Jim Lindgren: Was Woodrow Wilson a plagiarist?





Tonight I was reading Frederick Jackson Turner’s"The Significance of the Frontier in American History." The first footnote just jumped off the page:

A paper read at the meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago, July 12, 1893. It first appeared in the Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, December 14, 1893, with the following note:"The foundation of this paper is my article entitled 'Problems in American History,' which appeared in The Ægis, a publication of the students of the University of Wisconsin, November 4, 1892... It is gratifying to find that Professor Woodrow Wilson--whose volume on 'Division and Reunion' in the Epochs of American History Series, has an appreciative estimate of the importance of the West as a factor in American history--accepts some of the views set forth in the papers above mentioned, and enhances their value by his lucid and suggestive treatment of them in his article in The Forum December, 1893, reviewing Goldwin Smith's 'History of the United States.'" The present text is that of the Report of the American Historical Association for 1893, 199-227.

This is the sort of language one uses to make it clear that one’s ideas might be falsely attributed to another author, who did not properly attribute the source of borrowed ideas. BTW, Turner had been Wilson's student at Johns Hopkins.

My suspicions received some support in a passing sentence in a 1933 scholarly article. Reviewing Turner’s frontier thesis in the 1933 Pacific Historical Review, Frederic L. Paxson likens Turner to Columbus and calls him a prophet. In a footnote, Paxson quotes Wilson’s 1893 article, noting that Wilson does not mention Turner in his 1893 piece, which in part set out Turner’s thesis:

"When the great westward migration began everything was modified. . . Beyond the mountains . . . a new nation sprang up. . . . Our continental life is a radically different thing from our life in the old settlements. . . . The formative period of American history . . . did not end in colonial times or on the Atlantic coast . . . nor will it end until we cease to have frontier communities and a young political life just accommodating itself to fixed institutions. . . . Almost all the critical issues of our politics have been made up beyond the mountains." Woodrow Wilson,"Mr. Goldwin Smith's 'Views' on our Political History," in Forum, xvI, 495 (December, 1893); but though aware of the new revelation, Wilson failed to name the prophet [i.e., Turner].

So, not only was Woodrow Wilson the most racist of the post-Reconstruction presidents (a man who systematically re-segregated Washington and demoted African American government employees), but he might have been a plagiarist as well.

UPDATE: For background on Wilson's"Dixiecrat" views, see this analysis of the work of Lawrence J. Friedman:

It was Inauguration Day, and in the judgment of one later historian,"the atmosphere in the nation's capital bore ominous signs for Negroes." Washington rang with happy Rebel Yells, while bands all over town played 'Dixie.' Indeed, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who swore in the newly elected Southern president, was himself a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. Meanwhile,"an unidentified associate of the new Chief Executive warned that since the South ran the nation, Negroes should expect to be treated as a servile race." Somebody had even sent the new president a possum, an act supposedly" consonant with Southern tradition."

This is not an alternate world scenario imagining the results of a Strom Thurmond victory in the 1948 election; it is the real March 4, 1913, the day Woodrow Wilson of Virginia moved into the White House. . . .

An openly racist Southern presidency had existed fewer than 30 years earlier [than Strom Thurmond's 1948 candidacy]: Wilson's. His White House had not only approved of the South's discriminatory practices (many of which were also widespread in the North), it implemented them in the federal government. Had Dixiecrat dreams come true, a Thurmond administration would have revived Woodrow Wilson's racial policies. . . .

Wilson's racist views were hardly a secret. His own published work was peppered with Lost Cause visions of a happy antebellum South. As president of Princeton, he had turned away black applicants, regarding their desire for education to be"unwarranted." He was elected president because the 1912 campaign featured a third party, Theodore Roosevelt's Bullmoose Party, which drew Republican votes from incumbent William Howard Taft. Wilson won a majority of votes in only one state (Arizona) outside the South. . . .

Upon taking power in Washington, Wilson and the many other Southerners he brought into his cabinet were disturbed at the way the federal government went about its own business. One legacy of post-Civil War Republican ascendancy was that Washington's large black populace had access to federal jobs, and worked with whites in largely integrated circumstances. Wilson's cabinet put an end to that, bringing Jim Crow to Washington.

Wilson allowed various officials to segregate the toilets, cafeterias, and work areas of their departments. One justification involved health: White government workers had to be protected from contagious diseases, especially venereal diseases, that racists imagined were being spread by blacks. In extreme cases, federal officials built separate structures to house black workers. Most black diplomats were replaced by whites; numerous black federal officials in the South were removed from their posts; the local Washington police force and fire department stopped hiring blacks. Wilson's own view, as he expressed it to intimates, was that federal segregation was an act of kindness. In historian Friedman's paraphrase,"Off by themselves with only a white supervisor, blacks would not be forced out of their jobs by energetic white employees."

According to Friedman, President Wilson said as much to those appalled blacks who protested his actions. He told one protesting black delegation that"segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen." When the startled journalist William Monroe Trotter objected, Wilson essentially threw him out of the White House."Your manner offends me," Wilson told him. Blacks all over the country complained about Wilson, but the president was unmoved."If the colored people made a mistake in voting for me," he told The New York Times in 1914,"they ought to correct it."



comments powered by Disqus