Upon seeing “The Birth of a Nation,” the ground-breaking, if highly racist, piece of cinematography in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson is often quoted as saying, “It is like writing history with lightning.” Nearly every American Buzzkiller out there has probably heard this in a 20th Century US history class, or a cinematography class, or on the myth-sustaining History Channel. But did he say it?
All the reliable evidence points to a solid “no.” It’s certainly true that the film was shown to Wilson and his family in a special screening at the White House in 1915. And it’s certainly true that Wilson hadn’t seen many examples of the new art form of motion pictures. But there is no good evidence that he reacted to Birth of a Nation with this electrifying quote. Here’s what happened. In 1937 (twenty-two years after the screening, and thirteen years after Wilson’s death), a magazine article said that the President had reacted to Birth of a Nation’s depiction of the Civil War and Reconstruction period by saying, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” In fact, neither the director of the film, the famous D.W. Griffith, nor the author of the original novel who had arranged the White House screening, Thomas Dixon (a college acquaintance of Wilson’s) mentioned any presidential reaction to Birth of a Nation. And it’s almost certain that the movie studio’s publicity department would have run wild with such an illuminating quotation, but they didn’t. (Although they promoted the presidential screening as often as they could, to give the film the appearance of presidential approval.)
Much of the subsequent reaction to Birth of a Nation was negative, especially from the NAACP and other civil rights groups. Large protests against it were held in several cities, and Wilson got a lot of criticism for having had a special showing of it at the White House.
So the President had his private secretary, Joseph Tumulty, release the following statement,
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.
And in 1918 Wilson told his secretary that he thought Birth of a Nation was “a very unfortunate production.” Further, Wilson said that he hoped it would not be shown “in communities where there are so many colored people.”
But the “writing history with lightning” quote stuck firmly in the popular consciousness from the late 1930s onwards. And many historians think that it was his supposed reaction to Birth of a Nation that made him an unpopular president among African Americans, even more than the actual segregation policies that Wilson implemented as president.
That’s show business for you!
John Milton Cooper, Woodrow Wilson: a Biography (2011).
The first major biography of America’s twenty-eighth president in nearly two decades, from one of America’s foremost Woodrow Wilson scholars.