Woodrow Wilson is in trouble.
From the time Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. first surveyed historians and political scientists in 1948, Wilson has placed high on scholarly lists of the greatest U.S. presidents. In 1948, he was fourth — after Lincoln, Washington, and FDR. In 1962, his son Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. conducted another survey in which Wilson retained that spot.
In Schlesinger’s 1996 poll, Wilson dropped to seventh as Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Andrew Jackson bumped him down three notches. (Jackson has since fallen to ninth.) Only in 2000 and 2005 polls by the Wall Street Journal did Wilson finish outside the top ten. In both, he finished eleventh.
But now Princeton University is contemplating a remarkable reversal of Wilson’s fortunes. The reason: he espoused racist views. A recent article in the New York Times reports that protesters want to distance his name from the institution over which he presided before becoming governor of New Jersey and then 28th President of the United States.
Protests and Goals
Among the protesters’ demands: acknowledge publicly Wilson’s racist legacy, take steps to rename the university’s internationally renown public policy school, remove a large mural from the dining hall of the residential college that bears his name (and remove his name from that residential college), adopt mandatory courses on “the history of marginalized peoples”, require “cultural competency training” for faculty and staff, and create a dedicated housing and meeting space for those interested in black culture.
Debate will continue over these demands. However reasonable some may be, linking them to the legacy of a great president seems odd, to say the least. It’s certainly ahistorical.
The issue is not whether Wilson said things that seem wildly out of place today. He did. His southern upbringing and the times in which he lived account for his most intolerant views about race. Some of his actions had a devastating personal impact on individuals, as a recent Times op-ed explains. That does not excuse them, but context should matter.
Wilson’s words and deeds occurred a century ago. Who decided that ultimate judgments about the past require us to measure yesterday’s greatness against today’s cultural and political standards?
Admitting its first black student in the 1940s, Princeton lagged behind other Ivy League schools, the Times reports. But Wilson left his university post in 1910. Is he to blame for whatever Princeton failed to do during the 30 years after he departed?
No End In Sight
No one should minimize the serious race problem that still permeates our society. Racism remains an infection that has survived all efforts to eliminate it. Scientists have enjoyed greater and quicker success eradicating the ebola virus than human beings have achieved in improving race relations in the United States.
But pulling the thread of retroactive judgment on history will leave us naked. George Washington owned slaves. Should we remove his name from our nation’s capital, a state, numerous cities and streets, and countless schools?
Abraham Lincoln — universally placed atop the presidential rankings — made numerous derogatory comments about blacks, whom he regard as an inferior race. And the Emancipation Proclamation freed only the slaves in the Confederacy. Should we wipe his likeness off Mount Rushmore?
And why limit the issue to race? How about religious intolerance? Protestant churches founded most colleges, and discrimination against Catholics continued well into the 20th century. The University of Chicago began as a Baptist school. Its first president, William Rainey Harper, tried to create a secular institution. But he also said that its purpose was to support a civilization that would be based on biblical principles. Is it time to rename the U of C’s William Rainey Harper Memorial Library?
For too long, Ivy League schools discriminated against Jews. Harvard appointed its first Jewish faculty member in the 1700s — on condition that he convert to Christianity. Harvard’s president from 1909 to 1933, A. Lawrence Lowell, was a notorious anti-semite and one reason that Harvard didn’t have a Jewish full professor until 1939. No one is talking about removing his name from buildings and lecture halls.
Money Says and Does What It Wants
There’s an irony to the controversy over Wilson’s continuing presence at Princeton. Today, big donors to colleges and universities can buy the ability to see their names on buildings, classrooms, and athletic facilities. How often does the institution consider whether that donor has intolerant racial or religious views in deciding whether to accept such a gift?
What Wilson gave the country was far more valuable than money. He led the nation at a time of great peril though the “War to End All Wars.” His subsequent struggle to achieve lasting world peace through the League of Nations destroyed him physically. In the context of the challenges Wilson faced, his service was heroic.
Never mind all of that, says a current generation of protesters. Posthumously, Wilson is should now become a victim of retroactive one-issue voting.
Current students believe correctly that they should be at the center of a college or university’s mission. In the current environment, they wield enormous power. But with that power comes responsibility. Some students think that chipping away at Woodrow Wilson’s legacy is a good idea.
To those students, I pose this hypothetical: Assume that you spend the next 40 years leading a decent life. Or at least, most people conclude you’ve done so when measured by the standards of your time. Now assume that, one hundred years from now, others revisit and judge you based on new standards of that future period, but unknown to you now. In doing so, they emphasize everything you did wrong while ignoring whatever you did to make the world a better place.
Does that approach make any sense to you? If not, please leave Woodrow Wilson alone.