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 College 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 should now become a victim of retroactive one-issue voting.

Judge Not…

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.






  1. There is nothing reasonable about a university requiring mandatory indoctrination in ANY opinion. It is a fundamental betrayal of intellectual freedom, which should be one of the core values of every university.

  2. I admire your blog and generally agree with your positions. However, I don’t agree with you concerning Wilson. History is all about re-examining the past. The easiest example against your question is Adolf Hitler. His views concerning the Jews were widely accepted at the time, even considered “moral” if you accepted (as many Germans did) his view of morality. Should we not have a debate now if there were Adolf Hitler Institute today?

    Clearly, this is an overly simplistic argument on my part. I think most people would agree that Hitler did more bad things than good. Wilson clearly had accomplishments worth praising. However, just because he had done some good things doesn’t mean we should examine the bad.
    As a lawyer, I think there is a fundamental distinction between the conduct of Washington and Jefferson as slave owners and the acts of Woodrow Wilson. First, between the founding fathers and Wilson, there was the passage of the 13th and 14th amendment to the constitution. Second, as detailed in the NY Times, Wilson, as President, actively disenfranchised African Americans in violation of the principles of 14th amendment and as a personal moral belief. He increased segregation in the federal government where it had not been the case before and he actively fired African Americans from their civil service positions. What Wilson did was unconstitutional and his actions should be recognized as such. There is also a distinction between following the law of the time and actively pursuing an immoral course. Isn’t there a moral difference between the German who accepted the Nazi position on Jews and the German who actively shipped Jews off to Dachau? Washington was certainly complicit as a slave owner, but he also favored gradual abolition and asked that his slaves be freed when Martha died. Yes, it was still wrong and personally selfish on his part, but perhaps it was necessary to create the greater good of the United States which could never have been formed if Washington and Jefferson pushed for abolition (as well as ruining them financially). Wilson pursued an active racist agenda because he believed it to be morally correct and for that reason, I think a discussion of his tenure is justified today.

    To me the question should be about Wilson’s accomplishments as balanced against his racist policies; not about whether we should or should not judge the past through today’s lens of morality. For something like the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, I’m agnostic. It is up to Princeton. He was both a president of Princeton and a President of the United States. He attempted to create the League of Nations. However, a school dedicated to public policy should not be blind to a fundamental public policy debate on which history has put Wilson on the wrong side.

    • Comparing Wilson to Hitler is silly.

      I don’t object to re-examining the past. Indeed, that is what the study of history is all about. One irony in the current debate is that nothing in the recent discussion of Wilson’s racism is new. What’s new is the focus on a terrible and enduring problem — racism — that has appropriately received attention. I do not defend Wilson’s racist views or actions. In fact, using his failings in that regard as a vehicle for the current discussions about race in America may be helpful.

      We agree that you think it’s appropriate to balance “Wilson’s accomplishments…against his racists policies…” But then you suggest that the issue is not “whether we should or should not judge the past through today’s lens of morality.” However, the “balancing” you seek requires a temporal frame of reference, as well as a relative weighting of the policies — good and bad — that you are balancing. The current drive to “take Wilson’s name off everything associated with Princeton” judges him on a a single issue only — race. And it imposes today’s standard of morality, rather than considering his actions in the context in which he lived. To be sure, he was on the wrong side of history on racial issues, but so were most Americans at the time. Far too many still are.

      Maybe historians looking at the totality of Wilson’s domestic and international record have been wrong, but for the past 70 years they have consistently rated him among the best U.S. Presidents.

      As for disconnecting Wilson’s name with Princeton, let me know when universities start vetting the views of major donors who pay big bucks for naming opportunities. How many corporate CEOs run companies that still have inadequate anti-discrimination policies? Or, if the single issue moves to climate change, how many made millions exploiting the environment? Or, if the issue is income inequality, how many have become rich by exploiting holes in the financial system to the detriment of the 99-percenters? And how will any of all of these people look 100 years from now — when a generation of students decides it’s time for those donors’ names to be purged from the record?

  3. No Jewish full Professor at Harvard before 1939? — what about Felix Frankfurter, who then *left* his professorship of two decades for the Supreme Court?

    • Fair point of clarification. According to the source I cited in my post (Jewish Currents —, Harry Levin (an English scholar) was Harvard College’s first Jewish full professor. The cite also notes: “He was preceded by Harry Wolfson, who joined the faculty in 1915 but was required to raise his own salary from outside sources, and by Horace Kallen, who was a lecturer at Harvard for three years.” Harvard Law School appointed Frankfurter the first Jewish law professor in 1914.

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