The Straight Dope

Go Back   Straight Dope Message Board > Main > General Questions

Reply
 
Thread Tools Display Modes
  #1  
Old 01-09-2005, 04:07 PM
Askia Askia is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Nov 2000
Location: Atlanta
Posts: 7,155
Did Woodrow Wilson praise D.W. Griffith's "Birth of A Nation?"

I considered posting this over in Cafe Society but my query is not really about the film per se, but whether the "history with lightning... all so terribly true" quote can be accurately attributed to Wilson.

Follow-up questions: how exactly, and on what date, did Wilson come to see the movie?

Thanks.
Reply With Quote
Advertisements  
  #2  
Old 01-09-2005, 04:14 PM
Reeder Reeder is offline
Member
 
Join Date: Dec 2000
Location: Lexington NC
Posts: 7,153
Quote:
President Woodrow Wilson, during a private screening at the White House, is reported to have exclaimed: "It's like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all terribly true."
http://www.massmoca.org/press_releas.../01_28_03.html

While this quote is not really verified..It's hardly praise. Wilson however, was known to be a racist.

Quote:
Griffith screened the film for President Woodrow Wilson on February 18, 1915. It was the first film ever to be screened in the White House. Wilson then screened the film nightly for congressional delegations in order to secure their support for federally-mandated segregation. He proclaimed the film to be not only historically accurate, but like "history writ with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." (Wilson's father was the first pastor of Augusta's Confederate Presbyterian Church in 1861.)
http://www.littlegeneva.com/birth.html
Reply With Quote
  #3  
Old 01-09-2005, 04:30 PM
bonzer bonzer is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Jun 2001
Quote:
Originally Posted by Askia
I considered posting this over in Cafe Society but my query is not really about the film per se, but whether the "history with lightning... all so terribly true" quote can be accurately attributed to Wilson.
Unsurprisingly, Richard Schickel discusses Wilson's role in the contemporary controversy about the film in his biography of Griffith (1984; Pavilion, 1984, p268-70). It's quite complicated, with Wilson being invited to see the film by Thomas Dixon, the author of the original book, specifically in an attempt to get his endorsement. Schickel's footnote (no.5 on p619) about the quote is worth quoting in full:


Quote:
Cripps, Slow Fade to Black, p. 52. This quotation, perhaps the most famous words ever spoken about a film, is accepted by this distiguished scholar, as by many of his predecessors. I accept it, too. Yet no one has been able to fully authenticate it. In print, so far as I can determine, its provenance is based entirely on secondary sources.
In the main text, he says that "there were later attempts to disown it", but doesn't elaborate.


Quote:
Follow-up questions: how exactly, and on what date, did Wilson come to see the movie?
Dixon - rather than Griffith - took a projector and a screen to the White House for the screening on 18 February 1915.
Reply With Quote
  #4  
Old 01-09-2005, 04:43 PM
tomndebb tomndebb is offline
Mod Rocker
Moderator
 
Join Date: Mar 1999
Location: N E Ohio
Posts: 35,935
The problem with the quote is that it first appears around 1930, attributed to President Wilson's secretary--who had died a year or two earlier. A review of that secretary's diary by a Wilson biographer did not find the quote there, but, instead, found a notation that Wilson got up from the viewing and went to bed without commenting, at all.

I do not present this as authoritative. I read it in a Wilson bigraphy I was browsing at a library while waiting for my kids, one day. I only offer it as a point of departure for others to pursue.
Reply With Quote
  #5  
Old 01-09-2005, 05:45 PM
Tammi Terrell Tammi Terrell is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Sep 1999
Location: Chapel Hill, NC
Posts: 147
For what it's worth, here's what Russell Merritt has to say in "Dixon, Griffith, and the Southern Legend" (Cinema Journal 12: 26-45, 1972),

Quote:
Griffith's collatorator, Thomas Dixon, secured [for the film] the imprimatur of President Wilson himself, who in his earlier years had written voluminously on American History. After he saw it, Wilson is supposed to have said: "It is like writing history in lightning. My only regret is that it all so terribly true." [pp. 28-29]
Most interesting is a footnote, which also appears on pp. 28-29,

Quote:
This famous remark was first quoted in the New York Post, March 4, 1915. After the stormy New York and Boston runs had begun, the White House retracted its endorsement of the film in a letter from the President's press secretary to Representative Thomas Thatcher of Massachusetts. See Arthur Link, Wilson: The New Freedom (Princeton, New Jersey, 1956), pp. 253-254 for the Wilson correspondence. For an excellent scholarly account of Wilson's entanglement with The Birth of a Nation, see Thomas Cripps, "The Reaction of the Negro to the Motion Picture Birth of a Nation," The Historian, XXV (May, 1963), pp. 348.-49.
I'm curious about the context in which that (alleged) quote is said to have appeared in that New York Post cite. If that cite is legit, of course.

