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Birth of a Quotation: Woodrow Wilson and “Like Writing History with Lightning”

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 January 2011

Mark E. Benbow
Marymount University


In February 1915, upon viewing The Birth of a Nation at a special White House screening, President Woodrow Wilson reportedly remarked, “It's like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” This line has appeared in numerous books and articles over the past seventy years. This article examines the history of this alleged quotation and the sources where it has appeared. The article weighs the evidence that Wilson effusively praised in these words one of the most racist major movies in American history.

Copyright © Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2010

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1 For the variations and where they appeared, see the appendix. The author wishes to thank all those who reviewed this article in its many early forms, but special thanks are due to Dan Murphy and the journal's anonymous readers for their helpful comments, and to my wife, Annette, who is a diligent and patient sounding board. Also thank you to Edmund Potter, formerly of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, who sparked my interest in this topic, and to the helpful staff at the Library of Congress who aided my research. An early version of this paper was delivered at the 2007 Popular Culture Association meeting in Boston. Of course, any remaining errors are my own.

2 Email with Erick Montgomery, executive director, Historic Augusta, Oct. 2006; “Remarks by Wilson and a Dialog,” Nov. 12, 1914, in The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, ed. Arthur Link (Princeton, 1979), 31:301. Hereafter referred to as PWW followed by volume and page numbers.

3 Editorial note by Link, PWW, 32:267.

4 Dial, May 1, 1903, quoted in Slide, Anthony, American Racist: The Life and Films of Thomas Dixon (Lexington, KY 2004), 2637, 51–69Google Scholar; Richmond News-Leader, quoted in ibid., 60. Dixon also wrote other plays with white supremacist themes, none of which enjoyed the same popular success as Clansman.

5 Slide, , American Racist, 7173Google Scholar; Schickel, Richard, D. W. Griffith: An American Life (New York, 1984), 2324Google Scholar; Griffith, David W., The Man Who Invented Hollywood: The Autobiography of D. W. Griffith, ed. Hart, James (Louisville, KY, 1972), 88Google Scholar; Stokes, Melvyn, D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation: A History of “The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time” (New York, 2007), 5354.Google Scholar

6 There are numerous accounts of the making of the film. See, for example, Schickel, , D. W . Griffith, 212–50.Google Scholar

7 Thomas Dixon Jr. to Joseph Patrick Tumulty, Jan. 27, 1915, PWW, 32:142.

8 Dixon, Thomas, The Flaming Sword (Atlanta, 1939), 203–04, 254–56.Google Scholar

9 For Dixon's earlier relationship with Wilson, see PWW, 4:259, 5:515–16, 534.

10 PWW, 32:142n1.

11 There were no copies of any of Dixon's books in Wilson's library at the time of Wilson's death in 1924. (The original list is in the collection of the Woodrow Wilson House, Washington, DC). It can be tempting to assume that Wilson's taste in books was too elevated to enjoy Dixon's rather overheated prose, but Wilson's fondness for various westerns and detective novels make such a judgment untenable.

12 Thomas Dixon Jr. to Joseph Tumulty, May 1, 1915, quoted in PWW, 32:142. One wonders what Tumulty, a Northern urban Catholic Democrat, thought of Dixon's remark that “good Democrats” viewed race relations through a Southern prism.

13 Noted by Lennig, Arthur, “Myth and Fact: The Reception of The Birth of a Nation,” Film History 16 (Apr. 2004): 117–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar “Movies on the Lawn,” Washington Post, June 27, 1914.

14 Washington Post, Feb. 19, 1915; Washington Evening Star, Feb. 18, 19, 1915. The complete guest list is unknown but may also have included Wilson's middle daughter, Jessie, as well as other family members. According to Dixon, Margaret Wilson, who often acted as First Lady after her mother's death, arranged for the showing. Dixon, Thomas, Southern Horizons: The Autobiography of Thomas Dixon, ed. Crowe, Karen (Alexandria, VA, 1984), 298;Google Scholar Griffith argued that the film's “realistic” depiction of war made his film a plea for peace.

15 Marjorie Brown King's account may be found in PWW, 32:267 n1. Mrs. King was the wife of Benjamin King, a friend of Wilson's daughters who often visited the White House. Wilson's program from the showing is in the collection of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, Staunton, Virginia, a gift from the Grayson family. It was shown to the author by the library's curator, Dr. Edmund Potter, in 2005. Many of Wilson's other theater programs are in the collection of the Woodrow Wilson House, Washington, where the author served as staff historian.

16 David Wark Griffith to Woodrow Wilson, Mar. 2, 1915, PWW, 32:310–11; Wilson to Griffith, Mar. 5, 1915, PWW, 32:325.

17 “Movies at Press Club,” Washington Post, Feb. 20, 1915; “Press Club to Witness Noted Films,” Evening Star, Feb. 19, 1915; For Dixon's account of his meeting with Chief Justice White, see Dixon, Southern Horizons, 300–01.

18 New York American, Feb. 28, 1915, M9, quoted in Lennig, “Myth and Fact.”

19 Examples of the programs and pamphlets are included in Griffith's papers on microfilm in the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, reel 2. For an example of an advertisement with the endorsement of various political and religious leaders, see “Why ‘The Birth of a Nation’ is Shown,” Boston Globe, Apr. 9, 1915. Film historian Thomas Cripps footnotes Wilson's quotation “history with lightning” as appearing in the New York Post, Mar. 4, 1915. See Cripps, , “The Reaction of the Negro to the Motion Picture ‘Birth of a Nation,’Historian 25 (May 1963): 349.CrossRefGoogle Scholar However, in reviewing the microfilm copies of the Evening Post, the paper's correct name, at the Library of Congress, this author has not been able to locate the quotation in either the advertisement for the movie or in an article about Birth that appeared on page 9 for the date cited by Cripps. Nor does the quote appear in the Evening Post for any other day that month. It also does not appear in either the Washington Post or the Boston Post.

