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Steve
Happy Holly Days


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Does anyone know if Woodrow Wilson really said this about the Griffith movie Birth of a Nation? A google search shows the quote is widespread, but no one says where or when he made the remark. Anyone know the truth?
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Jason Threadslayer
Let There Be PCs on Earth


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Prof James Loewen cites it in Lies My Teacher Told Me (which was the source for cite in Wikipedia). I lent my copy to a friend, so I can't check the endnotes.

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Steve
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Thanks. Which Wikipedia entry was that? I didn't see the quote in the one for Birth of a Nation, and under Wilson it said,

"Wilson is widely alleged to have praised the notoriously racist movie Birth of a Nation (based on a book by his former classmate Thomas Dixon), saying: "It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so true." The quote has not been definitively traced to Wilson, who screened the movie at the White House but never commented publicly on it". I didn't see any mention of Loewen.

I'll try to get my hands on Loewen's book, though some of his sources, like Significa, seem a bit dubious.

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Bonnie
The Red and the Green Stamps


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Earlier this year, I naively thought I'd stumbled on a smoking gun -- a contemporaneous confirmation that Wilson had pronounced of The Birth of a Nation that "It is like writing history in lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true" (or some version thereof).

In his "Dixon, Griffith, and the Southern Legend" (Cinema Journal 12: 26-45, 1972), Russell Merritt reports in a footnote (on pp. 28-29) that,

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.
However, when I brought up in another forum Merritt's reference to a quotation in The New York Evening Post, as The Post was then then known, Fred Shapiro -- editor of The Yale Dictionary of Quotations -- went looking for a sighting in that March 4, 1915 edition and failed to uncover anything on those pages.

In any event, 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 [who had written The Clansman, on which Birth of a Nation was based] 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 obvious, even without knowing the results of Shapiro's detective work, 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. A ll 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.

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.
By the way, Phil Hall maintains that Dixon's widow averred that Wilson had made the comment in a letter he had written to Dixon himself. Mrs. Dixon, continued Hall, never produced the letter as corroboration that Wilson had observed this of the film. I've no idea where Hall got that information; he never responded to my request for clarification.

Bonnie "birth of a notion" Taylor

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Steve
Happy Holly Days


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Wow, that's great! Thanks Bonnie.
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Bonnie
The Red and the Green Stamps


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Oh, you're very welcome! It was fun trying to put that together.

By the way, I really should've mentioned that -- in a footnote in his Papers of Woodrow Wilson (p. 267) -- Link adds that,

quote:
This quotation first appears (without attribution) in all known sources and literature in Milton MacKaye, "The Birth of a Nation," Scribner's Magazine, CII (Nov. 1937), 69. Dixon did not use the quotation in his memoirs, "Southern Horizons" (composition date unknown).

Marjorie Brown King, the only survivor among the persons at the showing in the East Room, told the Editor [Link] on June 23, 1977, that Wilson seemed lost in thought during the showing, and that he walked out of the room without saying a word when the movie was over.

-- Bonnie

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Bonnie
The Red and the Green Stamps


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This is not to say that Wilson said such a thing, but here's evidence that promoters of Birth of a Nation were at least using the phrase in advertisements by the end of 1915, some nine or ten months after the film debuted in northern cities. Note the veiled reference to Wilson in the second piece; this "review," in its entirety, actually reads like advertising copy.

-- Bonnie

quote:
[From a display ad in The Atlanta Constitution, 12 December 1915; Pg. 10.]

19,759


  • Persons saw history written with lightning at the Atlanta theater last week.
  • They laughed, they shouted, and they gasped.
  • And through it all they shed hot, slippery tears.
  • Never before such scenes in an Atlanta playhouse; never so many damp ‘kerchiefs.
  • ASK ANY OF THEM!
  • Those who have regained their voices will tell you that you’ll regret it to your dying day if you fail to witness

D.W. GRIFFITH’S GIGANTIC SPECTACLE

THE BIRTH OF A NATION


YOU WILL SEE
18,000 People – 3,000 Horses – 5,000 Scenes
  • Petersburg at the height of battle.
  • Lee and Grant at Appomattox.
  • The shot that killed Abraham Lincoln.
  • The pillaging of Atlanta by Sherman’s invaders.

YOU WILL HEAR
  • A splendid symphony orchestra of thirty play the best-loved melodies of the Southland.
  • Roaring cannon, sputtering machine guns, rushing cavalry and clashing bayonets in the mad stampede of battle.

