The controversy over Woodrow Wilson’s place in America’s public memory, set in motion two weeks ago by Princeton University student protesters’ demanding that the school remove the twenty-eighth President’s name from its storied School of Public and International Affairs, is not going away anytime soon. The New York Times‘ Jennifer Schuessler has a sharp roundup of the state of play:
The debate comes amid a flurry of continuing renaming controversies on various campuses, including Georgetown, which recently announced that it was removing from campus buildings the names of two of its former presidents who had been involved in selling slaves, and Yale, which is hotly debating whether to rename a residential college named for John C. Calhoun, one of the 19th-century’s foremost defenders of slavery.
But the controversy over Wilson strikes closer to home for many liberal-leaning historians and scholars, threatening a symbol whose broader vision many would wish to defend, while raising the uncomfortable question of whether Wilson’s racism constitutes a blot on his record or an integral feature of the progressive tradition he helped to found.
“The irony here is that Wilson really is the architect of a lot of modern liberalism,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton. “The tradition that runs through F.D.R. to L.B.J. and Obama really starts with his administration.”
Three points seem worth making here. First, unlike most of the other demands we have been seeing from campus activists lately (for more diversity training, more race-based housing, and more speech-policing), this particular ask—that Princeton rename its Woodrow Wilson School—is not unhealthy or illiberal in and of itself. By condemning the twenty-eighth president’s record on race, these students are not infringing on free speech or academic freedom. To the contrary, they have sparked a rigorous and informative national debate about an important historical figure, with voices from all over the spectrum productively weighing in. All nations reckon (or fail to reckon) with their histories in part by arguing over their public symbols and monuments. This process can veer into a totalitarian scrubbing of the past (see Zedong, Mao) but it doesn’t have to, if the debate is undertaken openly and without intimidation. (Of course, on modern campuses, this is never guaranteed).
Second, in our view, purging Wilson from Princeton would be a mistake. That Wilson was a racist and that he still played an important role in American history (and the history of Princeton) is something that the university community needs to understand and process. As Damon Linker points out, the Founder of the League of Nations is being honored “despite his racism, not because of it.” (The flying of the Confederate Flag over State Capitols, for the record, told a different story). Also, unlike figures like George Wallace, Wilson was not so much an innovator in racist cruelty as someone whose views were, sadly, well within the mainstream for his time. Given these circumstances, knocking Wilson off his Princeton perch seems more likely to obliterate his imperfect legacy than to help students and faculty come to terms with it. American history is what it is, for good and for evil, and our institutions should reflect this.
Third, it will be interesting to see how the left-wing revolt against Wilson plays out in the broader Democratic Party. Unlike Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson (two other presidents who have recently fallen out of favor on the left), Wilson is in many ways the father of modern progressive thought. He thought the founding documents were outdated, believed strongly in the ability of government professionals to improve peoples’ lives, and—in so many words—said that opponents of his elite-approved, scientific agenda were on the wrong side of history. Perhaps an inadvertent effect of the anti-Wilson protests will be to dampen modern progressives’ crusading confidence that they are always and everywhere on the right side—but we’re not holding our breath.