Woodrow Wilson, Race, and the Depravity of Human Nature

Woodrow Wilson, Race, and the Depravity of Human Nature December 3, 2015

Today’s guest post comes from Dr. Barry Hankins, professor of history at Baylor University. His religious biography Woodrow Wilson: Ruling Elder, Spiritual President will be published by Oxford University Press in June.

Students at Princeton have joined students at Mizzou in clamoring to remove their president. The difference is that the president the Princeton students want to get rid of has been dead for nearly a century. But, he’s alive and well on campus in the form of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Wilson College, and several other programs, buildings, photo montages, busts, statues, quotes, and the like. The call for removal of all this is because Wilson was a racist, which he was, but no more than most other white progressives of his day.

But there is a theological point at issue for Wilson.  As a southern Presbyterian he was catechized on the Westminster Confession, which includes the clause: “This corruption of nature, during this life, does remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be, through Christ, pardoned, and mortified; yet both itself, and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin.” This is the concept of total depravity, the “T” of the famous TULIP of Calvinism. Such a concept should keep Christians sober and realistic about the potential for human reform efforts. For Wilson, it did not—except on race.

“Thomas Woodrow Wilson, Harris & Ewing bw photo portrait, 1919” by Harris & Ewing – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3f06247. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

When Wilson ran for president in 1912 he assured African-American leaders that he would pursue racial justice “in the spirit of the Christian religion,” indeed as a “Christian gentleman.” They believed him and campaigned for is election, this despite the fact that at the time most blacks were in the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln. Once in office, Wilson brought into his administration many southerners who began to segregate agencies in the executive branch. Black leaders called Wilson to account. When they did, Wilson gave all manner of reasons why segregation was acceptable, including the implausible and paternalistic claim that it was good for African Americans themselves.

African American leaders across the country lambasted Wilson, often on religious grounds. This was especially so after the president blew up in a dialogue with black editor William Monroe Trotter and threw Trotter out of the Oval Office. Editor Nick Chiles of the Topeka Plaindealer, an African-American newspaper, wrote a lengthy editorial contrasting “The Wilson Way” with “The Christian Way.” Chiles had endorsed Wilson in 1912, predicting he would become “a second Lincoln.” Now, after the Trotter incident, Chiles wondered “why the president who professes to walk in the footsteps of Christ should lose his temper when a delegation of colored men called on him to discuss the wrongs that are being perpetrated against their race.”

Like Chiles, the editor of one of America’s leading black newspaper, the Amsterdam News, spoke of the high hopes African Americans had for Wilson’s promise of “new freedom for all people” and “a spirit of Christian Democracy,” slight adaptations of Wilson’s own words.  “But on the contrary,” the editor continued, “we are given a hissing serpent rather than a fish.” Also bringing scripture to bear was black Tammany Hall politician Rufus Perry. In a private letter, he asked that Wilson intercede for African Americans the way the Apostle Paul took up for the slave Onesimus in the book of Philemon.

To all of this Wilson made a quasi-theological response in 1918. As the race issue receded somewhat in the midst of the America war effort, he spoke to the National Race Congress, saying, “We have to be patient with one another. Human nature doesn’t make giant strides in a single generation.”

This nod to “human nature,” an only slightly veiled reference to the Westminster Confession’s depravity clause, sticks out like a sore thumb in the corpus of Wilson’s published writings, speeches, and private correspondence. On virtually all issues other than race, he was a progressive in spirit as well as politics. In his inaugural address in 1913 he spoke in soaring language that was nevertheless typical: “The feelings with which we face this new age of right and opportunity sweep across our heartstrings like some air out of God’s own presence, where justice and mercy are reconciled and the judge and the brother are one.” Sounding more like the Westminster Confession than Wilson ever did, the New York Times editors responded, saying that at the end of a Wilson presidency, “the nature of man here and elsewhere will be very much what it is today, what it has been in the past.”

Wilson always remembered that we are “through Christ, pardoned,” to use the words of the Confession. But on every issue save race, he seems to have forgotten that “this corruption of nature, during this life, does remain.” By contrast, a group of students at Princeton pushing back against the effort to remove Wilson’s legacy seems to understand the sinful nature of humankind better than he did. In a letter to their president they wrote: “If we cease honoring flawed individuals, there will be no names adorning our buildings, no statues decorating our courtyards, and no biographies capable of inspiring future generations.” If the controversy over Wilson results in a heightened awareness that all our heroes are flawed, it will be a debate worth having.


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