The “Nomenclature Wars” of 2015

Wilson School

Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs, Princeton University

In case you missed it, check out Rutgers historian David Greenberg‘s essay at Politico: “The Great Renaming Craze of 2015.”  (HT: Kevin Levin on Twitter).  This is the best think I have read so far on the various controversies surrounding the removal of monuments to historical figures who were racist.  Greenberg’s take on Woodrow Wilson is on the mark.

You should read the entire article, but here is just a small taste:

Changing perspectives on Jefferson—and on scores of other historical figures and events—have in the past year prompted what we might call the Nomenclature Wars: a rash of efforts to topple statues, erase historical symbols, wipe names from buildings and institutions, and otherwise cleanse our heritage sites of any traces of our troubled past. In a few short months we’ve ricocheted from an overdue reckoning with the symbols of the Confederate South, through weird diversions like expunging William McKinley’s name from the Alaskan peak it had graced for a century, to a wanton and sometimes uninformed impulse to consign great but flawed men like Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson to history’s hall of shame. We’re not yet with the French Jacobins, who remade their entire calendar in the hopes of reshaping human nature, but it can feel as if we’re moving in that direction.

Should Jackson or Alexander Hamilton be removed from the currency to make room for Harriet Tubman? Should Democratic dinners still be named for the party’s founding figures, Jefferson and Jackson? Should we rename the streets of New Orleans or the buildings of the Ivy League? The common thread in this year’s Nomenclature Wars has been a desire to highlight America’s shameful history of racial exclusion. That goal is among the worthiest that we can have in our public discourse, since we won’t be able to realize racial equality without an understanding of its deep roots in our culture, society and politics. But there’s a danger, too, that these campaigns will enshrine race as the sole criterion for judging our forbears—and will peremptorily end the conversation there. That may make sense for figures who matter mainly for upholding slavery or segregation, like Jefferson Davis or George Wallace. But with people whose achievement encompasses infinitely more, it’s short-sighted. Participants in these debates would do well to realize not only that a thorough study of history thwarts easy judgments about heroism or villainy, but also that the political passions of the current day typically prove to be a fickle guide to rendering lasting verdicts about the past.

When we undertake changes in our shared civic culture—whose pictures are on our currency, which flags top our legislatures, whose visages look down on us from the halls of our public buildings—we should do so with an eye toward the ages. We want our decisions to stand the test of time. We want to make sure that they won’t be subject to partisan whims, to the comings and goings of a Democratic or Republican Congress, or to social media-driven enthusiasms.

Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh on Woodrow Wilson at Princeton

Two of the three “American History Guys“–Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh– discuss the difficult legacy of Woodrow Wilson.  You can listen to it here.  

Here is a taste of the transcript:

ONUF: Well, that racism goes back to Jefferson’s time. The whole American narrative begins with Jefferson, you might say, and his famous words in the Declaration of Independence. And Jefferson was a white nationalist. And that’s the hard fact we have to come to grips with. I fashion myself as a kind of Jefferson therapist. I think there’s a place for…
(LAUGHTER)
ONUF: …Wilson therapy. That is, we have to work through it. Our history is full of -rough patches is a nice way to put it. But let’s just say that white supremacy is a major fact and we’re only coming to grips with it in the modern period.
NEARY: All right, if we keep that therapy metaphor going for a moment, are you saying we need to confront the truth and then do what?
ONUF: I think what the answer, Lynn, when something disturbs us in history is not to turn away from it but engage it. The answer is more history, not the denial of history.
BALOGH: Lynn, I would just add to what Peter said is that we simply can’t understand the racism that exists in society today – and it is significant – without understanding how we got there. And we got there through people like Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson.
NEARY: Well, Brian, at Princeton, now of course students are calling for Woodrow Wilson’s name to be removed from the School of Public and International Affairs. Do you think anything would be accomplished by doing that?
BALOGH: No, I actually think it might be a step backwards. I don’t believe in kind of buffing or smoothing out the rough edges of history. Of course, Jim Crow segregation and racism is a lot more than just a rough edge.
NEARY: Let me ask you this. That name has been there for a pretty long time. Why is it suddenly bubbling up to the surface like this? Why is that name on that building suddenly provoking a conversation that hasn’t been had up until now?
BALOGH: Well, first of all, the main reason I support keeping it there is not about Woodrow Wilson. It’s about the almost hundred years of history since Woodrow Wilson that people didn’t have a problem with it. And what that says to me is that America is becoming more racially sensitive, and that’s a good thing. The negative formulation of that is nobody thought about this for a hundred years. What does that tell you about America?

