One hundred years ago today, Woodrow Wilson brought Jim Crow to the North. He had been inaugurated on March 4, 1913. At a cabinet meeting on April 11, his postmaster general, Albert S. Burleson, suggested that the new administration segregate the railway mail service; and treasury secretary William G. McAdoo, who would soon become Wilson’s son-in-law, chimed in to signal his support. Wilson followed their lead. He had made a bid for the African-American vote in 1912, and he had attracted the support of figures such as W. E. B. Du Bois, but, as he put it at the meeting, he had made “no promises in particular to Negroes, except to do them justice.” Burleson’s proposal he welcomed, but he wanted “the matter adjusted in a way to make the least friction.”
Today, self-styled progressives are wont, with considerable abandon, to label as racists those who object to their attempts at social engineering. They would do well to rein in their rhetorical excesses and curb their enthusiasm for the administrative state — for the Progressives of yesteryear, on whom they model themselves, really were racists in the precise and proper sense of the term, and in formulating public policy they were true to their principles.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ordinary Americans may generally have been in the grips of ethnic prejudice of one sort or another. The Progressives of that time were not, however, ordinary men, and they knew it. Like their successors today, they dominated America’s universities. With some justification, they thought of themselves as an intellectual elite; and, with rare exceptions, they enthusiastically embraced eugenics and racial theory. That the inchoate racial prejudices of their contemporaries were grounded in fact they took to be a truth taught by science; and, being devotees of rational administration to the exclusion of all other concerns, they insisted that public policy conform to the dictates of the new racial science.
Wilson, our first professorial president, was a case in point. He was the very model of a modern Progressive, and he was recognized as such. He prided himself on having pioneered the new science of rational administration, and he shared the conviction, dominant among his brethren, that African-Americans were racially inferior to whites. With the dictates of Social Darwinism and the eugenics movement in mind, in 1907, he campaigned in Indiana for the compulsory sterilization of criminals and the mentally retarded; and in 1911, while governor of New Jersey, he proudly signed into law just such a bill.
Prior to the segregation of the civil service in 1913, appointments had been made solely on merit as indicated by the candidate’s performance on the civil-service examination. Thereafter, racial discrimination became the norm. Photographs came to be required at the time of application, and African-Americans knew they would not be hired. The existing work force was segregated. Many African-Americans were dismissed. In the postal service, others were transferred to the dead-letter office, where they had no contact with the general public. Those who continued to work in municipal post offices labored behind screens — out of sight and out of mind. When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Independent Political League objected to the new policy, Wilson — a Presbyterian elder who was nothing if not high-minded — vigorously defended it, arguing that segregation was in the interest of African-Americans. For 35 years, segregation in the civil service would be public policy. It was only after Adolf Hitler gave eugenics and “scientific racism” a bad name that segregation came to seem objectionable.
If Wilson’s new policy encountered little opposition, it was because a change of sentiment had taken place. Jim Crow had not been the norm before 1890, even in the deep South. As C. Vann Woodward noted nearly 60 years ago, in The Strange Career of Jim Crow, it became the norm there only when it received sanction from the racist Progressives in the North. Their influence was profound and pervasive. In 1900, E. L. Godkin, founder and longtime editor of The Nation, saw the handwriting on the wall. In the pages of that journal, he lamented that “the Declaration of Independence no longer arouses enthusiasm; it is an embarrassing instrument which requires to be explained away. The Constitution is said to be ‘outgrown.’” Those who once “boasted that it had secured for the negro the rights of humanity and citizenship” now listen “in silence to the proclamation of white supremacy” and make “no protest against the nullifications of the Fifteenth Amendment.”
Wilson championed the trend identified by Godkin. In his presidential campaign in 1912, he told his compatriots, “We are in the presence of a new organization of society.” Our time marks “a new social stage, a new era of human relationships, a new stage-setting for the drama of life,” and “the old political formulas do not fit the present problems: they read now like documents taken out of a forgotten age.” What Thomas Jefferson had once taught is now, he contended, utterly out of date. It is “what we used to think in the old-fashioned days when life was very simple.”
Above all, Wilson wanted to persuade his compatriots to get “beyond the Declaration of Independence.” That document “did not mention the questions of our day,” he told his countrymen. “It is of no consequence to us.” He regarded it as “an eminently practical document, meant for the use of practical men; not a thesis for philosophers, but a whip for tyrants; not a theory of government, but a program of action.” For the rights of individuals celebrated in that document and for the limits on the scope of government implicit in its celebration of those particular rights, he had no use. They were, he recognized, an obstacle to rational administration of the very sort exemplified by his subsequent segregation of the civil service.
For similar reasons, Wilson was hostile to the constitutional provisions intended as a guarantee of limited government. The separation of powers, the balances and checks, and the distribution of authority between nation and state distinguishing the American constitution he regarded as an obstacle to the formation and pursuit of rational public policy. “Government” he considered “not a machine, but a living thing . . . accountable to Darwin, not to Newton.” Nothing of that sort could, he believed, “have its organs offset against each other, as checks, and live.” Its health was “dependent upon” the “quick co-operation” of these organs, “their ready response to the commands of instinct or intelligence, their amicable community of purpose.” Wilson was the first to call for there to be a “living” political constitution “Darwinian in structure and in practice.” To this end, in running for the presidency he openly sought “permission — in an era in which ‘development,’ ‘evolution,’ is the scientific word — to interpret the Constitution according to Darwinian principle.”
Today’s progressives eschew Social Darwinism and the pseudo-scientific racism espoused by their intellectual forebears, and they oppose racial segregation and the sterilization of criminals and the mentally retarded. But they are no less confident of their own righteousness than were the Progressives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and they have no more respect for the rights espoused in the Declaration of Independence, for limited government, and for constitutional forms than did their predecessors. On this day, the hundredth anniversary of Wilson’s segregation of the civil service, they ought to reflect on the terrible damage apt to be done by an unlimited government disdainful of the natural rights of man and dedicated to rational administration as envisaged by fallible men.
— Paul A. Rahe, a professor of history at Hillsdale College, is the author of Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift.