Historians, Woodrow Wilson, and Racism at Princeton

As many of you already know, students at Princeton University have convinced President Peter Eisgruber to consider removing Woodrow Wilson’s name and image from university buildings and programs because of Wilson’s views on race relations.

There is a certain logic to the students’ request.  It is the logic of progressivism.  It makes perfect sense that progressives on the Princeton campus at the turn of the 21st century would turn their backs on the progressives who came before them at Princeton.  That is how progressivism works.

Historians–even liberal historians–who think that Princeton should keep Wilson’s name and face on campus remind us that even progressivism has some limits.

I agree with historians and pundits who admit that this is a complicated issue.  Pundits ranging from Corey Robin to Jonah Goldberg are unsure about the best response to this controversy.  Wilson was a racist, even by the standards of his time.  We must empathize with African-American students who are required to live in Wilson College or see his picture on campus.  

But Wilson is also part of Princeton’s history and thus his legacy should not be erased. Yes, we must do a better job of bringing nuance and context to Wilson’s role at Princeton.  But I am on the side of those historians who believe that we must always learn from the past, no matter how ugly it might be. Corey Robin is right when he says that Wilson’s presence on campus, and the protest against his presence on campus, has opened up what will certainly be an ongoing debate and conversation about race–the kind of debate that should happen on college campuses.

This controversy also reminds us that we are all flawed human beings.  Everyone who we encounter in the past is flawed (Christians might say that they are sinful).  Until we come to grips with the reality of our flawed condition and the flawed state of the people we encounter in history we will continue to have these debates–whether it be the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, the legacy of John C. Calhoun at Yale, or Woodrow Wilson at Princeton.  

I don’t have much more to say on this front.   Here is a taste of Rutgers historian James Livingston’s essay recently published at the Chronicle of Higher Education:

As for Wilson: If we can acknowledge and teach the centrality of slavery and racism in 19th-century American history by keeping Calhoun on our minds, we can acknowledge and teach the centrality of imperialism and racism in 20th-century American history by keeping Wilson on our minds. As the historian William Leuchtenburg demonstrated many years ago, the social reforms we associate with progressivism, from the FDA to the Federal Reserve, were enabled by imperialism — every one of them. But then again the imperialism that Wilson sponsored was a vast improvement on the colonial precedent. It advocated national sovereignty and economic development rather than conquest and exploitation.

And here are historians Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg in a piece published at Salon titled “Woodrow Wilson is Not a Confederate Flag“:

But we do a great disservice to the discipline of history when we take deeply flawed historical actors and reduce to single-minded caricatures of racism, sexism, or any other –ism. The current commotion at Princeton University, where students are pressuring the administration to remove all references to Wilson, borders on the absurd. Wilson attended Princeton, where he also served as a professor of political science, then president, before graduating to the governorship of New Jersey and president of the United States. By erasing a racist’s name from a pair of buildings––the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson residential college; or renaming a distinguished institute (the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars) and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, you are merely pretending that the problem goes away. To erase a name does not acknowledge history; it erases history. You’re learning nothing about history in its demanding complexity.

By the way, the Princeton University supplemental application for the class of 2020 gives students the option to respond to this question:

In addition to the essay you have written for the Common Application, please write an essay of about 500 words (no more than 650 words and no less than 250 words). Using one of the themes below as a starting point, write about a person, event or experience that helped you define one of your values or in some way changed how you approach the world. Please do not repeat, in full or in part, the essay you wrote for the Common Application:

“Princeton in the Nation’s Service” was the title of a speech given by Woodrow Wilson on the 150th anniversary of the University. It became the unofficial Princeton motto and was expanded for the University’s 250th anniversary to “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.” –Woodrow Wilson, Princeton Class of 1879, served on the faculty and was Princeton’s president from 1902–1910. 

How long will this question last?