Call it a case of academic double jeopardy. Princeton University’s decision to purge the name of Woodrow Wilson from its school of public affairs follows a decision only four years ago to keep the name. That was in 2016, when Princeton’s trustees, reacting to concerns within the school community and given impetus by Black Lives Matter, appointed a committee to appraise the 28th president of America, decided to continue to honor him.
At issue then was “the position he took as Princeton’s president to prevent the enrollment of black students and the policies he instituted as U.S. president that resulted in the re-segregation of the federal civil service.” Wilson’s name was on not only the School of Public & International Affairs but also a residential college. The board followed the committee’s recommendation to keep Wilson’s name. It issued what seemed to be an important statement.
“Contextualization is imperative,” it said. “Princeton must openly and candidly recognize that Wilson, like other historical figures, leaves behind a complex legacy with both positive and negative repercussions, and that the use of his name implies no endorsement of views and actions that conflict with the values and aspirations of our times.” As the cancel movement spreads today, that plea for context seems even more important.
No longer at Old Nassau. Princeton’s president Christopher Eisgruber, announced on Saturday that Wilson’s name is coming off both institutions, because naming a school of public policy for a political leader “inevitably suggests that the honoree is a model for students who study at the school” and “Wilson’s racism disqualifies him for that role.” Residential students should not be asked “to identify with the name of a racist president.”
What a change from 2016, when Princeton insisted that what was needed was “transparency in recognizing Wilson’s failings and shortcomings as well as the visions and achievements that led to the naming of the school and the college in the first place.” Suddenly, in 2020, he is simply a “racist.” Mr. Eisgruber offers a few crumbs to Wilson fans, conceding that Wilson is “a different figure from, say, John C. Calhoun or Robert E. Lee.” In context, what a low bar.
Certainly Wilson has much for which to answer. In his first year in office, he permitted his Treasury and the Post Office to begin efforts to segregate the federal workforce, particularly in the Columbia District. It was often carried out surreptitiously. Yet Wilson condoned it and tried to duck its implications in a manner we would describe today as slimy. He also curtailed minority appointments to executive, diplomatic, and judicial positions.
Those latter numbers weren’t large — about 30 — but they were posts traditionally reserved for black Americans. The signal was terrible, even if it’s unclear that those black appointments would have met approval from a Senate controlled by Southern Democrats. Estimates reckon that between 15,000 and 20,000 black civil service employees, 6% of the federal workforce, were impacted by the administration’s actions. That adds up to serious harm.
Those realities aside, biographer John Milton Cooper notes that Wilson’s views on race were characteristic of a “fairly typical white northerner of his time,” not dramatically different from that of his Republican predecessors, Presidents Roosevelt and Taft. The GOP and the Progressive movement, which was prominent in American politics at the time, was indifferent to the plight of blacks, who resided overwhelmingly in the Jim Crow South.
Republican backtracking on civil rights, and the beginnings of discrimination in the civil service led a new generation of black leaders. These included such giants as W. E. B. DuBois, who in 1919 founded The Crisis magazine and Monroe Trotter, founding editor of the Boston Guardian, went so far as to endorse Wilson over TR and Taft in 1912. Their attitude seemed to be “What have we got to lose?” In the event, Wilson disappointed them.
It turned out that Wilson was dependent on the Southern Democrats — and their rabidly racist cohort — to pass his New Freedom program. That included bills establishing the first income tax, the Federal Reserve, antitrust efforts, and the eight- hour day. All were sponsored by and, in some cases named for, southern legislators. Not unlike Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, Wilson accepted his party’s stance on race in service of his legislative vision.
The more prominent social issues of the day were immigration and women’s suffrage. Wilson fell at the progressive end of the spectrum. He twice vetoed legislation restricting asylum and requiring immigrants to pass a literacy test, both supported by his Republican nemesis, Henry Cabot Lodge. The second 1917 veto was overridden. Wilson supported the suffrage amendment, and named, in Louis Brandeis, the first Jew to the Supreme Court.
So where does that leave us? Writing in 2016 of Wilson’s views on race, scholar David Kennedy said that “We can wish that he had possessed qualities of imagination and empathy that would have liberated him from those views, but he did not.” Kennedy concluded that “In a world where there is no shortage of evil, it surely seems perverse to highlight the imperfections, rather than the positive accomplishments, of those who tried to do their best.”
Four years after echoing Professor Kennedy's judgment, Princeton has suddenly zeroed in on Wilson’s imperfections. Whether that will serve the cause of racial understanding at the university remains to be seen. How sad it would be were one of two Princeton graduates to lead America and Princeton’s only Nobel laureate in peace — not to mention the coiner of the motto “Princeton in the Nation's Service” — confined to the margin of the university’s institutional memory.
Mr. Atkinson, a contributing editor of the Sun, covers the 20th Century. Image: Photo of President Wilson from the Library of Congress via Wikipedia.
Letter to the Editor:
As a Princeton alumnus and parent and biographer of Woodrow Wilson, I am saddened by the decision of its president to remove his name from a residential college and its school public affairs. Wilson’s monumental achievements as the university’s president, New Jersey’s governor, and America’s president should continue to be honored, along with acknowledging that his racial views sprang out of a near consensus among white Americans of his time, especially in the North.
Wilson shocked his southern relatives when he invited Booker T. Washington to speak at his Princeton presidential inauguration. He was the first American president to denounce lynching. He did not initiate but did condone an abortive effort at formal segregation in the federal workplace, and he did not stop moves to restrict hiring of African-Americans. Those moves had begun earlier and continued under his Republican successors.
Wilson regretted having permitted a White House screening of “The Birth of a Nation,” and he opposed its re-release. His alleged praise for the film was the invention of a Hollywood writer 20 years later. His sins on race were mostly sins of omission. Those sins pervaded the larger society, and they need to be recognized and studied, not simply expunged. Soviet-style erasure of Wilson’s name from parts of Princeton that mattered most to him is not the answer.
John Milton Cooper, Jr.
Mr. Cooper, a professor emeritus in history at the University of Wisconsin, is the author of 'Woodrow Wilson, A Biography,' which was brought out in 2011 by Vintage and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.