By the way, Phil Hall maintains that the wife of Thomas Dixon (Dixon had written The Clansman, on which the film was based) averred that Wilson had made the comment in a letter he had written to Dixon himself. Mrs. Dixon never produced the letter as corroboration that Wilson had observed this of the film. (I’ve no idea from whence that bit of information arrives to Mr. Hall.)

-- Tammi Terrell
Reply With Quote
  #6  
Old 01-09-2005, 06:17 PM
Askia Askia is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Nov 2000
Location: Atlanta
Posts: 7,155
That Post quote probably doesn't exist. Can anyone with, like, a really old stack of Post newspapers verfiy? I can't imagine scores of Wilson biographers and film history chroniclers missing that quote in a New York paper the day after the NYC debut of Birth of A Nation.

I find the White House retraction of the endorsement interesting, as I do the assertion that Dixon's wife claims that it was not an exclamation but a letter excerpt.
Reply With Quote
  #7  
Old 01-09-2005, 07:05 PM
Freddy the Pig Freddy the Pig is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Aug 2002
Quote:
Wilson then screened the film nightly for congressional delegations in order to secure their support for federally-mandated segregation.
This excerpt quoted above, which appears to have been taken from a pro-KKK web site, is purest horseradish. The Wilson administration never lobbied Congress for federal Jim Crow laws. The only race-related bills considered by Congress during the Wilson years concerned mandatory segregation within the federal government, and Wilson didn't support those bills (not so much out of egalitarianism, but because he didn't want Congress telling him what to do) and they didn't pass.
Reply With Quote
  #8  
Old 01-09-2005, 07:53 PM
Askia Askia is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Nov 2000
Location: Atlanta
Posts: 7,155
Freddy.This site also says that Wilson arranged for publicized screenings of Birth Of a Nation for his cabinet, Congress and the Supreme Court. If this is true, I'm curious to know when and where they were done.

The segregation of the Treasury Department and federal Post Office began in Wilson's administration, under his direction. If Congressional support wasn't sought, it was probably because he could achieve his aims without them.
Reply With Quote
  #9  
Old 01-09-2005, 09:40 PM
Freddy the Pig Freddy the Pig is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Aug 2002
Quote:
Originally Posted by Askia
The segregation of the Treasury Department and federal Post Office began in Wilson's administration, under his direction. If Congressional support wasn't sought, it was probably because he could achieve his aims without them.
Exactly. Let me emphasize that I don’t dispute Wilson’s bigotry in the slightest; his record with respect to African Americans was abysmal and he was probably the second most bigoted President in American history, trailing only Andrew Johnson.

But I’m deeply skeptical of these alleged multiple screenings of Birth of a Nation. The first account above states:
Quote:
Wilson then screened the film nightly for congressional delegations in order to secure their support for federally-mandated segregation.
This makes no sense because Wilson never lobbied Congress for federally-mandated segregation. The account that you linked states:
Quote:
He (Wilson) arranged for publicized screenings for his cabinet and for Congress (the Supreme Court also had a screening), and most important, he gave Dixon and Griffith an endorsement they could exploit. "It is like writing history with lightning," Wilson said of this KKK celebration, "and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true."
Well, if he was giving them an endorsement they could exploit, he didn’t do a very good job, because the quote wasn’t publicized until 1937! With respect to “arranging for publicized screenings”, I can’t prove that he didn’t, but the dour Presbyterian Wilson doesn’t seem like the type of person who would micro-manage the movie-viewing habits of his Cabinet.

