Princeton, Don't Erase Woodrow Wilson's Name
Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber’s decision to capitulate to student protesters, and initiate processes to expunge Woodrow Wilson’s name and image from campus buildings is an affront to history. For Princeton, the university that Wilson led for eight years, to take the lead in warping Wilson into a historical monster amounts to an abdication of its role as an institution of higher learning.
One need not be a fan of Wilson’s to acknowledge that he is one of America’s most consequential presidents. He played a pivotal role in passing the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. He created the Federal Reserve and instituted the first federal progressive income tax. He crafted the antitrust law that empowers the federal government to block corporate mergers and prevent monopolies, and established the Federal Trade Commission to enforce it.
And that’s just on the domestic front. He also made America a global power, winning the fight against isolationism that was led by his former secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, so that America could enter, and end, World War I. While he failed in the war’s aftermath to fulfill his dream of a new international organization dedicated to the prevention of future wars, Wilson’s vision eventually triumphed thanks to his disciples Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. The United Nations was rooted in Wilsonian principles and proved to be a transformational force for peace and decolonization.
Despite the broad sweep of his presidency, it’s become fashionable to treat Wilson as little more than a petty racist. The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri (in an opinion piece actually in support of keeping Wilson’s name on buildings) blithely asserts that “Woodrow Wilson was terrible. On this we can agree,” before summarizing his record on race. Dylan Matthews at Vox.com (the so-called “explainer” news outlet) barked that “Woodrow Wilson was extremely racist — even by the standards of his time” and accused him of defending the Klu Klux Klan.
Wilson held racist views and his presidency was a setback for racial progress. That much is indisputable. But the caricature of Wilson as a virulent racist is inaccurate. While historical context does not exonerate Wilson’s record on race, neither is it irrelevant to understanding it.
What’s true and most damning is that Wilson re-segregated the federal workforce. However, it’s important to know that segregation was not Wilson’s idea; it was pushed by two of his Cabinet members from the South. As Wilson biographer John Milton Cooper Jr. noted, Wilson acquiesced in part because he believed department heads should be able to “run their agencies with little interference.”
Another biographer, A. Scott Berg, explained that Wilson “wished to promote racial progress” via a misguided notion of “shocking the social system as little as possible.” Increased segregation was seen, paternalistically, as a way to “avoid friction.” Further, Wilson wrongly thought he could balance the segregation decision and please all camps by simultaneously refusing his Cabinet members’ request to stop the practice of appointing African-Americans to certain midlevel posts. But Southern Democrats in the Senate effectively blocked his subsequent appointment to a Treasury position, which undermined Wilson’s compromise—and he acquiesced.
Whatever Wilson’s intentions, he owns the decision and its terrible consequences. Tom Lewis in Politico Magazine recently chronicled how federal government segregation created a poisonous atmosphere for residents of the capital. Blacks had a harder time finding work. White newspapers published trumped-up tales of black criminals, instigating white vigilante mobs that metastasized into a horrific July 1919 race riot.
But other purported evidence of Wilson’s “extreme” racism doesn’t hold up. For example, Matthews calls Wilson a “vocal defender of the Ku Klux Klan” based on cherry-picked lines from the fifth volume of Wilson’s 1902 work, “A History of the American People” which covered Reconstruction. Like other white Southerners, Wilson opposed Reconstruction policies, and he faults them for sowing the seeds of the KKK. But the full passage on the Klan (pages 60-64) shows Wilson was no defender of the murderous sect. He concluded:
“They had set themselves … to right a disordered society through the power of fear. Men of hot passions who could not always be restrained carried their plans into effect. … Houses were surrounded in the night and burned, and the inmates shot as they fled. … Men were dragged from their houses and tarred and feathered. Some who defied the vigilant visitors came mysteriously to some sudden death. … Brutal crimes were committed; the innocent suffered with the guilty; a reign of terror was brought on, and society was infinitely more disturbed than defended.”
Matthews also circulates the oft repeated but dubious claim that Wilson praised the notoriously racist film “The Birth of Nation,” saying it is like teaching “history with lightning.” It’s true that the film was screened at the White House, as a favor to an old friend who wrote the book on which the film was based. But the quote is almost certainly apocryphal as there is no contemporaneous account of him saying it. What he definitely said, as protests by the NAACP mounted, was that “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.”
Wilson’s views on race were not out of step with prevailing views of the times. His predecessor, William Taft, began his presidency with a pledge to phase out the appointment of blacks "to a local office in a community in which the race feeling is so widespread.” In other words, in the South. Teddy Roosevelt, the former president who ran against both Taft and Wilson in 1912, decided to deny Southern blacks a role in his Progressive Party for fear of alienating their white neighbors.
As Berg notes, “Wilson’s racial views were fairly centrist in America.” Cooper, belying the easy depiction of Wilson as the prototype of a bigoted Southerner, wrote: “His impatience with agitation over race from any quarter made him resemble northern whites of that time more than fellow southerners.”
“Indifference,” added historian Kendrick Clements, summed up Wilson’s record on racial discrimination more “than by its active promotion.”
None of that excuses the record. Wilson’s chapter in the story of race in America is a sorry one, and it’s a story that should be (accurately) told. But so should the rest of the Wilson story. Not simply for Wilson’s sake, but because there is so much to dissect and learn from.
Was Wilson’s pursuit of world peace an indication of moral leadership or blundering overreach? Was Wilson pragmatically wise in compromising with banks to create the Federal Reserve, or did he set a bad precedent? Would the New Deal have happened if Wilson had not laid the initial foundation? Was Wilson’s conversion on women’s suffrage – sealed by friend and moderate feminist Carrie Chapman Catt –proof of the value of insider persuasion or of outside agitation?
And why, exactly, were so many early 20th century progressives unable to extend their progressivism to the cause of racial equality?
These are the questions we won’t even know to ask if we turn Wilson, already a woefully under-analyzed and under-appreciated figure, into a pariah unworthy of recognition. Removing his name from his intellectual home would not just condemn him; it would condemn us to a poorer understanding of our own history. For Princeton to contribute to American ignorance would be an unconscionable act for a premier university.