Princeton Without Wilson: To What End?

Princeton University was as tied to Woodrow Wilson as a school could be.  Not only was Wilson the nation’s 28th President, but also the president of Princeton.

As the school’s president in the early 20th century, Wilson initiated its expansion into a full-scale university. He lifted educational standards, created academic majors and introduced the small-group classes, often led by professors, known as precepts.

And so, his name was on the wall there.

To honor him, Princeton created the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs — an elite institution within an elite institution — and a residential complex, Wilson College, where quotations from the revered leader have been displayed on a television screen in the dining hall.

And lest there be any doubt, Wilson was also a racist.  Not in the slave-owning sense, like the founding fathers, but in the more banal sense.

But until posters started appearing around campus in September, one aspect of Wilson’s legacy was seldom discussed: his racist views, and the ways he acted on them as president of the United States.

The posters, put up by a year-old student group called the Black Justice League, featured some of Wilson’s more offensive quotes, including his comment to an African-American leader that “segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you,” and led to a remarkable two days at this genteel campus last week.

Indeed, the impact of Wilson’s racist policies are vividly, if somewhat melodramatically, described by Gordon Davis.

Wilson, a Virginia-born Democrat, is mostly remembered as a progressive, internationalist statesman, a benign and wise leader, a father of modern American political science and one of our nation’s great presidents.

But he was also an avowed racist. And unlike many of his predecessors and successors in the White House, he put that racism into action through public policy. Most notably, his administration oversaw the segregation of the federal government, destroying the careers of thousands of talented and accomplished black civil servants — including John Abraham Davis, my paternal grandfather.

All of this is a matter of history. It wasn’t a secret that Wilson was racist, but he existed in a different time of American history, when overt racism was still an acceptable view and course of action.

In response to demands by the Black Justice League, Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber sent out an email that said:

One of the most sensitive and controversial issues pertains to Woodrow Wilson’s legacy on the campus.  As every Princetonian knows, Wilson left a lasting imprint on this University and this campus, and while much of his record had a very positive impact on the shaping of modern Princeton, his record on race is disturbing.  As a University we have to be open to thoughtful re-examination of our own history, and I believe it is appropriate to engage our community in a careful exploration of this legacy.

After assessing the information it has gathered and hearing the views of all parts of the Princeton community, the Board will decide whether there are any changes that should be made in how the University recognizes Wilson’s legacy.

This may be the precursor to the eradication of Wilson’s legacy at Princeton, or a palliative for those demanding it. What to do?

American universities are steeped in tradition and history, and as current complaints point out, much of it fails to withstand scrutiny when viewed through the prism of presentism, the view of conduct from an earlier age through the present-day norms. One by one, historical figures, from Wilson to Thomas Jefferson, are being held up for actions that were ordinary in their time, but venal today.

Does this justify the Stalinist-type eradication of their existence? Does this justify their post-hoc vilification? Does the bad erase the good?  Does the bad really constitute bad, given that it existed in a historical context very different than today?

The students may subject their complaints to ridicule by their claims that they can’t eat, sleep or study due to the pain of their perceptions, their demands for safe spaces where their feelings are respected.  And they deserve the ridicule for behaving like such fragile teacups. To add to the problem, many of their complaints turn out to be factually false, whether lies or exaggerations.

But the complaint that Woodrow Wilson was a racist isn’t false. Put aside the infantile melodrama surrounding their special snowflake cries, and consider whether this time they have a complaint worthy of being taken seriously.

There are two ways to view a solution. The eradication of Wilson’s legacy is insane; he existed. He was a huge presence at Princeton. He’s still the 28th President of the United States no matter how much of a racist he was.

But does the good he accomplished, in light of his racism, suffice to keep him in a place of high honor at Princeton?  In other words, while Wilson can’t be turned into a non-person because he’s reviled today, should he remain on a pedestal?

A serious answer to the question is hard to come by, given the melodrama.  It’s also problematic that this reflects the demands of one identity group. Should every identity group, whether its holds sway today or in the future, be entitled to wipe out historical figures who failed to meet with their approval?

Just as Christopher Columbus has been ripped to shreds, there is likely no historical figure that can pass politically correct muster.  Even Martin Luther King was a philandering plagiarist.  And the day will come when race isn’t the front burner issue, and the first word of Black Justice League will be replaced with other identity groups, also calling for the eradication of their hated historical figures. Soon enough, the only viable names will be trees and cute animals, as every person will fail to withstand politically correct scrutiny.

