The Atlantic chose the second day of Black History Month to publish this piece by David Frum to advocate for the “uncanceling” of Woodrow Wilson. In this post I will reiterate and expand on remarks I’ve made on social media, as well as those of others in opposition to Frum’s insidious project.
I read [Frum’s] piece and its primary utility is making clear how fully he stocked his administration with anti-black bigots. Expanding the imperial footprint of the U.S. in Haiti while supposedly putting the Philippines on a path to independence is especially telling.https://bsky.app/profile/genxjamerican.com/post/3kkji2lhnfc2y
Particularly given the volume with which Frum sounded the alarm regarding the dangers of Trump and Trumpism to the republic before he was elected, it is especially curious to me that he would choose this moment to advocate for the uncanceling of one of the most dedicated bigots to ever occupy the White House. This 2015 piece from Government Executive Magazine (which is worth reading in full) makes clear that in a post-Civil War United States where the racism dial went to 10, Wilson’s went to 11. Wilson resegregated a federal bureaucracy that however imperfectly, had begun to integrate–even though the city surrounding it was still very segregated. In 1901–in the very same magazine where Frum makes the case to uncancel him–Woodrow Wilson argued against suffrage for black men, prior to his tenure as president of Princeton University. Frum’s recounting of Wilson’s anti-black, while rather detailed, still fails to capture its full breadth and depth. Wilson as Princeton University president blocked black students from attending the school.
Having already elected Trump once, in spite of (or in too many cases because of) explicitly racist and xenophobic appeals, the United States could very well elect him again despite numerous criminal indictments, a finding of fact that he sexually abused E. Jean Carroll, and even more explicitly white nationalist appeals than those in his 2016 run. This is the context in which Frum chooses to ask this question:
But if one man is judged the preeminent villain of his era for bigotries that were common among people of his place, time, and rank, that singular fixation demands explanation. Why Wilson rather than Taft or Coolidge?David Frum, Uncancel Wilson, The Atlantic, February 2, 2024
My initial answer was this:
Not only should Wilson stay cancelled, every president who presided over Jim Crow in the South and the conditions that triggered the Great Migration should be judged more harshly.https://bsky.app/profile/genxjamerican.com/post/3kkjib42wrc2r
As president, Wilson did advocate for lower tariffs, the Federal Reserve, the Federal Trade Commission, and the League of Nations. Wilson did nominate Jewish people to serve on the state supreme court as governor of New Jersey, and the Supreme Court as president. But that does not trump all the ways in which he used the increasing power he was given over the course of his life to make life worse for the black citizens of this country in every way possible. Frum touches lightly on the ways in which Wilson’s scholarship (he was trained as an historian) reflected his personal bigotry. Wilson wrote a five-volume history textbook that adhered to the Lost Cause propaganda regarding the Civil War. Here is Wilson writing in one of those volumes, A History of the American People: Reunion and Nationalization:
The white men of the South were aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation to rid themselves, by fair means or foul, of the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes and conducted in the interest of adventurers: … There was no place of open action or of constitutional agitation, under the terms of reconstruction, for the men who were the real leaders of the southern communities. Its restrictions shut white men of the older order out from the suffrage even. They could act only by private combination, by private means, as a force outside the government, hostile to it, proscribed by it, of whom opposition and bitter resistance was expected, and expected with defiance.A History of the American People: Reunion and Nationalization, Woodrow Wilson, pp 58-59
In this brief passage, we see Wilson’s views of black citizens in their full ugliness. We see his wholehearted adoption of the pro-Confederate views of his parents, particularly his father (who served as a Confederate chaplain and preached sermons in defense of slavery). Wilson fairly explicitly argues in subsequent pages that forming the Ku Klux Klan and engaging in violent anti-black terrorism was the only resort for the white insurrectionists of the American South. It is therefore no surprise that D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation quoted Wilson’s book in its title cards. To the extent that Woodrow Wilson is judged the preeminent bigot of his day, perhaps it is because he promoted the Lost Cause in his scholarship, in his presidency of Princeton, from the White House, and in popular culture through screening and popularizing a gleefully racist film. As numerous Republican governors send National Guard contingents in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling acknowledging the primacy of the federal government in policy at the international borders of the United States, and a supposed contestant for the GOP presidential nomination advocates openly for the right of Texas to secede from the country, it is hard not to look at these words from over a century ago and not see ideological support for contemporary lawlessness.
Wilson’s early and ardently anti-black scholarship stands as a rebuke to Frum’s feeble excuse of Wilson’s 1919 stroke as the reason that black citizens were undefended by federal power during the so-called Red Summer of that same year. Per Frum’s own piece, he threw disillusioned black supporters out of his office in 1914 and never received them again. He made W.E.B. DuBois regret ever supporting him in a way paralleled decades later by Jackie Robinson’s disillusionment with Richard Nixon for the same courting of white grievance Wilson engaged in generations earlier. Frum attempts to treat the imperialist and xenophobic stances of Henry Cabot Lodge (who attempted to justify and excuse the lynching of 11 Italian immigrants in New Orleans in 1891) as somehow equivalent with Wilson’s anti-black bigotry. But if we’re comparing flaws, it needs to be said that nearly 3000 black citizens died at the hands of white lynch mobs during Wilson’s presidency alone. Wilson was no less an imperialist than Lodge, for while he granted greater autonomy to the Philippines (which Lodge wanted to annex), he also ordered the invasion and occupation of Haiti. Wilson’s anti-blackness was such that it did not even stop at the borders of the United States. Whatever his other shortcomings, Lodge at least saw fit to author and sponsor a House bill to protect Black voting rights in the South (a legislative effort which would not be repeated for another 70+ years). If there is anything Frum’s piece makes clear, it is that anti-blackness has never been the sole province of either the progressive or conservative movements in this country.
An actual historian would better articulate the negative consequences of Wilson’s lifelong failure to acknowledge the humanity of the black citizens of this nation. They would provide a better tribute to the Harlem Hellfighters, maligned by their white countrymen and commander-in-chief at home, disrespected by most of their military commanders abroad, more honored by the French under whom they actually fought, and feared by the Germans (who trolled them with leaflets dropped from planes for their service to a country in which they could only be second-class citizens at best). The open and unapologetic racism we see both in the political class and in the country at large is in too many ways a throwback to America of Wilson’s day. For Frum to choose this moment to advocate for Wilson to be “uncancelled” is to repudiate everything he has ever written and said about the dangers Trump posed–and still poses to the survival of multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy in this country. It should be seen as a deliberate insult to every black citizen in the present day. I wish David Frum the worst in his efforts to rehabilitate Wilson and his racism. I hope this small piece of writing encourages further scrutiny of Wilson and his contemporaries and brings them greater scorn and contempt.