Monday, April 11, 2011

President Wilson: Looking at the South Through Rose-Colored Glasses

The other day Eric Wittenberg at Rantings of a Civil War Historian posted an insightful article from Time discussing slavery as the root cause of the Civil War, and how some Americans have tried to obscure this fact.  The article mentions that President Woodrow Wilson's book, A History of the American People, was "tinged with Lost Cause interpretations."  I decided to dig a little deeper and took my 1900 copy of another Wilson book, Division and Reunion: 1829-1889, off the shelf.  Wilson wrote this book when he was still a professor at Princeton University.  There is a lot there to discuss, but as we prepare to commemorate the start of the Civil War, I thought I'd share a few passages with readers that reveal a lot about how Wilson wanted Americans to remember the origins of the war and the secession of the Southern states.

It is no secret that Wilson, born before the war in Staunton, Virginia, held a romanticized view of the American South and the so-called fight against Yankee aggression.  Wilson spent his childhood in Virginia and Georgia.  His father, the Rev. Joseph Wilson, defended slavery from the pulpit and served as a chaplain in the Confederate Army.  Surely this upbringing played a part in forming Wilson's views.  As President, Wilson was far from enlightened on issues of race.  He oversaw segregation in the federal government and even screened D.W. Griffith's infamous film, The Birth of a Nation, at the White House.

Division and Reunion, Wilson's one-volume contribution to the three-volume Epochs of American History series, concentrates on events from the election of Andrew Jackson to end of Reconstruction and the establishment of a "New Union."  Wilson dedicates an entire part of the book to "The Slavery Question."  In this regard, Wilson did not go as far as some Lost Causers and deny the role slavery played in precipitating Civil War.  However, many of Wilson's views towards slavery go by the playbook.  Describing the "Conditions of Slave Life," Wilson remarked:

Slavery showed at its worst where it was most seen by observers from the North,—upon its edges. In the border States slaves were constantly either escaping or attempting escape, and being pursued and recaptured, and a quite rigorous treatment of them seemed necessary. There was a slave mart even in the District of Columbia itself, where Congress sat and northern members observed. But in the heart of the South conditions were different, were more normal. Domestic slaves were almost uniformly dealt with indulgently and even affectionately by their masters. Among those masters who had the sensibility and breeding of gentlemen, the dignity and responsibility of ownership were apt to produce a noble and gracious type of manhood, and relationships really patriarchal. . . .  "Field hands" on the ordinary plantation came constantly under their master's eye, were comfortably quartered, and were kept from overwork both by their own laziness and by the slack discipline to which they were subjected. They were often commanded in brutal language, but they were not often compelled to obey by brutal treatment. (pp. 125-26)
Discussing the climate of Northern hostility towards the South around the time of Lincoln's election, Wilson wants the reader to feel almost sorry for the slaveholding class:

The agitation against slavery had spoken in every quarter the harshest moral censures of slavery and the slaveholders. The whole course of the South had been described as one of systematic iniquity; southern society had been represented as built upon a wilful sin; the southern people had been held up to the world as those who deliberately despised the most righteous commands of religion. They knew that they did not deserve such reprobation. They knew that their lives were honorable, their relations with their slaves humane, their responsibility for the existence of slavery among them remote. (pp. 208-09)
These types of passages demonstrate the Wilson was all too willing to downplay the evil of slavery, almost forty years after emancipation.  This view inverts the victim and victimizer, and sets up a construct to portray the South as justified in leaving the Union and taking up arms against a North set to destroy the Southern way of life.

President Woodrow Wilson (courtesy of Wikipedia)
Not surprisingly, Wilson finds a way to make secession look legally and morally acceptable.  He argues that the doctrine had longstanding roots going back to the start of the Republic, and that the South had stood firmly on principle in choosing to leave the Union, even if the rest of the country disagreed:
The legal theory upon which this startling and extraordinary series of steps was taken was one which would hardly have been questioned in the early of the government, whatever resistance might then have been offered to its practical execution. It was for long found difficult to deny that a State could withdraw from the federal arrangement, as she might have declined to enter it. But constitutions are not mere legal documents: they are the skeleton frame of a living organism; and in this case the course of events had nationalized the government once deemed confederate. . . . The South had not changed her ideas from the first, because she had not changed her condition. She had not experienced, except in a very slight degree, the economic forces which had created the great Northwest and nationalized the rest of the country; for they had been shut out from her life by slavery. . . .  There had been nothing active on the part of the South in this process. She had stood still while the rest of the country had undergone profound changes; and, standing still, she retained the old principles which had once been universal. Both she and her principles, it turned out, had been caught at last in the great national drift, and were to be overwhelmed. Her slender economic resources were no match for the mighty strength of the nation with which she had fallen out of sympathy. (pp. 211-12)
In some ways, it may seem strange to us that a highly educated professor at one of the nation's top universities -- and a future U.S. President -- espoused such a historical interpretation of slavery and secession. But America at that time had a long way to go before the Lost Cause school of thought fell into general disfavor, and Wilson was not exceptional in his views.

No comments: