Not very many people have had the courage to object to the trend among Democratic Party activists to erase the names of former heroes like Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson from official events on account of their views (and practices) regarding race. Rejection of our ancestors because of their failure to achieve perfection is, of course, a sign of cultural arrogance likely to be exposed before long, and also shows a distinct lack of both charity and appreciation for those who, whatever their flaws, did great service to our nation and culture. That said, being no fan of either imperial Presidents or the Democratic Party, I see little need to speak up where others, who actually belong to what sadly has become the party of the pure left, feel constrained from speaking.
There is another prominent Democrat who recently has come in for some “revising” in terms of his historical role. Woodrow Wilson for many years was the patron saint of “Progressive” (read, “social democratic”) Americans on account of his success in taking the first steps toward establishing a centralized administrative state, as well as his mentoring of our only President-for-life, Franklin Roosevelt, and his injection of chiliastic fantasy into foreign policy. There has been a minority voice on the left that noted his disdain for black Americans, of course, but only very recently have we seen any movement toward rethinking Wilson’s legacy. As recently as 2014, A. Scott Berg published a fawning biography of Wilson that attempted to blame a couple of “Southerners” in Saint Woodrow’s cabinet for the radical step of segregating the federal service.
I choose the term “radical” with care, here, because it makes clear an important distinction between Wilson and earlier figures like Jefferson and Jackson. The earlier Presidents had been men of their times, engaging in practices (principally slave-ownership) we now recognize as morally objectionable. But neither of them, certainly not the rhetorically anti-slavery Jefferson, but also not Jackson, who stated that slavery was on a natural road to extinction, innovated in significant fashion in favor of slavery. Whatever one makes of the practical results of various political compromises made during this era between states in which slavery was and was not legal, their purpose was not, on either side, innovation, but rather maintenance of the union in a manner politically advantageous for one or the other interested parties. Such may not be the stuff of grand morality plays. It may be morally ambiguous, or worse. But it was a matter of practical politics taking place across an economic and cultural divide of growing extent with the goal of preventing catastrophe.
Such was not the case with Wilson and the civil service. Wilson took power at a time when racial issues had a low place on the national agenda. Black Americans continued to struggle for advancement, but in a climate that lent their concerns scant urgency in the minds of the broader public. Debates among black Americans over how best to seek betterment within American society went largely unheeded among white Americans. Still, there was at least one realm in which race relations had developed in a positive manner, namely the federal civil service.
By the time Wilson took office, the federal civil service had been racially integrated for decades, with a merit system for hiring and promotion inaugurated under Chester Arthur. Wilson did not seek “Progress” in this area. Nor did he take the “stand pat,” superficially conservative attitude of leaving well enough alone. Instead, Wilson chose to innovate in favor of overt, de jure racial discrimination by de-integrating a powerful institution with great influence.
The federal civil service was significant in terms of the numbers and status of those affected by it. Though much smaller than today, this institution provided upward mobility and the kind of day-to-day interaction from which racial mixing might breed toleration and, eventually, respect. Certainly it had afforded a number of black Americans the opportunity to secure employment and promotions to positions of responsibility and even some visibility. Wilson actively and intentionally put a stop to and indeed reversed this ongoing practice.
Mr. Berg, like most of Wilson’s hagiographers, seeks to dismiss his subject’s racial program by blaming it on others in his cabinet. Even those who admit the obvious, that Wilson, as President, was in charge of such policies, distance their hero from his actions by chalking them up to his southern heritage. Such a strategic move is unwarranted. The “southern” Wilson had spent the bulk of his adult life in New Jersey (to be sure, the culturally southern Princeton area), had travelled to England, considered himself on the leading edge of human morality, and had long since declared that sectionalism was buried with the dead in the Civil War. His principles were self-consciously cosmopolitan, yet Wilson chose to change the long-established practice of federal employment in order to disadvantage black Americans.
How could such a forward-thinking, noble-minded, justice-pursuing President as Woodrow Wilson take the radical step of segregating the public service? Properly considered, the question answers itself. Wilson was convinced that his wisdom, intelligence, learning, and conscience all were superior to that of those around him—some more than others, of course. In answering those who complained of his segregation policy, he made noises about society not being “ready” for greater equality, yet his oft-noted personal views regarding the basic inferiority of black Americans show he was dubious as to whether they could “earn” the right to compete for positions of responsibility. Like most paternalistic politicians of the Progressive left, Wilson thought he knew better than those he governed how they ought to be governed. This meant that the decades-long policies (which had been in place during Democratic as well as Republic administrations) for him had no call on his deference.
As with so many things, Wilson imposed his will on the nation in regard to its civil service policies. His will in this area was governed by racial prejudice rather than his more commonly active prejudice in favor of enforcing equality (through, for example, confiscatory taxation), or his will that the world be made “safe for democracy” through massively punitive and meddling treaty provisions ending World War I. But all of Wilson’s prejudices were manifested in high-handed actions and policies undermining the natural flow of social life. And, while prejudices, by which I mean merely unthinking beliefs, may be good or bad, they are not in and of themselves policies. It is the act, not the unthinking belief that turns a prejudice into a policy. It is the high-handed, radical act, cut loose from the moorings of customary practice and standards of decency as well as charity, that harms individual persons and does significant damage to entire societies and traditions.
The injustices of segregation were an important cause of much that ails the United States today. This is true, not only in the sense that it fomented racial tensions, but also in that it, and the extra-legal means (lynching and the intentional perversion of policies like literacy tests for voting) sapped respect for law. Law and civil relations then were further undermined by the sometimes cynical misuse and misrepresentation of law by actors on both sides of the struggle to undo segregation, not to mention the impetus this struggle gave to more revolutionary ideas and more total cynicism regarding the rule of law. The mistakes made by various officials and other public actors, whether form the South or not, were greatly exacerbated by the radical move Wilson made with, in essence, the stroke of his imperial pen. Would that he had heeded the most basic principle of any form of service, to first do no harm. Would that Americans would come to recognize that the power to change so radically, in contempt of due process and the proper forms of law within a constitutional order prioritizing consensus over speed, can produce—indeed is likely to produce—chaos and oppression rather than beneficent “progress.”
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