Jonathan Zimmerman Calls for a "Full Reckoning" with Woodrow Wilson’s Progressive Legacy

A few years ago when I wrote what turned into a controversial piece about Barack Obama’s faith, my office voicemail was filled with angry calls from Glenn Beck supporters.  As it turns out, Beck mentioned my piece on his radio show and his website The Blaze made it front-page news.  Several of callers had some pretty nasty things to say.  They told me that I was just as bad Louis Farrakhan, Adolph Hitler, and Woodrow Wilson.  I at least understood the references to Farrakhan and Hitler. But Woodrow Wilson? At least four different negative messages (there were no positive ones) referenced the 28th President of the United States.

After a quick Google search of “Glenn Beck and Woodrow Wilson” I realized that Beck had been spending a lot of time on his radio program and in his writings attacking Wilson’s “progressive” political views.  In fact, as Jonathan Zimmerman of New York University points out in his recent piece at Politico, Beck was calling for the removal of Wilson’s name from buildings at Princeton University, the place where he served as college president from 1902-1910.

As many of you know, Beck is not the only one who wants Wilson removed from Princeton’s campus.  A few days ago I weighed in on the whole Wilson– racism issue going on at the historic New Jersey university. I joined several of my fellow American historians in sympathizing with the university’s African-American students, acknowledging Wilson’s racism, and arguing against removing his image and name from campus.

Zimmerman’s piece reminds us that despite his racism, Wilson remains an important figure in the history of American progressivism.  He is so important, that conservatives like Beck, and more recently a writer at The Federalist, thinks he should go.

Here is a taste of Zimmerman’s article:

...On balance, though, the federal government has been a force for justice and equality across the past century. That’s especially the case when it comes to African-Americans, who continue to suffer discrimination and poverty in our society. But they also vote in overwhelming percentages for the party of Big Government, the Democrats, because they understand that their circumstances would be many powers worse without federal programs and protections. Public housing, Medicare, occupational safety, mass transportation … the list goes on and on. And they’re all legacies of the Progressive doctrines espoused by Wilson, who understood that modern Americans needed the assistance of a larger, more supple national state.

That’s also why Glenn Beck despises him. So does the newly elected speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, who blasted Wilson and his fellow Progressives in a 2010 interview with Beck. “I see Progressivism as the source, the intellectual source for the Big Government problems that are plaguing us today,” Ryan told Beck. Progressives, Ryan added, “create a culture of dependency on the government, not on oneself.”

And just last week, the conservative Federalist website praised Princeton students for protesting Wilson. “Asking a private school to stop honoring an authoritarian hatemonger who also happened to be one of the most destructive presidents in the history of the United States is about the sanest thing I’ve heard happening on a college campus in a long time,” wrote senior editor David Harsanyi, in a rare right-wing tribute to the recent wave of campus demonstrations.

The Princeton students ended their sit-in after the university agreed to initiate a conversation about retaining Wilson’s name on its buildings. That’s exactly as it should be. But I hope the conversation includes a full reckoning with Wilson’s legacy, including his expansion of government regulations and services. His conservative antagonists certainly remember that. It would be a pity if liberals forgot it.

Read the entire piece here.

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?