A recent biography of Wilson (Woodrow Wilson: World Statesman, by Kendrick A. Clements) states:
Quote:
Knowing nothing of the movie’s content, Wilson allowed it to be shown at the White House because Dixon told him that film was the new medium of universal communication. According to the only person at the screening who was ever asked directly what happened, the president seemed lost in thought during the film and left without saying anything. Publicity for the movie made no allusion to Wilson, and Dixon’s unpublished memoirs do not quote him on the subject. Not until 1937 did an article in Scribner’s Magazine assert, without citing any source, that Wilson had described the film as “like writing history with lightning,” a remark so irresistibly colorful that its dubious authenticity has not kept it out of even careful accounts of Wilsonian racial policies.
Reply With Quote
  #10  
Old 01-09-2005, 09:53 PM
Askia Askia is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Nov 2000
Location: Atlanta
Posts: 7,155
Freddy the Pig. You echo my skepticism perfectly. I was drawn to that assertion only because it says they were publicized screenings; if so, I'd have expected them to be on record somewhere and cited elsewhere.

The White House retraction letter mentioned by Tammi Terrell, if it actually exists, comes the closest to a smoking gun.
Reply With Quote
  #11  
Old 01-21-2005, 06:45 PM
Tammi Terrell Tammi Terrell is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Sep 1999
Location: Chapel Hill, NC
Posts: 147
Quote:
Originally Posted by Askia
The White House retraction letter mentioned by Tammi Terrell, if it actually exists, comes the closest to a smoking gun.
Well, I can now tell you that -- despite Merritt’s assertion (see above) -- there’s neither a real letter of retraction nor a smoking gun in Wilson’s instructions to his press secretary in how to address the President's alleged comments about the film. (There may be an 18-1/2-minute gap somewhere in Wilson’s papers, of course, but there’s no smoking gun.)

Whether Merritt ever saw that quote in the March 4, 1915 issue of The Post or whether he was citing information he’d read elsewhere is difficult to determine at the moment. In any event, if one believes from the outset that Wilson uttered those lines, it’s possible to regard what’s contained in the White House papers as mildly dishonest. But, even so, there’s no evidence in Wilson’s papers that he ever endorsed the film in the first place.

Here’s how historian and Wilson biographer Arthur S. Link, to whom Merritt referred in that footnote, described Wilson’s involvement in the controversial showing,

Quote:
Dixon conceived a bold scheme -- to arrange a private showing of the film at the White House and thereby to obtain the President’s implied endorsement. [41]

Wilson fell into Dixon’s trap, as indeed, did also members of the Supreme Court and both houses of Congress. Then, when the N.A.A.C.P. sought to prevent the showing of “The Birth of a Nation” in New York, Boston, and other cities, Dixon’s lawyers countered successfully by declaring that Chief Justice had seen the movie and liked it immensely. [42]

The Chief Justice, a Confederate veteran from Louisiana, put an end to the use of his name by threatening to denounce “The Birth of a Nation” publicly if Dixon did not stop saying that he had endorsed it. [43] Perceiving the political dangers in the situation, Tumulty suggested that Wilson write “some sort of a letter showing that he did not approve of the ‘Birth of a Nation.’” [44] “I would like to do this,” the President replied, “if there were some way in which I could do it without seeming to be trying to meet the agitation . . . stirred up by that unspeakable fellow Tucker [Trotter].” [45] He did, however, let Tumulty say that he had at no time approved the film; and three years later, when the nation was at war, he strongly disapproved the showing of this “unfortunate production.” [46]

[41] Dixon tells the story in “Southern Horizons: An Autobiography,” unpublished MS. in the possession of Mrs. Thomas Dixon, Raleigh, North Carolina, pp. 423-424.
[42] For accounts of the hearings in New York and Boston, see Mrs. Walter Damrosch to J.P. Tumulty, March 27, 1915, Wilson Papers; Mrs. Harriet Beale to J.P. Tumulty, March 29, 1915, ibid.; Representative Thomas C. Thacher of Massachusetts to J.P. Tumulty, April 17, 1915, ibid. enclosing letters and documents relating to the hearing in Boston; and Thomas Dixon, “Southern Horizons,” pp. 425-441.
[43] E.D. White to J.P. Tumulty, April 5, 1915, Wilson Papers.
[44] J.P. Tumulty to W.W., April 24, 1915, ibid.
[45] W.W. to J.P. Tumulty, c. April 25, 1915, ibid.
[46] J.P. Tumulty to T.C. Thacher, April 28, 1915, ibid.; W.W. to J.P. Tumulty, c. April 22, 1918, ibid.
[From Link’s Wilson: The New Freedom. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956; pp. 253-254.]