So remember historical fact. Remember that Wilson did great things and terrible things. But the revisionist history of “presentism” doesn’t change history. The name on the wall isn’t there to hurt your feelings, but as a testament to the good Wilson accomplished. This too is historical fact.

And if this creates the dreaded feelings of being “unwelcome” and “disrespected,” such that you can’t bear the trauma of attending Princeton University, one of the most elite and privileged places on earth, then you need to grow up or seek psychological help.

The history of mankind is replete with scars and blemishes, but it’s ours, and brought us to the point where you can cry about your hurt feelings. You don’t have to love and honor anyone or anything you find repugnant, but you don’t get to deny history no matter how much it makes you cry. Get over it.

30 thoughts on “Princeton Without Wilson: To What End?

  1. Nigel Declan

    The students, in their demands, seem to start off well, by asking for Wilson’s racist views and official acts based thereupon to be recognized. It is important that his legacy be considered in toto, not just to appease the Black Justice League, but to recognize that Wilson, like many past historical figures, was human and was flawed. This would seem consistent with respecting George Santayana’s famous warning. Even a discussion of how to recognize his legacy, without removing it completely, may be reasonable.

    The demands, however, go on to insist that a discussion on freedom of expression must be had, but only on terms the BLJ agrees with, and that “safe spaces” be created for them over which they exercise a great deal of autonomy. Since these goals seem unrelated to the primary issue regarding Woodrow Wilson’s legacy, there is an unmistakable whiff of opportunism.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s certainly opportunistic at this moment, when campuses are erupting with microaggressions and admnistrators are all too willing to apologize for the some non-specific trauma, and even resign. So right up a list of demands, make them as wild and silly as possible, throw them against the wall and see what sticks.

      What’s the worst that can happen? Get sent to bed without dinner?

  2. the other rob

    If you can’t bear to think about Woodrow Wilson, don’t go to WWU. It’s not like you didn’t have prior notification of his connection to the place, Or, if it is, perhaps university isn’t the best choice for you.

  3. Keith

    I don’t know about you, but the whole “Prince”ton thing seems a bit patriarchal to me.

    Does the administration of Princeton acquiesce to their demands only to find another group rising up to claim they are eliminating the history of racism?

    Does the administration hold firm and say that they respect all thoughts until they are forced to resign amid hunger strikes over the trauma they have caused to the students?

    1. SHG Post author

      Don’t be silly. First, Princeton is just an example; it’s happening everywhere. Second, Princeton is a fabulous school, and the people suffering unbearable trauma damn well know it.

  4. Roger

    “there is likely no historical figure that can pass politically correct muster. ”

    Good. It’s about time to talk about the warts on on those who came before us. Blind hero worship of politicians past and reverence for the mythical golden age that never actually was distracts from serious discussions of where we need to go now. So no, don’t try to erase Wilson from history, but don’t sanitize his role in perpetuating Jim Crow, either, with claims of “presentism” and suggestions that no one in those benighted times knew better.

    Justice Harlan’s dissent in Plessy v Ferguson was written over 16 years before Wilson took office, and the NAACP was organized four years before. Lots of folks knew Jim Crow was wrong in 1913. The times weren’t different because nobody knew that racism was wrong, they were different because enough people didn’t care that you could still get away with it. You shouldn’t get a pass on the immorality of your position just because you had the power to enact it.

    1. SHG Post author

      Now you went overboard. Presentism isn’t about sanitizing but putting historical fact in context. You are shining example of flagrant misrepresentation of history to suit your narrative. The NAACP wasn’t formed because “lots of people” accepted the evil of racism, but because some people first recognized that the fight against racism needed to be fought. You’re no more entitled to recreate history to suit your politics than anyone else.

      1. Roger

        “You’re no more entitled to recreate history to suit your politics than anyone else.”

        True. And likewise, I’m sure. So is it not an historical fact that there was a sustained movement for racial equality involving “lots” of people (perhaps I erred in using such an ambiguous term) during and following Reconstruction that was beat back by the combination of genteel racists like Wilson on one front and violent racists like the Klan on another? That is the context that makes a claim of presentism in defense of Wilson seem disingenuous to me.

        1. SHG Post author

          In the early 20th Century (hell, for most of the 20th Century), blatant racism was the norm and socially acceptable among the genteel and KKK types alike. The genteel might not have been violent about it, but the context is that racism was still the predominant perspective of American society.

