Historian Brion McClanahan notes two influences on Wilson: his childhood in the South and his education. During Wilson’s student years, certain universities were permeated by the influence of elitist progressivists whose racial views not only assumed that Africans and African-Americans were inferior, but that Anglo-Saxons were superior to all other genetic groups.
Wilson was the first Southerner to be president of the United States since Andrew Johnson in 1865 and the first Southerner elected president since Zachary Taylor in 1848. His style of governance was uniquely influenced by his Scots-Irish and Southern roots, but more importantly by the evolution of his political philosophy in the year during and after his graduate work at Johns Hopkins.
A complicated version of racism, not only did progressivism see Blacks as inferior, but also thought that the Anglo-Saxons (for practical purposes, the British) were superior even to other whites like immigrants from Poland, Russia, Finnland, Hungary, Italy, etc.
Wilson and his mentors used this racial view to justify a political philosophy of imperialism and interventionism. Wilson’s progressive imperialism meant, to him, that his Anglo-Saxon culture and gene pool allowed him, or even compelled him, to manage other parts of the world because his heritage and genetics gave him superior abilities and he was morally obliged to arrange matters for inferior groups. His interventionism meant that he was obliged to manage matters inside his own nation, because his insight gave him the ability to determine the proper state of things regarding economics, politics, education, etc.
Of course, Wilson didn’t believe that this was true only of himself; he was part of a team of elitist progressives who would manage matters both foreign and domestic. The man who claimed to want “to make the world safe for democracy” had in reality no desire to let a democratic process override his ability to manage both society and government.
One of Wilson’s compadres in the clique of progressive elitism was Herbert Croly, most famous for a book titled The Promise of American Life. Croly argued that the United States should abandon both the concept of individual rights and the concept of limited government.
Croly hoped for a nearly omnipotent government which would have the freedom to manage, adjust, and regulate nearly any conceivable human activity. If the government were to be free to do this, then the individual must surrender such freedom.
Wilson and Croly had a deep faith that the government, if given enough power and allowed to do as it pleased, would optimize life.
Brion McClanahan writes that “Wilson personified and implemented the” racist and elitist “progressivism that had been pushed by Herbert Croly.”
Judge Andrew Napolitano, a constitutional scholar, writes that “when Woodrow Wilson came into office, he brought with him not only the same racial ideas that” the Croly and other progressive elitists
held concerning the hierarchy of races, but also a severe hatred for black Americans. He exacted revenge for the woes of the Civil War and brought Jim Crow to Washington. He feared what would happen to his native South should it be “ruled by an inferior race.” This notion and his fear of black Americans were the inspiration for for many of Wilson’s racial policies designed to keep black Americans subdued in society. Once enacted, this state sponsorship of racism would run well into the 1960s in Washington.
When demands for desegregation and integration arose in the 1950s and 1960s, they were demands to undo that which Woodrow Wilson had done.
Some government offices had been desegregated during Reconstruction. After three or four decades of such integration, Wilson ordered, for example, that the workers in the Post Office be segregated. Wilson single-handedly undid half a century’s worth of civil rights progress.
Woodrow Wilson also made no secret of the fact that he was a fan of the KKK. Not only did he show The Birth of a Nation, a seemingly pro-Klan film, in the White House, but also wrote effusive words about both the clan and the film.
Unsurprisingly, African-Americans voted largely for Calvin Coolidge and Warren Harding when Wilson’s term expired after the election of 1920. Harding and Coolidge worked to undo Wilson’s work in a broad range of civil rights activities.
Coolidge, as an incumbent president in 1924, spoke at the commencement ceremony at Howard University, a historically Black college. This was a bold and even shocking move on Coolidge’s part.
He deliberately mocked the KKK in his 1924 slogan, “Keep Kool with Koolidge.” Wilson had issued supportive statements about the Klan, but Coolidge refused to do so, angering the KKK.
Both Harding and Coolidge had urged Congress to pass anti-lynching laws, and Harding had spoken eloquently about the matter in front of thousands of listeners.
It took years to undo the damage caused by Woodrow Wilson.