YOU WILL FEEL
  • The spirit of ’61.
  • The hot surging patriotism that drove your grandfather to don a suit of gray.
  • The pang of sweathearts parted and the anguish of wives and mothers bereaved.
  • And above it all a glow of undying pride that they’re YOUR stars and YOUR bars.

[etc.]

quote:
[From “At the Theaters,” The Atlanta Constitution; 15 December 1915; Pg. 16.]

“The Birth of a Nation.”
(At the Atlanta.)


“History written with lightning” is the description applied to “The Birth of a Nation,” now in its second week at the Atlanta theater, by a very eminent man for whom a private exhibition was given in Washington some months ago.



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Bonnie
The Red and the Green Stamps


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I've been thinking about Wilson and his alleged endorsement of The Birth of a Nation (and not just because it was brought up elsewhere recently).

Although there's no real evidence that Wilson himself felt the film "history written with lightning" (or similar), I think it's possible that such an observation -- regardless of its source -- could have simply referred to the medium of film itself, either in the sense of its power to communicate or as an allusion to the nature of its projection -- its flickering illumination (in a literal sense). (After all, we know that Dixon seemed set on having Wilson regard the the film's launch as "the birth of a new art –- the launching of the mightiest engine for moulding public opinion in the history of the world.")

Trouble is, the only contemporaneous participants known to have supported that Wilson made this comment (or even agreed with someone else's assessment of the film) are Dixon and Griffith, who had financial interests in having Wilson judge the film favorably. And even then their links of this observation to Wilson are by implication.

Importantly, though, there's absolutely no evidence from the period that Wilson made a comment to the effect that what the film depicted was "all so terribly true."

By the way, Arthur Lennig has found an interview with Griffith published a mere 10 days after the film had been screened at the White House. There, Griffith hints that Wilson had "said it teaches history by lightning."

-- Bonnie

[From Arthur Lennig's "Myth and fact: The reception of The Birth of a Nation," Film History 16(2): 117-141, 2004.]

quote:
Wilson was impressed with the work, which echoed his own views as offered in his History of the American People (1902) ... and he reputedly said that it was like 'writing history with lightning ... My only regret is that it is all too true.' Although this remark has often been cited, its provenance remains hazy. It seems to have stemmed from an interview conducted with Griffith only a few days after the White House showing and printed in the New York American on 28 February 1915. In it, Griffith claimed that the film 'received very high praise from high quarters in Washington' and explained that 'I was gratified when a man we all revere, or ought to, said it teaches history by lightning'. [57] (Notice the discrepancy between 'writing' his story and 'teaching' it. There is no mention of 'My only regret is that it is all too true'.) [p. 122]

[Lennig's footnote follows.]

[57] I examined bound volumes of the newspapers at the New York State Library to check this. It can be found in the Sunday paper of The New York American, section M, p. 9. Griffith also used the word 'teach' in a statement reported in Stephen Gordon, Photoplay, October 1916.

ETA: Others have pointed out that whoever came up with "history written with lightning" with regard to the film may have been influenced (directly or indirectly) by Coleridge's supposed assessment that, "To see [Edmund] Kean act is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning." (I've never been able to figure out where Coleridge observed this.)

Moreover, it's been mentioned that, "Francis Jeffrey [who died in 1850] ... praised [Thomas] Carlyle's The French Revolution by saying that it was like 'reading history by flashes of lightning,' a phrase which he borrowed from Coleridge's comment on Kean's acting." [p. 491; From Charles R. Sanders's review of Carlyle and Dickens, by Michael Goldberg. The review appears in Nineteenth-Century Fiction 28(4): 490-492, 1973.]

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antiquary
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quote:
Others have pointed out that whoever came up with "history written with lightning" with regard to the film may have been influenced (directly or indirectly) by Coleridge's supposed assessment that, "To see [Edmund] Kean act is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning." (I've never been able to figure out where Coleridge observed this.)

I've only just joined, which must be my excuse for answering so late in the day. You can find Coleridge's comment in his posthumously published Table Talk (1835), in the entry for 27th April 1823.
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Bonnie
The Red and the Green Stamps


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Ah, thanks, antiquary! This is very helpful. (And I'm all for answering late in the day, by the way.)

I had recently gone looking for earlier instances in which Dixon, author of "The Klansman" (on which "The Birth of a Nation" is based), or D.W. Griffith, or even Wilson himself may have been quoted as using a "lightning" expression of some sort at an earlier time (and not with respect to this film). That search seems to be leading to a dead end.

In any event, welcome to the board. I'm looking forward to reading other contributions that you'll make.

-- Bonnie

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