20 In contrast, Wilson apparently issued no objection in 1918 when brewer's associations in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and New York used his words and his image in newspaper ads opposing state prohibition measures. He took no action despite pleas from prominent prohibition leaders. However, the brewers used Wilson's words in their proper context, so he may have felt that objecting would only create more controversy. Examples of the anti-Prohibition ads may be found in the Woodrow Wilson Papers at the Library of Congress in the Prohibition subfile.

21‘Birth of a Nation’ Managers Defend Play,” Boston Post, Apr. 7, 1915; “‘Birth of a Nation’ to Be Shown,” Boston Post, Apr. 8, 1915. This assumes that Wilson's quotation would have been reported in newspaper accounts, had Griffith used it. This is a reasonable assumption, given the force of the image of “writing history with lightning.”

22 Cuniberti, John, The Birth of a Nation: A Formal Shot-by-Shot Analysis Together with Microfiche (Woodbridge, CT, 1979), D7–D9Google Scholar; The original quotations appear in Wilson, Woodrow, A History of the American People (repr. New York, 1931), 5:50, 60.Google Scholar A paraphrase of the first title card appears on 47; Griffith altered the quotation for the movie.

23 Stokes, , D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, 198200.Google Scholar

24 Margaret Blaine Damrosch to Tumulty, Mar. 27, 1915, PWW, 32:455; Edward Douglas White to Tumulty, Apr. 5, 1915, PWW, 32:486–87.

25 Tumulty to Wilson, Mar. 29, 1915, file 2247, Wilson Papers, Library of Congress; Wilson to Tumulty, Apr. 24, 1915, PWW, 33:68. Wilson's note actually read “Tucker” rather than Trotter, but this was most likely a mistake by Wilson's stenographer.

26 Wilson to Tumulty, Apr. 28, 1915, PWW, 33:86; Wilson opposed showing Birth during the First World War because he believed it to be divisive; NAACP, “Fighting a Vicious Film: Protest Against The Birth of a Nation,” repr. in Focus on D. W. Griffith, ed. Geduld, Harry M. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1971), 101–02Google Scholar; Chicago Defender, May 8, 1915.

27 Atlanta Constitution, Dec. 12, 1915; “At the Theaters,” Atlanta Constitution, Dec. 15, 1915; Gordon, Henry Stephen, “The Story of David Wark Griffith, Part V,” Photoplay Magazine, Oct. 1916, 93.Google Scholar Note that Griffith refers to “pictures” rather than to one specific film.

28 Many thanks to the anonymous reader who pointed me in this direction and who provided me with specific examples; Wilson, Woodrow, Mere Literature and Other Essays (Boston, 1900), 101Google Scholar; Wilson, however, dismissed Carlyle, noting “the whole matter of what he writes is too dramatic.” Wilson, , “On the Writing of History,” June 17, 1895Google Scholar, PWW, 9:299.

29 MacKaye, Milton, “The Birth of a Nation,” Scribner's, Nov. 1937, 46, 69Google Scholar; Jacobs, Lewis, The Rise of the American Film (New York, 1939), 175.Google Scholar

30 Gish, Lillian with Pinchot, Ann, The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1969), 6Google Scholar; Aitken, Roy E., The Birth of a Nation Story (Middleburg, VA, 1965), 154.Google Scholar

31 Wright, James Zebulon, “Thomas Dixon: The Mind of a Southern Apologist” (PhD diss., George Peabody College for Teachers, 1966), 202.Google Scholar

32 Dixon, , Flaming Sword, 206.Google Scholar

33 Williamson, Joel, The Crucible of Race (New York, 1984), 56Google Scholar; The judgment of Wilson is my own, not Williamson's. Williamson placed Wilson squarely in the ranks of the conservatives. See also Gerstle, Gary, “Race and Nation in the Thought and Politics of Woodrow Wilson,” Reconsidering Woodrow Wilson: Progressivism, Internationalism, War and Peace, ed. Cooper, John Milton Jr (Washington, 2008), 105–06.Google Scholar

34 Wilson, , History, 5: 50.Google Scholar

35 Williamson, , Crucible, 6.Google Scholar

37 Smith, John David, “‘My Books Are Hard Reading for a Negro’: Tom Dixon and His African American Critics, 1905–1939” in Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America, eds. Gillespie, Michele K. and Hall, Randal L., (Baton Rouge, 2006), 5960.Google Scholar The deportation scene was mentioned in the 1915 NAACP pamphlet “Fighting a Vicious Film.”

38 Williamson, , Crucible, 279.Google Scholar

39 Wilson, Woodrow, Division and Reunion, 1829–1889 (New York, 1901), 211–12.Google Scholar

40 Wilson, , Division, 125–27.Google Scholar

41 Wilson, , History, 5: 5864, 74–75Google Scholar; The difference can be seen in their views of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Dixon thought it a lie, Wilson thought it an exaggeration taken from isolated cases. For Ben Cameron's watching the children see The Birth of a Nation, shots 914–24.

42 Griffith to Wilson, Mar. 2, 1915, PWW, 32:310–11.