About this blog

This isn't designed to be a blog per se, but just a place to store things I've written for easy reference. Most of it will be book reviews, with a few random essays about the stuff that interests me outside work (i.e. nothing on politics and government).

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Woodrow Wilson's Place and Ours

The School of Public and International Affairs is one of two buildings on campus named for Woodrow Wilson, whose "Princeton in the Nation's Service" speech recalled its previous greatness and helped set the stage for its renaissance.
Ever since Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber agreed to reconsider "how the University recognizes [President Woodrow] Wilson's legacy" in response to a student protest that had occupied his office, magazines, newspapers and the Internet have been flooded with thoughtful debate over the answer.  Most prominently at stake is the eponymous Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

I'm not a Princeton graduate and I think it's mostly a question for the Princeton community to decide for itself. But, as a supporter of historic preservation who studies American history as a long standing hobby, it's hard not to think about such matters, especially given that the debate about how to judge our forebears is not limited to the Princeton campus. Every generation takes a fresh look at past ones, so its useful to consider Wilson's case in a broader context.

To summarize a pertinent facts regarding Woodrow Wilson that are most pertinent to the current debate:

* He was born in Virginia in 1856, five years before the Civil War.  The war itself, fought between 1861 and 1865 (and much of it in Virginia) would have been something very real to Wilson.
* Wilson taught Constitutional Law (despite not being a lawyer) at New York Law School and government at Princeton before becoming Princeton's President in 1902.
* Wilson had delivered a famous speech lambasting Princeton for its failure to achieve its full potential.  Later, as the University's President, he would go on to radically reform the school, fighting entrenched interests to put it on the path to the academically elite institution it is today.
* He was elected governor of New Jersey in 1910, where he again took on entrenched and corrupt bosses.
* He became President in 1912, served two terms in office, and personally attended the Paris Peace Conference that ended World War One, which established the League of Nations.  Largely due to his intransigence, however, the US would not join the League.
* As President he purged African Americans from the federal government and re-segregated its departments. As President of Princeton also maintained Princeton as a "whites only" institution.

The arguments for keeping Wilson fall into different camps:
  1. History is complicated.  Great men sometimes do very bad things as well.  Getting rid of Wilson will encourage us to avoid such ambiguity (the American Interest) to the detriment of the educational experience.
  2. On a similar note, all great leaders have some terrible flaws so there wouldn't be anyone left to honor if we remove Wilson and apply that precedent to others (Princeton history professor Julian Zelizer).
  3. Or that Wilson's accomplishments are so significant that they outweigh the bad, which has itself been overblown (Liberal Oasis's Bill Scher; NYU's Jonathan Zimmerman).
  4. With regards to his horrible record on race relations, he was a product of his time and place (see above) for which we as 21st century Americans should be at least somewhat understanding (Star Ledger).
On, the other side the augments for dumping Wilson are:
  1. his record on race is so awful it overwhelms all else and that as times change so do our values allowing us to reappraise who we wish to honor (New York Times).
  2. His Presidential actions were do detrimental that he shouldn't be honored anyway, and the racial issues just make it worse (the Federalist).

100 years after his presidency, Woodrow Wilson is back in the news.
Some of the defenses of Wilson resonate with me.

Love him or hate him, there's no doubt that he was one of our most significant presidents.  The Federal Reserve owes its existence to him.  He led us during World War One.  Even his failure to obtain entry for the US into the League of Nations had hugely important consequences.  His views on government and the Constitution may be pernicious to some, but they still drive much of the contemporary debate. Finally, I agree with those who believe that people should be judged in the context of their own time and place rather than contemporary standards.

However, I don't buy the "getting rid of Wilson would hurt history" argument.  We don't name buildings to promote debate and understanding, but to honor the person named.  No one would forget Wilson if his name was removed.  So long as Wilson's name is on the Princeton campus there is at least some ongoing honor bestowed upon him.  I don't think it's possible for Wilson defenders to hang one's hat on the "protection of history" argument.

On the other hand, what I have yet to see is a defense of Wilson centered around the situs of the monuments to him, which I think is highly relevant to this debate, which is about honoring Wilson at Princeton as opposed to honoring him generically.

As a former Senate staffer who once worked in a building named for Senator Richard Russell I recall an effort to remove Russell's name from that building. I instinctively thought it was a bad idea. Russell, who represented Georgia in the US Senate from 1933 to 1971, opposed Civil Rights laws and was a firm supporter of his state's segregationist system, one which I despised.  Yet one had to consider that no Senator from Georgia could have possibly done otherwise (unlike Wilson's purge of African-Americans from the federal government, which followed great progress by his predecessors) and his career in the Senate was in many ways a magnificent one.  While I wouldn't go naming anything else in Washington, DC after him, I felt strongly that Russell's name should remain on the Senate office building where his colleagues had placed it.

Senator Richard Russell (D-Georgia) still stands in the rotunda
 of the Senate office building named after him
Similarly, Wilson belongs at Princeton, but perhaps only at Princeton.* He was not only a distinguished professor of government, but as President fought hard to alter it from being a school for lazy kids of privilege to what has indisputably become one of America's elite educational institutions, modeled after Oxford and Cambridge.  If many of the students who protested in President Eisgruber's office would not have been allowed into Princeton in Wilson's day, none of them would likely have even wanted to be at Princeton had it not been for Wilson.  For that, I don't blame the Princeton community for honoring him in the manner it does today.

*Interestingly, no one so far as I can tell has brought up the Wilson Center in Washington DC, the Smithsonian think tank named for the nation's only PhD President, for criticism.  

The other institution named for Wilson at Princeton is Wilson College:
one of Wilson's innovations as Princeton's President was to establish
on-campus facilities for students so that they could live and eat
together outside the college's traditional "eating clubs," which Wilson disliked.

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