Did Woodrow Wilson state that the film The Birth of Nation was "like writing history with lightning?'

This promotional poster from the 1915 film Birth of a Nation shows the “uniform” of the Ku Klux Klan and the revered status, as knights saving the South, the film gives the group. (IMDB)

By Cynthia Gwynne Yaudes

In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson watched The Birth of a Nation, a film by D. W. Griffith that falsified the reality of the post–Civil War Reconstruction period by presenting blacks as attempting to dominate southern whites and sexually force themselves on white women. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), in violently oppressing blacks, was ultimately portrayed by the production as the savior of the South’s white female nobility. After that private screening of the film at the White House, Wilson reportedly stated, “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”[1]

Wilson’s statement was inaccurate, at best. The events and images that the silent film presented were untrue stereotypes; the events, politics, and culture of the Reconstruction era were the opposite of what occurs in the film’s plot. In reality, whites dominated blacks and assaulted white women during Reconstruction, and, rather than a vigilante justice group, the KKK was little more than a white terrorist organization. Regardless of whether Wilson made the infamous statement, once public opinion and official policy began to reject the film’s version of cultural and political reality, Wilson would belatedly attempt to distance himself from The Birth of a Nation. Even so, the film did illustrate his vision of national reunion following the Civil War.

How did "The Birth of Nation" get made?

Produced for $100,000, The Birth of a Nation was “the seminal blockbuster of the silent-film period and was the most widely seen of all motion pictures until it was eclipsed by another Civil War epic, Gone with the Wind, in 1939.”[2] The essential narrative and principal fictional characters for The Birth of a Nation were originally created by the former North Carolina Baptist minister Thomas Dixon Jr. for his 1905 novel The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan.[3] Dixon wrote The Clansman as a message to northerners to maintain racial segregation during Reconstruction: he reasoned that blacks, when free, would become savage and violent, committing crimes such as murder, rape, and robbery far out of proportion to their percentage of the population.

The novel’s plot surrounds the speaker of the House of Representatives, Austin Stoneman, portrayed as a black-supporting northern legislator who is mad with power and possessed by hate in his attempts to reconstruct the South after the Civil War. Stoneman’s legislative goal is to punish southern whites for their revolution against an oppressive government by turning former slaves against them and using Union occupation troops to install freedmen as the new masters in the postwar South. He urges southern blacks to revolt against southern whites and uses his power to strip southern whites of their property. These actions inspire the reemergence of the KKK, tasked with protecting white southerners from carpetbaggers and their allies, both black and white.

D. W. Griffith’s film version of Dixon’s fiction also explores Stoneman’s Reconstruction beliefs and activities, but does so through a lengthier narration of the Civil War and its aftermath, as seen through the eyes of Stoneman’s northern family in New York and a comparable southern family from South Carolina, the Camerons; both families connected when the eldest Stoneman son and the eldest Cameron son attend boarding school together prior to the war. As the plot progresses, when war breaks out, the Stonemans cast their lot with the Union North, while the Camerons are loyal to the Confederacy of the South, although they retain their mutual respect across the Mason-Dixon line. Both families lose sons in battle, but after the war, another Cameron son, Ben, distressed that his beloved South is now under the rule of blacks and carpetbaggers after the region’s defeat, organizes several like-minded southerners into a secret vigilante group, the KKK, in response to legislator Stoneman’s push to equalize the racial and economic power hierarchy in the South.

What is the plot of "The Birth of a Nation"?

The film lays out that process and its results in stark, albeit silent, detail. In one of the most telling scenes, labeled “An Historical Facsimile of the State House of Representatives of South Carolina as it was in 1870,” the black men who were elected to the state legislature as the result of Stoneman’s and his colleagues’ efforts “conduct their business with the decorum of a pack of wolves. One takes a swig from a bottle with a gesture as obvious as a stage whisper. Another makes a motion that all white people should salute black officers in the street. The men raise their fists in heated support. Representatives cheer, dance, and eat fried chicken as they pass a bill permitting the intermarriage of blacks and whites.”[4]

Ultimately, newly freed individuals are shown as unable to control their assumed innate violence or lustfulness, characterized in the film by the renegade slave Gus. Rather than surrender to Gus’s overwrought advances as he chases her through fields and forests, Ben’s beloved younger sister Flora, who had been on a countryside walk picking flowers, leaps to her death from a cliff.

The film concludes with the birth and triumph of the KKK, inspired by Ben’s grief over Flora’s death and his disgust with black supremacists intimidating whites on the streets of South Carolina and in the state legislature during Dixon’s (and Griffith’s) vision of Reconstruction. In this plot, all blacks who are not “faithful souls” join with carpetbaggers from the North to loot, pillage, and degrade the traditions of southern culture.[5] Ben feels these threats, searches his soul and finds inspiration for a response to state and national activities more locally: white children hiding under white sheets, pretending to be ghosts, to frighten black children. In the film, the “uniform” of the Ku Klux Klan was born from this, with thousands of southern women shown secretly weaving St. Andrew’s crosses and attaching them to white hooded robes.

This group, known in the film as the Night Riders, begins waging war on such out-of-control behavior as displayed by the freed slave Gus and, more broadly, on the northern-inspired Reconstruction government, ultimately restoring “order” to the South. By the end of the film, white supremacists are able to strip power from blacks through intimidation tactics, and, in a religious coda meant to symbolize the second coming of “the prince of peace,” Jesus and his angels stand approvingly over the scene.[6]

The Birth of a Nation is as much the story of the Cameron and Stoneman families as it is about the Civil War, Reconstruction, or the KKK. However, the second subtitle in the silent film, and the first to deal specifically with the plot, provides a clear understanding of where Dixon (and obviously also Griffith) placed the blame not only for slavery but also for the Civil War: “The bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion.”[7] The core of the novel and its cinematic portrayal are driven by that level of division and inequality. Dixon, and, by extension, Griffith, revel in that coarsest of racial imagery.

