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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  • stefanstackhouse

    God didn’t totally abandon us in our total depravity – he put the sword in the hand of human government for the express purpose of maintaining at least a certain minimal level of justice, thus sparing us from the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short lives that we would all certainly face in a condition of total anarchy.

    Yes, Wilson carried his own burden of total depravity, just like the rest of us. But unlike most of us, he also carried the sword that God had placed in His hand. “With great power comes great responsibility” – for “to whom much has been given, much will be expected.” It is in this that he fell so very, very short. Others in high places have, too, but that is no excuse.

  • Danny

    So Christianity and bigotry are historically aligned after all? Who knew?

  • dr. james willingham

    Wilson might not have had as much of the sword in his hand as many suppose. He did make a remark about the fact that government by people behind the scenes was a reality. He also signed into law the instrument which Thomas Jefferson had said would lead to Americans finding out that they had been dispossessed of their property. I refer to the Federal Reserve System which is just another name for a central bank which Jefferson had in mind. And then there are the advisers. Wilson had one who left two volumes and a novel, the latter a socialism tract. Was he the rep. of the people behind the scenes who pulled the strings?

  • candide

    As a son of the South, as well as a Calvinist, Wilson had ever reason to doubt that blacks would ever amount to anything much. And of course he was correct. Blacks were better off on plantations than in today’s ghettos where they continually murder one another, are drugged up and behave like savages. They had found a good place on the plantations, better than their place in savage Africa and better than in today’s Chicago. I would put them back there.

    Please don’t give me garbage about being a racist. It is never racist to tell the truth. I think Wilson would have agreed.

  • Anne Fenwick

    Maybe having heroes at all is a really, really bad idea and it would be a good idea to name airports, roads, buildings and similar with names like ‘The School of International and Public Affairs’. Long enough to be going on with, isn’t it?

  • Guthrum

    Wilson certainly was not perfect, but he, like many others being scorned today, are no longer around to defend themselves. And those who boast that if they had lived back in a certain age then they would have been different, that they would have changed things: be it slavery, Native American issues, wars, prejudices, and other cultural characteristics that we find abhorrent today. But they need to be careful about judging previous generations. Think about this: what would people of previous ages say if they could visit today’s world ? Would they look at the wars and be aghast at so many wars we had to start numbering them ? Bombs raining down from the sky ? Horrible killing machines and a nuclear destruction beyond belief ? Casualties beyond numbering, whole countries wiped out ? What would they think of the abject poverty and starvation in an age of so much food, and athletes and entertainers making millions ? Unbelievable technology, yet many do not even have drinking water ? That is just for starters.
    We live in an age where people want a cleansing of history. Monuments, streets, buildings, mountains are being renamed or torn down, and of course the flag hassle* Who is next on the list that goes before their judgment throne ? Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lee, Lincoln, Grant, Sheridan, Roosevelt, Patton, MacArthur, Truman ?
    Next will be people wanting the American flag removed. It is already happening !!

  • BoundlessExistence

    You are sick, sick, very sick, terminally sick, progressively sick, when you die you will be sicker then you are now, so sick that the Earth will vomit your poisoned corpse!

  • BoundlessExistence

    The fact that you consider yourself to be “an enlightened person” shows that you are just another delusional megalomaniac who is also a racist. I have one good thing to say about you and people like you and that is you all will die.

  • ugluk2

    Wilson was racist even for his time. I don’t want to rename everything– don’t really care– but your argument doesn’t apply to Wilson.

  • Yeah. He received criticism at the time.

  • Most Christians aren’t Calvinists. And I thought he was just saying Calvinists are skeptical of reform. That they aren’t necessarily bigots, but are uncomfortable or skeptical of efforts to end racism or bigotry as unrealistic given humanity’s flaw.

  • BeaverTales

    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.”

    The unofficial history handed down from my personal family folklore is this: Wilson was protecting the virtues of young Northern white women. As young white men were being conscripted, shipped off to Europe to fight and/or die, the perrenial fear of the sexually unrestrained negro predating on unsuspecting (or fully complicit) white women was a major factor hurting conscription efforts…

    An example was my teenaged light skinned grandfather in 1917 emigrating to Chicago from rural North Carolina–Gramps was black by definition of the “one drop rule”–a rule that became important when many blacks were beginning to leave the South to take up factory and menial jobs in the industrialized North and rural West. This meant that because the negro had money, nominal equality outside the South, and not enough white men to keep him in check, the white race was once again doomed!!!1!!!

    Miscegenation was of course only okay when it was hypocritical Southern white Christian men seeking the illicit comfort of their former female slaves and domestic workers …the reason my grandfather was green-eyed, straight haired and fair skinned to begin with was because of this widespread clandestine phenomenon. He looked too “white” for the comfort of Northerners of “purer” heritage. Making it a religious issue only became a priority when the opposite situation became more likely during WW1 –i.e. white women [especially recent immigrants] seeking comfort and marriage security in a society with a paucity of “pure” white men.

  • There’s a rather clear difference between a)understanding and acknowledging the place of someone, some group, some object, etc in history and b)celebrating and invoking the place of whatever in history. The two really are not the same at all. Wilson’s influences should be discussed in museums, in government halls, and so on through the proper context, same as with Jefferson Davis and Nathaniel Bedford Forrest. And the three can have pictures of them put alongside the horrid Confederate battle flag. However, that doesn’t mean that they should be celebrated and cheerlead in building names, in image placements, and so on.

  • Lauren

    I would like to think that if I knew the history, were smart enough to attend Princeton, and happened to be black, it would on occassion be gratifying to pass the statue of Wilson, giving ‘him’ a little nod and smile, knowing that despite certain people often thwarting the way for ‘Negroes’, and others, that we do continue to make progress.

    Wilson, we are here. We are here.

  • dr. james willingham

    Ignorance is bliss until truth knocks you out of your shoes. I am a Calvinist (though I prefer Sovereign Grace to a party term and name) from Arkansas, a convert from Atheism and a graduate of a Black University where I quickly learned that African Americans can be great scholars, etc., just like Whites can. Having studied at 10 colleges and universities, including an ivy league where I prepared a prospectus for a doctoral dissertation in Black History (as it was called then) and having taught at a Black college, South Carolina State University, I know that cold hard reality, like the fact of John Brown being a Calvinist might shock you friend as well as the fact that many of the participants in the American Revolution were Calvinists, that there were two men in South Carolina who had the equivalents of degrees from Oxford University, that the reason Blacks are in Ghettoes today is because there are no jobs and will be none due to automation, computerization, and robotics, that the same facts apply to most Whites, too, that the conspiracy behind Wilson still functions to this day (Read Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope and Black’s IBM and the Holocaust and Bella Dodd’s School of Darkness, et. al.), that our educational system in our public schools has been dumb downed, following the philosophy of John Dewey, et. al., that – O well, you really have to do research and it seems that you might be wanting in this area. At least, you write like it.