party and of the nation. To do so is not inconsistent with the actual provisions of the Constitution; it is only inconsistent with a very mechanical theory of its meaning and intention’ Wilson’s own political theory had been evolving, too. In ‘Congressional Government’ [an earlier book], he had argued that Congress wields the preponderance of power. In ‘Constitutional Government,’ he argued that a President’s power is virtually limitless. ‘His office is anything he has the sagacity and force to make it,’ he wrote.”

These sentiments of unbounded executive authority were simply incompatible with the Founders’ views, of course. But no matter. President Wilson — often compared in political cartoons to a tyrant — simply cast such constraints to the side, and proceeded to wreck the country.

For these reasons, plus more, Woodrow Wilson does not deserve to be remembered among our great or even decent presidents; he stands among the worst, a man who remarkably managed to damage America’s then-present, future, and sense of the past. To those who claim otherwise, those who claim that Wilson’s legacy is merely complicated, Dan McLaughlin responded simply, “Nah. Wilson was a human pile of flaming trash. He was a bad man who made the country and the world worse. His name should be an obscenity, his image an effigy.” Amen, and amen.

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