Debunking Wilson’s rave for ‘The Birth of a Nation’

“On February 18 [1915] Wilson and his daughters and his Cabinet gathered in the East Room for the first running of a motion picture in the White House  [“The Clansman,” later retitled “The Birth of a Nation.”]

” ‘It was like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true,’ Wilson purportedly said when the lights came up. In fact, Wilson almost certainly never said it. The encomium does not even appear in the unpublished memoirs of the self-serving Thomas Dixon. The only firsthand record of Wilson’s feelings about the film appear in a letter three years later, in which he wrote , ‘I have always felt that this was a very unfortunate production and I wish most sincerely that its production might be avoided, particularity in communities where there are so many colored people.’ … Another member of the audience that night reported that the President seemed lost in thought during the film and exited the East Room upon its completion without saying a word to anybody….

“The comment did not appear in print for more than two decades. In any case, word of a White House screening circulated, and that was tantamount to a Presidential endorsement.”

— From “Wilson” by A. Scott Berg (2013)


Pastor’s complaint: ‘They want a gad-about gossip’

On this day in 1882: Presbyterian minister Joseph Wilson, father of Woodrow Wilson, laments in a letter to his son the demands of his latest flock:

“My work here in Wilmington seems to be done, and I think I see evidences amongst the people that some of them think so too. Yet I never preached so well . The fault they find with me is as to visiting. They want a gad-about gossip.”

While Charlotte mayor lectures, President Wilson swelters

On this day in 1916: Woodrow Wilson visits Charlotte for Meck Dec Day. “A hearty cheer greeted the president as he left the train, and he smiled warmly and doffed his silk hat in response,” The Observer reports. “Southern crowds are not much on cheering except when ‘Dixie’ is played; they usually prefer to gaze in silence, but the president and Mrs. Wilson were greeted with vocal demonstrations wherever they went.”

Wilson, however, is soon overshadowed by Mayor T. L. Kirkpatrick, who takes the speakers’ platform to introduce Gov. Locke Craig. Undeterred by the sight of spectators and soldiers fainting in the steamy heat, Kirkpatrick offers a 40-minute review of Mecklenburg history. When the mayor at last yields, Craig introduces President Wilson in a single sentence.

Kirkpatrick, who will suffer considerable teasing about having spoken more than twice as long as the president, always insists that Wilson told him he was not feeling well and to stretch his remarks. The mayor’s speech makes such an impression on First Lady Edith Wilson that she scathingly recalls it in her memoirs.


Woodrow Wilson’s honeymoon hideaway

On this day in 1885: Woodrow Wilson and the former Ellen Louise Axson, married the previous day in Savannah, Ga., arrive at their honeymoon cottage in Arden. They will spend about two months in the four-room clapboard house while he prepares to begin his teaching career as professor of history at Bryn Mawr College. She compiles the index for a new edition of his acclaimed “Congressional Government, A Study in American Politics.” They read and take long walks through the rhododendron-crowded mountains.

In 1914, during her husband’s first term as president, Mrs. Wilson will die suddenly; Edith Bolling Galt, whom Wilson marries 16 months later, virtually assumes the presidency after he suffers a paralyzing stroke during his second term.

President’s daughter seeks lost voice in Asheville

On this day in 1920: Nearing the end of a national tour, Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the U.S. Army during World War I, arrives in Asheville. Despite an influenza quarantine, hundreds are on hand to see Pershing’s private rail car, attached to the Carolina Special, pull into Biltmore station.

During his three-hour stay he tours the Oteen hospital for tubercular veterans and is greeted at the Grove Park Inn by Margaret Wilson, daughter of President Woodrow Wilson, who is trying to recover her voice after singing for Pershing’s troops in Europe.

‘Bitter and sectional… fearless and brilliant’

“An advocate of the two dollar shirt from Scotland Neck, N. C. — that was Claude Kitchin. But he was more as well. In 1901 he came to Congress, where his father had been before him, where one of his brothers (later Governor of North Carolina) then was. In 15 years, by his mastery of diatribe and strategy, he had made himself Democratic floor leader in the House. In four years more… he had brought on himself a stroke of paralysis from overwork…. Now he is dead.

“He was…  something of a demagogue, bitter and sectional. But he was fearless, and brilliant in attack on the floor…. He made his name  by attacking the free lumber plank in the platform of 1908.

“He turned the torrent of his eloquence against President Wilson’s plan to strengthen the Navy, he fought to the last the declaration of war against Germany in 1917. But once war was declared he reversed his attitude entirely and gave uncompromising support to war financing measures.

“Kitchin’s fighting record goes farther back than his political record. His father fought for the Confederacy. Claude was one of eleven children, nine sons and two daughters. [As a young lawyer] he  defended a murderer. His father was the prosecutor — and the son was victorious.”

— Time magazine, June 11, 1923

I’m guessing the  “two dollar shirt” characterization refers to Kitchin’s hallmark opposition to protective tariffs, but wouldn’t that have been an expensive shirt for the 1920s?