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Woodrow Wilson, Princeton University, and the Battles We Choose to Fight

11/21/2015 09:14 am ET | Updated Nov 23, 2015
  • Geoffrey R. Stone Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law, University of Chicago
AP

As part of their recent thirty-two hour sit-in outside the office of Princeton University's president Chris Eisgruber, members of one of Princeton's student organizations, the Black Justice League, demanded that Eisgruber remove all images of Woodrow Wilson from all of Princeton's public spaces and erase Wilson's name from Princeton's internationally acclaimed Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Eisgruber, who I'm proud to say was one of my students several decades ago at the University of Chicago Law School, is mulling it over.

For more than a century, Princeton has had a special place in its heart for Woodrow Wilson. In part, this was because Wilson served as president of the university from 1902 to 1910. During his presidency of Princeton, Wilson renewed and reinvigorated the institution. In only eight years, he increased the size of the faculty from 112 to 174, paying special attention to both teaching and scholarly excellence.

Wilson also made progressive innovations in the curriculum, raised admissions standards to move Princeton away from its historic image as an institution dedicated only to students from the upper crust, and took strides to invigorate the university's intellectual life by replacing the traditional norm of the "gentleman's C" with a course of serious and rigorous study. As Wilson told alumni, his goal was "to transform thoughtless boys . . . into thinking men."

Wilson also attempted (unsuccessfully because of the resistance of alumni) to curtail the influence of social elites by abolishing the upper-class eating clubs, appointed the first Jew and the first Catholic to the faculty, and helped liberate the university's board of trustees from the grip of tradition-bound and morally-conservative Presbyterians. Given that record of achievement, it's easy to understand why Princeton has chosen to recognize Woodrow Wilson as one of its greatest and most influential presidents.

Of course, Princeton has also chosen to honor Wilson because of his later service as President of the United States. During his tenure as President, Wilson was one of the nation's most effective leaders of the progressive movement. Shortly after assuming office, he expressly called to account some of the most powerful industrial and financial leaders in the nation for what he deemed their malpractices in business affairs.

As President, Wilson oversaw the passage of a range of progressive legislation previously unparalleled in American history. Among the bills he signed into law were the Federal Reserve Act, the Federal Trade Commission Act, the Clayton Antitrust Act, the Adamson Act, which for the first time imposed a maximum eight-hour day for railroad workers, and the Keating-Owen Act, which (before it was held unconstitutional by the-then-very-conservative Supreme Court) curtailed child labor. Samuel Gompers, the most visible labor leader of the time, described Wilson's achievements as a "Magna Carta" for the rights of the workingman.

Among his other accomplishments, Wilson, over bitter opposition from anti-Semites, appointed the first Jewish member of the Supreme Court - Louis Brandeis, and offered his Fourteen Points and his strong support of the League of Nations in the hope of promoting international peace and averting future world wars.

Wilson was not without his flaws, however. During World War I, he, like Presidents John Adams and Abraham Lincoln before him, supported the aggressive suppression of dissent in wartime in a way that seriously damaged the core principles of American democracy.

More to the point of the current controversy at Princeton, Wilson also ordered the segregation of federal government offices, and his War Department drafted hundreds of thousands of African-Americans into the army, gave them equal pay with whites, but -- in accord with military policy from the Civil War through the Second World War -- assigned them to all-black units with white officers. When a delegation of African-Americans protested this policy, Wilson told them that "segregation is not a humiliation" and ought not "to be so regarded by you gentlemen."

Like his suppression of dissent during the war, Wilson's support of racial segregation was deplorable. But it is important to understand that at the time such segregation was legal, was consistent with the views of most Americans, and was part of the public policy in many, perhaps most, states in the nation. Indeed, in some quarters such segregation was even considered a "progressive" reform insofar as it limited the opportunities for interracial disputes that could trigger white violence.

It would, of course, have been great if Woodrow Wilson, like some others of his generation, had directly challenged the morality of racial segregation. It would have been great if he had not believed in the principle of white supremacy. But, like all of us, he was a man of his own time, and he should be judged accordingly.

All in all, Woodrow Wilson is almost universally regarded as one of the greatest presidents in Princeton's history and, despite his serious shortcomings, one of the greatest presidents our nation has ever known. Wilson was in almost all respects a progressive champion who, like many other progressive champions of his era, was morally obtuse on the issue of racial justice. Thus, when all is said and done, Wilson should be judged by Princeton, as he has been judged by historians, not only by the moral standards of today, but by his achievements and his values in the setting of his own time.

After all, if Woodrow Wilson is to be obliterated from Princeton because his views about race were backward and offensive by contemporary standards, then what are we to do with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson, all of whom actually owned slaves? What are we to do with Abraham Lincoln, who declared in 1858 that "I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races," and that "I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people"?

What are we to do with Franklin Roosevelt, who ordered the internment of 120,000 persons of Japanese descent? With Dwight Eisenhower, who issued an Executive Order declaring homosexuals a serious security risk? With Bill Clinton, who signed the Defense of Marriage Act? With Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, both of whom opposed the legalization of same-sex marriage?

And what are we to do with Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who once opined in a case involving compulsory sterilization that "three generations of imbeciles is enough"? With Leland Stanford, after whom Stanford University is named who, as governor of California, lobbied for the restriction of Chinese immigration, explaining to the state legislature in 1862 that "the presence of numbers of that degraded and distinct people would exercise a deleterious effect upon the superior race"?

And what are we do with all of the presidents, politicians, academic leaders, industrial leaders, jurists, and social reformers who at one time or another in American history denied women's right to equality, opposed women's suffrage, and insisted that a woman's proper place was "in the home"? And on and on and on.

Not having any personal connection to Princeton (other than my affection and respect for its current president), I don't really care one way or the other whether Princeton erases Woodrow Wilson from its history - except to the extent that such an action would inevitably invite an endless array of similar claims that would both fundamentally distort the realities of our history and distract attention from the real issues of deeply-rooted injustice in our contemporary society that we need to take seriously today. This, quite frankly, is not one of them.

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