Having looked at documents pertaining to “The Birth of a Nation” in the 69-volume Papers of Woodrow Wilson (edited by Link; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966-1994), I can say that it’s pretty clear that the statement attributed to Wilson never appeared in The Post or in any other New York newspaper, at least not in March of 1915. Had it made its way into the press, those who were writing letters in protest to the White House would’ve likely referred to Wilson’s alleged statement. Tellingly, they didn’t.

For example, this exchange between J.P. Tumulty, Wilson’s press secretary, and the President took place regarding Mrs. Damrosch’s letter to the White House (mentioned in [42], above). (Footnotes below provided by Link.)

Quote:
From Warren Forman Johnson [Tumulty’s secretary], with Enclosure

[The White House] March 29 [1915]

The Secretary [Tumulty] wishes to know the opinion of the President in the matter of the attached. WFJ.

Please say I have expressed no opinion about it. W.W.

Quote:
From Margaret Blaine Damrosch to Joseph Patrick Tumulty

[New York] March 27, 1915.

Dear Sir:

It has been stated to me on excellent authority that Mr. Aiken, owner of the film “Birth of a Nation” says that before it was given publicly, President Wilson, and Chief Justice White saw it, and saw nothing objectionable in it.

I know of no method but this of direct appeal to ascertain the truth or falsity of Mr. Aiken’s claims, so after hesitating some time before troubling you, I am finally impelled to do so, because of the lively discussion which the presentation of the “Birth of a Nation” is causing in this city. I shall be most grateful for the courtesy of a reply.

Yours very truly,
Margaret Blaine Damrosch
(Mrs. Walter Damrosch)
Had Wilson’s alleged positive assessment appeared in The Post or in any other New York paper, I feel it likely that Margaret Damrosch, a prominent and fairly powerful resident of the city, would’ve questioned the White House about that statement and not, as she did instead, asked about Aiken’s claim as to Wilson’s (somewhat more neutral) finding of “nothing objectionable” in the film.

The Chief Justice’s letter to Wilson’s Secretary (referred to in [43], above) reads, in part,

Quote:
From Edward Douglass White to Joseph Patrick Tumulty

Washington, April 5, 1915

Dear Mr. Tumulty:

After talking with you the other day on the subject of the picture show I wrote to the gentleman in New York [identity unknown] and had an answer from him. In writing I told him that I was so situated that if the rumors about my having sanctioned the show were continued that I might be under the obligation of denying them publicly and say, it might be, that I do not approve the show, and therefore if the owners were wise they would stop the rumors. Incidentally in the letter I said: “I have reason to know, -- although not authoritatively so -- that the name of the President also has been used and that he might perhaps be obliged to take the same course that I have indicated if the rumors are not stopped. I do not speak from any authority, but only by way of rumor.”

I quote a passage from his letter, as it may be well for you to see it:

“I have heard that it has been stated on more than one occasion that the President and the Chief Justice, who had seen a private performance of the production in Washington, regard it as unobjectionable. On the strength of my associate’s acquaintance with Mr. Aiken, I will have an interview with him and strongly urge him, not only as an act of fairness, but in his own interest, to see to it that no further currency is given to this incorrect report. I have no doubt that this caution will be heeded.”

I don’t send this letter to be put upon the files, but only for your information.
Absent is any mention of something from Wilson, positive or otherwise, that was said to have appeared in a New York newspaper.

Tumulty’s letter to Wilson (see [44], above),

Quote:
From Joseph Patrick Tumulty

[The White House] April 24th [1915]

The Secretary thinks the President should write some sort of a letter showing that he did not approve of the “Birth of a Nation.”

WFJ [Warren F. Johnson, Tumulty’s secretary]
Wilson’s reply (see [45], above),

Quote:
To Joseph Patrick Tumulty

[The White House, April 24, 1915]

Dear Tumulty:

I would like to do this if there were in some way in which I could do it without seeming to be trying to meet the agitation which in the case referred to in this clipping was stirred up by that unspeakable fellow [Trotter] [footnote].

