Let Us Now Praise Famous Racist Presidents–Thomas Jefferson & Woodrow Wilson

The timing of this blog with Martin Luther King Day is not accidental.

Last month I  attended the launch of a new initiative by Phi Beta Kappa to promote the liberal arts and sciences. Founded in 1776, Phi Beta Kappa is the nation’s oldest  and best known scholastic honor society. The University of Maine has one of only four chapters in the state, the others being at Bates, Bowdoin, and Colby.

The launch was held in Washington, DC, and included awards to two veteran legislators, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democratic Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey. They were honored for their respective legislative efforts to increase government funding–and respect– for the liberal arts and sciences. Senator Alexander is a former President of the University of Tennessee, while Representative Holt is a former physics professor and at Swarthmore College and then a high-level physics lab administrator  at Princeton University (which is part of his House District).

Not surprisingly, they both held up Thomas Jefferson as the model leader committed to both the humanities and science and invention. They both went on to add the familiar praise of Jefferson as the quintessential American advocate of equality and democracy, as per the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and his own writings.

I did not, alas, have an opportunity to ask either Alexander or Holt if either had a clue as to the saintly third President’s ever more revealed contempt for non-whites and his firm belief that non-whites–not least, his own slaves–were inherently inferior to his fellow whites. This goes beyond the revelations in recent years of Jefferson’s sexual relations with one or more of his female slaves. (Historian Paul Finkelman’s New York Times Op Ed of November 30, 2012, “The Monster of Monticello,” offers a convenient and devastating summary I’ve relied on here.) Jefferson refused to free any of his nearly 200 slaves in his will, save for five relatives of his mistress Sally Hemings, who herself was not set free.  True, Jefferson accumulated large debts over many years, but he readily sold eighty-five slaves during a single decade in order to pay for wine, art, and other luxury goods. Moreover, Jefferson was a brutal and heartless slave owner who repeatedly broke up slave families and who promoted the expansion of slavery into newly acquired American territories like those from the Louisiana Purchase. By contrast, George Washington  freed his slaves in his will.

But walk around the University of Virginia,  founded by Jefferson, and it will likely still be hard to find any serious criticism of the great man. That was my experience a few years ago during a scholarly conference. At most, I got rationalizations that many of the other Founding Fathers were also slave holders. Certainly true, but whom among them do we revere more as a champion of equality and democracy than Jefferson?

Fellow Virginian Woodrow Wilson is equally celebrated at Princeton, from which he graduated and whose Presidency he held. As a Princeton graduate student I wrote an article for the alumni magazine on the Wilson Papers Project, one of the foremost such projects of its kind, and came to appreciate some of Wilson’s complexities. The same man who appointed the first Jew to the Supreme Court (Louis Brandeis) later violated the basic civil liberties of hundreds of left-wing American citizens–and their allies living here–in the name of ending the “Red Scare” after World War I.  The same man who was celebrated by, among others, Princeton alum and later New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley as his ideal President when Bradley tried to follow Wilson to the White House in the 1980s and 1990s, screened the famously racist and pro-Klan movie “The Birth of a Nation” in the White House. Presumably Bradley’s sense of himself as akin to Wilson in supposedly being destined by God to become our President didn’t require him to delve into his idol’s less attractive characteristics.

Wilson’s eloquent proclamations of universal self-determination for millions in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia in the aftermath of World War I didn’t quite extend to the controversial decisions that he and the British, French, and Italian leaders finally made. Far from it. The golden opportunity to impose the white man’s “burden” on so many non-whites was readily embraced by Wilson, who refused to meet with leaders of the American Afro-American community both in France and back home. They had wanted him to practice what he’d long preached. Like Jefferson, however, Wilson could not imagine even so accomplished an African American scholar and as W.E.B. DuBois to be his intellectual equal, as being worthy of Wilson’s precious time, and would not meet with him.

Those contemporary best-selling biographers like Jon Meacham on Jefferson and A Scott Berg on Wilson pay lip service to their heroes’ profoundly racist values, behaviors, and policies. It is so much easier to erect pedestals to former Presidents than to acknowledge their contradictions and their outright hypocrisy when it comes to race.

I wonder how many speakers at this year’s Martin Luther King Day ceremonies will invoke Tom and Woodie in urging Americans today to try to live up to the greatness of those saintly former Presidents.