BY MARIO ALEXIS PORTELLA · Last weekend, as our nation celebrated its independence from British tyranny, President Donald Trump speaking at Mt. Rushmore said: “We declare that the United States of America is the most just and exceptional nation ever to exist on Earth.”
Our nation is great indeed, for notwithstanding its misgivings, America, as President Ronald Reagan once said: “America is a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.”
Reagan did not try to cover-up America’s dark moments, such as slavery and segregational laws that prohibited blacks from intermingling with whites in public designated areas. Instead, he focused on what Pope Benedict XVI would later say during his White House discourse in 2008:
“From the dawn of the Republic, America’s quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator…. The course of American history demonstrates the difficulties, the struggles, and the great intellectual and moral resolve which were demanded to shape a society which faithfully embodied these noble principles. In that process, which forged the soul of the nation, religious beliefs were a constant inspiration and driving force, as for example in the struggle against slavery and in the civil rights movement.”
One would think, however, that in what our beloved country has gone through the past few months with the coronavirus outbreak and the race-driven riots—the latter in reality is nothing other than a well-financed anarchist movement to destroy American democracy—Democrat politicians and the mainstream media would focus on healing the wounds of our nation. Instead, aside misquoting Trump, they decried opportunism on the part of the President, further stigmatizing the United States as a racist country.
We are well aware of the controversy of whether the statues and monuments of the Confederate politicians and generals should be removed or not. Under the same umbrella of race policies, these past two weeks, one American president has had his legacy tarnished because of the opportunity various politicians see during this election year: Woodrow Wilson.
Our 28th President, Woodrow Wilson, may not have the numerous monuments as have been dedicated to our Founding Fathers or Confederate personnel, yet Princeton University faculty and students have been demanding that the administration strip his name from facilities and school programs because of his sordid legacy on race. To add insult to injury, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy got rid of a desk in the gubernatorial office that was once owned by Wilson—when governor of New Jersey—that still bears his name on a gold-colored plaque.
Wilson, notwithstanding the fact that segregation existed prior to his taking office, effectively institutionalized it for the same reason as Jefferson and Lincoln. He believed in the colonization of black Americans. Dismal as it may seem, Wilson held that black Americans would be better off segregated because of the lynchings that were taking place by white supremacists.
President Wilson’s name has also been tarnished for screening the pro-Ku Klux Klan film Birth of a Nation in the White House. While many historians claim he approved of the film saying: “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true,” the quote is most likely bogus.
Author A. Scott Berg tells us in his book Wilson that the President most definitely said: “I have always felt that this was a very unfortunate production and I wish most sincerely that its production might be avoided, particularly in communities where there are so many colored people.” Wilson also, at the cost of being publicly condemned by white southerners, became the first sitting president to denounce lynchings against black Americans.
I am not trying to absolve Wilson’s personal racists tendencies, which extended to Italians and eastern Europeans, to say nothing of his ineffectiveness to desegregate the country as the Jim Crow laws took effect. However, if we’re going to judge a man’s legacy on policies that were backward if not horrendous, compared to great accomplishments, then we will never find a single individual on earth who is one hundred percent free of error, excluding our Blessed Mother who was immaculately conceived.
Keep in mind that Wilson distinguished himself by
- leading the country into and out of the World War I, ensuring democracy for the world;
- his landmark progressive social and economic reforms, including
- the 8-hour-day work law;
- the passage of the Federal Reserve Act that gave the newly established system legal authority to issue Federal Reserve Notes (U.S. Dollar);
- the Clayton Antitrust Act that made certain business practices illegal like agreements prohibiting retailers from handling other companies’ products;
- the Smith–Lever Act of 1914 which, among other things, helped farmers to learn new agricultural techniques by the introduction of home instruction;
- the Keating–Owen Child Labor Act of 1916 also known as Wick’s Bill, while short-lived , it addressed child labor by prohibiting the sale in interstate commerce of goods produced by factories that employed children under fourteen, mines that employed children younger than sixteen, and any facility where children under fourteen worked after 7:00 p.m;
- effectively ensuring the passage of the 19th Amendment that guaranteed all women the right to vote was also passed during his administration.
As to whether we should simply focus on someone’s personal failings and taint the overall contribution he has left us, in this case Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson, perhaps we can look to President Reagan once more.
For those of us who are old enough to remember, Reagan in 1985, after visiting and bidding tribute to Holocaust victims, laid a wreath at the Bitburg cemetery in then-West Germany where the German war dead were laid to rest, including 49 SS combat soldiers.
Reagan said there were thousands of such soldiers to whom Nazism “meant no more than a brutal end to a short life. We do not believe in collective guilt. Only God can look into the human heart. All these men have now met their supreme judge and they have been judged by him, as we shall all be judged. We cannot undo the crimes and wars of yesterday, nor call the millions back to life. But we can give meaning to the past by learning its lessons and making a better future. We can let our pain drive us to greater efforts to heal humanity’s suffering.”
So many of us have the tendency to dwell on someone else’s dark past. This does not mean we bury our dark history, uncomfortable at it may be to address it. It means, rather, leave individual judgement up to God—we’re called to judge the sin and not the sinner. Whether the legacy of men like Woodrow Wilson should be absolutely and forever tainted seems to be improper.
Mario Alexis Portella is a priest of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy. He has a doctorate in canon law and civil law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome; he also holds a M. A. in Medieval History from Fordham University, as well as a B.A. in Government & Politics from St. John’s University. He is also author of Islam: Religion of Peace – The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up.