We have had 90 years since the death of Woodrow Wilson to consider his legacy. He has many admirers, some even seeing him as an icon among Presidents. Our 28th President is primarily remembered for two things: keeping the U. S. out of World War I until the end, and spearheading the failed attempt to create a League of Nations. Wilson’s vision later contributed to the creation of the United Nations. Most Americans have felt that Wilson was a man who wanted peace and social justice for everyone.
He has been portrayed by some historians as a complex personality; he was deeply religious, ideological, and an impetuous know-it-all who was determined to force his will on others. A scholar and former professor, in addition to his passion for peace, his beliefs embraced a range of subjects that focused on economic and social reform. On the surface, Woodrow Wilson showed a great compassion for his fellow man and woman. He, however, also had a keen interest in the emerging science of eugenics. His interest in science is well known, but his enthusiasm for eugenics seemed to run parallel with his personal support of racism.
In a 1913 Presidential address Woodrow Wilson stated: “the whole nation has awakened to and recognizes the extraordinary importance of the science of human heredity.” He was passionate about how science could be used to help improve mankind. His interest, however, may have been motivated only to preserve the heredity of one race.
Wilson, like many other white men of the time, held the belief that African-Americans were inferior to whites. Not a rabid white supremacist, he was, however, so confident in the superiority of whites, that it seems he never questioned the morality of his giving speeches about social justice for others, while ignoring the plight of a struggling class of people in his own country. Wilson, the elected President for all Americans, had no problem showing the racist film The Birth of a Nation in the White House.
Prior to his Presidency, jobs within the Federal Civil Service had been based on merit. In the 1912 and 1916 Presidential elections, the majority of voting African Americans cast their ballot for Wilson. They mistakenly believed that Woodrow Wilson would support them in their struggle for equality. Instead, Wilson pushed for policies that expanded segregation; and new Civil Service applicants needed to apply with photographs. African Americans knew they would not be hired, and many who were already employed, were dismissed from their jobs. Wilson’s policies set African Americans, especially those in the middle class, back in their journey for equal rights.
Early 20th century America was a highly racist culture, and because of that, some past historians have let Wilson off the hook. Woodrow Wilson, however, used his political power to enact laws that turned his beliefs about race and eugenics into legislation. In 1907, Woodrow Wilson campaigned in Indiana for the compulsory sterilization of criminals and the mentally retarded; and in 1911, as New Jersey governor, he signed into law a similar bill.
Charles Darwin’s 1883 work on evolution and eugenics encouraged societies to promote marriage between only the fittest of individuals; in other words, no race mixing. According to a leading eugenicist of that time, Caucasians were considered the very best race, and other races were secondary. The theory of eugenics is based on the bizarre notion that mankind’s good gene pool (white race) was shrinking. Bad genes were multiplying faster than good ones, according to its science. According to its supporters, the shrinking pool of good genes was not totally due to race mixing; it was also a result of mixing good genes with those of inferior heredity – misfits, mentally handicapped, criminals, and others. In reality, there was no science, and eugenics was really a twisted social program with the intent of ridding the universe of what its supporters felt were inferior people. The eugenics movement influenced many of the brightest minds in the world, in addition to Wilson, Alexander Graham Bell, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Oliver Wendell Holmes, Theodore Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler.
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