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?



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


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:

In the main text, he says that “there were later attempts to disown it”, but doesn’t elaborate.

Dixon - rather than Griffith - took a projector and a screen to the White House for the screening on 18 February 1915.

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.

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),

Most interesting is a footnote, which also appears on pp. 28-29,

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

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.

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.

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.

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:

This makes no sense because Wilson never lobbied Congress for federally-mandated segregation. The account that you linked states:

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:

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.

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,

[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.)

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,

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),

Wilson’s reply (see [45], above),

Link’s footnote reads, in part,

Wilson’s papers also contain this,

Link’s footnotes read,

I’d be interested to see contemporaneous reports in Boston papers regarding Curley’s hearing on the showing of the film.

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,

For what Dixon’s word is worth, of course. Link goes on to say that,

– Tammi Terrell