In His Day: Awareness of Wilson’s Duplicity
by Desmond Jagmohan, Yale University
Disagreement over Woodrow Wilson’s legacy is nothing new. On March 28, 1939, Paul A. Hill asked W. E. B. Du Bois to contribute a chapter to his retrospective on Wilson’s career: “It is generally admitted that he was one of the greatest statesmen and world figures of his age. His historical stature will undoubtedly grow as the decades pass by, and his influence will be felt for many years to come” (Hill 1939). Du Bois said he was “glad to write an estimate of … Wilson but it might not agree entirely with” Hill’s “picture” (Du Bois 1939a). Viewing Wilson from the moral perspective of his African American contemporaries, we see a cunning political scientist plying his craft in the service of personal power and racial domination.
It is easy to forget that Wilson was a groundbreaking political scientist. He founded the subfield of public administration and he revolutionized the study of American institutions. But his immense success as a politician suggests that he knew an awful lot about campaigns and elections. The unusual four-way contest of the 1912 presidential election provided Wilson with a unique opportunity to manipulate African Americans into supporting the Democrats. On October 16 of that year, Wilson wrote a promissory note to African Americans, which he delivered via Bishop Alexander Walters, an influential Civil Rights leader and a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League: “I want to assure them [African Americans] through you that should I become President of the United States, they may count upon me for absolute fair dealing and for everything by which I could assist in advancing the interests of their race in the United States” (Walters 1912). Wilson added that it was “his earnest wish to see justice done them in every matter, and not mere grudging justice, but justice executed with liberality and cordial good feeling. … Every guarantee of our law, every principle of our constitution, commands this,” Wilson insisted (ibid.). Walters took Wilson at his word. He, and other African American elites, promoted Wilson’s candidacy through the NAACP and other Civil Rights organizations and the
ir extensive social networks.
Perspectives on Politics / Volume 14 / Issue 3 / September 2016, pp. 762-763