Why was "The Birth of the Nation" shown in the White House?

President Woodrow Wilson

On February 18, 1915, projectionists dressed in evening attire showed The Birth of a Nation on the white wooden panels of the East Room of the White House. Dixon had been a Johns Hopkins University classmate of Wilson, and that connection allowed Dixon to screen the film for the president, his daughters, and a few cabinet members.

Federal government censorship boards and local political leaders had the power to ban any film deemed “injurious to the public.” Realizing the controversy his film would create, Dixon saw a way around a possible ban through the White House. He believed that telling would-be censors that the president had viewed his creation would prevent any national restriction on its release. Following the White House screening, Dixon was able to arrange a second presentation one day later for members of the Supreme Court after Chief Justice Edward D. White had confirmed to him that he had been a member of the KKK and Dixon, in turn, had assured White that the film told the true story of the group.[8]

Wilson’s controversial remark was supposedly uttered at the end of his private showing. While no contemporary evidence for the remark exists—we cannot ever be sure Wilson made the statement—we can make an assessment of the possibility of the statement. Is it possible that Wilson may have said that the film’s racist plot was “so terribly true”? It is possible since the film’s view of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras are not that different from Wilson’s. And since he had extended segregation to all departments of the federal government, the rampant racism of the film may not have bothered him.

Indeed, many of the subtitles for the silent film were quotations or close paraphrases of Wilson’s writings in Reunion and Nationalization (1902), as Dixon had used the work as a source for his novel.[9] Wilson had written that the purpose of Reconstruction was “to put the white South under the heel of the black South” . . . . “The white men were roused by an instinct of mere self-preservation until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South to protect the Southern country.”[10]

Did Woodrow Wilson share author Thomas Dixon Jr.'s worldview?

Thomas Dixon Jr.

Dixon was a Baptist minister from North Carolina, serving churches in the North while also working as a lawyer and an author. More specifically, he was “a professional racist who made his living writing books and plays attacking the presence of African Americans in the United States. A firm believer not only in white supremacy but also in the ‘degeneration’ of blacks after slavery ended, he thought the ideal solution to America’s racial problems was to deport all blacks to Africa. In the short term, his goal was to proselytize a southern view of Reconstruction to the rest of the country. In his mind, white southerners were the victims, not the villains, in American history, and ought to be portrayed as such.”[11]

Wilson and Dixon are far closer in racial philosophy than many presidential biographers are willing to admit. Like Dixon, Wilson could not overcome his southern heritage and the ideas that accompanied it. Born in antebellum Virginia, he grew up in Georgia and South Carolina with a Presbyterian minister father who defended slavery from the pulpits of his churches. He believed that blacks held an inferior position in society, and, as president of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910, did not welcome African American students, actively dissuading them from applying for admission. His History of the American People series displayed his blatant prejudice—very close to that of Dixon—against immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.[12]

What was the result of "The Birth of a Nation"?

The Birth of a Nation inspired violence against blacks. W. E. B. DuBois noted that more lynchings occurred in 1915 than had occurred in the previous decade. Black audiences responded to the film with protest, outcry, political pressure, and even violence, and even white audiences recoiled in horror at its racist plot.

Reaction to the film, boycotts, and state and local bans of it made Wilson step back from his initial enthusiasm for The Birth of a Nation, but there should be no doubt that he did admire the film and that the views the film expressed reflected his as much as Dixon’s (and even Griffith’s). Historians disagree on the extent of Wilson’s endorsement of Birth of a Nation, and whether he uttered “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true” may never be decided. Nevertheless, as president, Wilson demonstrated racist views and supported segregationist policies. Although calling Wilson a fan of the film is presumptive, the production did a tweak and reflect his dismal record on race.[13]

References

  1. The Birth of a Nation, dir. D. W. Griffith (David W. Griffith Corp., 1915).
  2. Erin Blakemore, “‘Birth of a Nation’: 100 Years Later,” J-Stor Daily, Feb. 4, 2015.
  3. Thomas Dixon Jr., The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (New York: A. Wessels, 1905).
  4. Richard Corliss, “D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation 100 Years Later: Still Great, Still Shameful,” Time, March 3, 2015.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Melvyn Stokes, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation: A History of the Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time (Oxford, Eng.: Oxford University Press, 2008).
  7. Ibid.
  8. Corliss, “D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation 100 Years Later.”
  9. Woodrow Wilson, History of the American People, vol. 5: Reunion and Nationalization (New York: Harper Brothers, 1902); Stokes, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, table 7.1, p. 199.
  10. Mark E. Benbow, “Birth of a Quotation: Woodrow Wilson and ‘Like Writing History with Lightning,’” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, 9 (Oct. 2010), 509–33, esp. 510.
  11. Raymond A. Cook, “The Man behind The Birth of a Nation,” North Carolina Historical Review, 39 (Oct. 1962), 519–40; Corliss, “D. W. Griffiths The Birth of a Nation 100 Years Later.”
  12. Benbow, “Birth of a Quotation,” 511.
  13. Joe R. Feagin, Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, Future Reparations (New York: Routledge, 2000), 86.