The President
Link’s footnote reads, in part,

Quote:
The unidentified newspaper clipping contained a report of a hearing before Mayor James Michael Curley on April 7 to determine whether “The Birth of a Nation” should be shown in Boston. William Monroe Trotter was among those testifying against the film. The Mayor decided that it could be shown, provided that a few scenes were cut. The film began its run on April 10. There was a near riot at the Tremont Theatre a week later, resulting in the arrest of Trotter and ten other protestors.
Wilson’s papers also contain this,

Quote:
To Joseph Patrick Tumulty

[The White House, April 28, 1915]

Dear Tumulty:

I would suggest as an answer to this letter [1] the following:

“It is true that ‘The Birth of a Nation’ was produced before the President and his family at the White House, but the President was entirely unaware of the character of the play before it was presented and has at no time expressed his approbation of it. Its exhibition at the White House was a courtesy extended to an old acquaintance.” [2]

The President
Link’s footnotes read,

Quote:
[1] T.C. Thacher to [Tumulty], April 17, 1915 . . . enclosing F.T. Hammond and J.M. Hollowell to Annie Fisher, April 15, 1915. Anna P. Williams To Whom It May Concern, April 14, 1915. All of the enclosures stated that, at the hearing before Mayor Curley, the counsel for the promoters of “The Birth of a Nation” had said that the President and members of the cabinet had viewed the film at the White House and had either expressed their approval of the production or, at least, had voiced no objection to it. Thomas Chandler Thacher, a former Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, reiterated this statement in his covering letter and asked Tumulty to let him know whether or not it was true.

[2] [Tumulty] to T.C. Thacher, April 28, 1915, repeated Wilson’s words.
I’d be interested to see contemporaneous reports in Boston papers regarding Curley’s hearing on the showing of the film.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Askia
That Post quote probably doesn't exist. Can anyone with, like, a really old stack of Post newspapers verfiy?
Fred Shapiro, editor of The Yale Dictionary of Quotations, has just undertaken looking for Merritt’s March 4, 1915 citation. (Those issues of The New York Evening Post, as the Post was then known, are probably on microfiche.)

By the way, Dixon’s complete autobiography, mentioned above, has since been published in the form of M. Karen Crowe’s 1982 PhD Thesis, Southern Horizons: The Autobiography of Thomas Dixon: A Critical Edition (which I've not seen). There, according to Link (The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Vol. 33, p. 42), Dixon maintained that,

Quote:
[he] conferred with Wilson at the White House for half an hour on February 3 [1915]. His object was to persuade Wilson to view the just-completed motion picture, “The Birth of a Nation,” based on Dixon’s novel and play, The Clansman (1905), and directed by David Wark. Griffith. Dixon told Wilson that he had a favor to ask of him -- not as President, but as a scholar and student of history -- that he view this motion picture because it made clear for the first time that a new universal language had been invented. Wilson said that he would not go to a theater because he was still in mourning, but that, if Dixon would set up his projector in the White House, he would invite the cabinet members and their families to come and see it. Wilson insisted that the White House showing not be mentioned in any way in the press. Thomas Dixon, Jr. “Southern Horizons: An Autobiography” (MS in possession of Mrs. Thomas Dixon, Jr.), pp. 424-426.
For what Dixon’s word is worth, of course. Link goes on to say that,

Quote:
Dixon did not inform Wilson about the subject of “The Birth of a Nation.” As he later wrote to Tumulty: “Of course, but I didn’t dare allow the President to know the real big purpose back of my film -- which was to revolutionize Northern sentiments by a presentation of history that would transform every man in my audience into a good Democrat! . . . What I told the President was that I would show him the birth of a new art – the launching of the mightiest engine for moulding public opinion in the history of the world.” T. Dixon, Jr., to JPT, May 1, 1915.
-- Tammi Terrell
Reply With Quote
Reply

Bookmarks

Thread Tools
Display Modes

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is Off
HTML code is Off

Forum Jump


All times are GMT -5. The time now is 08:02 AM.


Powered by vBulletin® Version 3.8.7
Copyright ©2000 - 2014, vBulletin Solutions, Inc.

Send questions for Cecil Adams to: cecil@chicagoreader.com

Send comments about this website to: webmaster@straightdope.com

Terms of Use / Privacy Policy

Advertise on the Straight Dope!
(Your direct line to thousands of the smartest, hippest people on the planet, plus a few total dipsticks.)

Publishers - interested in subscribing to the Straight Dope?
Write to: sdsubscriptions@chicagoreader.com.

Copyright © 2013 Sun-Times Media, LLC.