          1. Roger

            All true. And yet, despite this, federal civil service positions in administrations before Wilson had been integrated, and this changed dramatically for the worse under his administration. Lots of justifications can (and have been) offered for this by folks not wanting to give up on a progressive hero, and there’s probably some truth to some of those justifications, but the claim that complaints about him are just “the revisionist history of ‘presentism'” ain’t one of them. Woodrow Wilson was not some Mississippi dirt farmer swept along by the currents of history. He was the president of the United States, and he changed the course of the river, sometimes for good, in this case for ill.

            1. SHG Post author

              Did you read the post? It’s in there. No need to repeat back to me what I already wrote about. And that’s why I wrote Wilson was a racist. But then, everybody knew exactly what he did back then, and still they named a school after him. Do you not grasp that?

              But as for denying presentism, more words don’t make your case any stronger, just lengthier. The reason he was beloved for the past 100 years, until he was reviled ten minutes ago, is presentism. This really isn’t hard stuff to grasp. Just as there is no argument that he wasn’t a racist, there’s no argument that this isn’t basic presentism. So, I think this has run its course.

  5. Jeff Gamso

    On behalf of third-generation idiots, I demand that all references to Oliver Wendell Holmes be removed from the Supreme Court and that all his opinions be excised from the official and unofficial reports.

  6. Bruce Coulson

    It’s all part of pendulum. First, those that accomplished much are subject to hero-worship and idolization. Then, people discover the feet of clay that their heroes (and everyone else) have. Then the once-hero is a duplicitous monster, deserving of nothing but scorn, and even positive acts are viewed through a lens encouraging suspicion. And then advocates point out all the good that was still accomplished by the hero, despite their failings. And so it goes…eventually, a long time later, a balanced view MIGHT be reached. Princeton students are ‘discovering’ the ugly side of Wilson. But unless Wilson’s ghost is prowling Princeton providing late-night screenings of ‘A Birth of a Nation’ to white supremacists, they’re over-reacting to Wilson’s dark side.

  7. David M.

    I just had a grim vision of the future.

    As Princeton’s great minds hear the crump
    of the missiles of President Trump
    set the planet on fire,
    they’ll feel sad, then expire
    knowing Wilson’s a bigoted chump.

  8. John Barleycorn

    If Woodrow had listened to Paul Warburg’s advice about suits and how best to accessorize the gentleman’s wardrobe none of this would really be an issue today. But Woodrow was a stubborn man.

    In fact I bet after turning over in his grave last night Woodrow wishes he would have been buried with a top hat on and a walking stick by his side.

    It’s tough to be a ghost without a walking stick and although the removal of the top hat during a formal introduction on the street may one day become fashionable again I don’t know if the children will every really understand the pomp.

    P.S. You seem to hold Woodrow in high esteem esteemed one. I don’t know….But I do think he is definitely in the running to become the poster child for the unintended consequences of presidential decisions.

    1. SHG Post author

      Not really. I never cared much for Wilson. He’s no Millard Fillmore, if you catch my drift. I do, however, care about history. He’s just lucky to be a part of it.

      1. John Barleycorn

        I think Millard would agree.

        Speaking of luck and the winds of history and fashion I wonder if the children on college campuses today will be more likely to name their children Millard or Woodrow? I think both have a chance to appear in the top 25 baby names within a grocery store check out line publication in the not too distant future.

  9. Bruce Godfrey

    It seems particularly perverse to honor Wilson as the namesake of a school of public policy when his most lasting legacy in public policy was arguably to fire nearly every “Negro” (today we would probably say Black) American hired to implement that public policy. That act impoverished Black America in the Washington area, made DC more segregated than it had been, made future public policies more expensive and made the federal government itself more resistant to implementing policy changes. He made public policy worse.

    Princetonian narcissism outwhines Millennial narcissism, as any 20+year recipient of the Princeton Alumni Weekly can confirm (P ’91 in my case). Only the special pleading of Princeton “legacy” (?) for Princeton’s sake would name a public policy school after a massive, flaunting, fantastic failure such as Woodrow Wilson. When you screw up – not just are “evil” or “oppressive” or “triggering”, but are a screw up who screws up – you don’t get the trophy, even if the goof takes decades to correct. It’s the equivalent of giving a marketing award to Arthur Carlson for bombing Cincinnati with turkeys on Thanksgiving week.

    1. SHG Post author

      And yet, not only did Princeton name the school after Wilson, but no one (including you?) ever raised this at the time. Seems rather inexplicable, given your comment, except for an overdose of presentism.

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