I begin from the premise that activism on college campuses is a good thing. Any society should want engaged, involved, opinionated, activist young people.
It is also a premise of mine supported by much research, that many Americans have at best, a cursory knowledge of our history – our complex, often contradictory history. A lack of historical perspective (and knowledge) leads in many unfortunate direction and, I submit, contributes to the often “fact free” debates about politics and public policy that increasingly dominate news coverage and political debates.
American Historical Amnesia…
We have, for example, a continuing and often uninformed debate about “American exceptionalism,” the notion that the United States above all other nations is favored and that the U.S. always acts out of the best, most unselfish motives. It’s a myth, but no Republican candidate for high office would dare point out, just to cite one example, that some of our continuing trouble with Iran dates to the CIA-sponsored over throw in the 1950’s of the democratically elected government of that country.
We continue to debate whether the great defining event in the nation’s history was brought about by the founder’s inability to deal with the inhumanity of human bondage. The Civil War never ends and neither do the arguments about the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of white supremacy.
Surf the Internet and you’ll find crazy theories about the attacks on the World Trade Center and whether Neil Armstrong actually walked on the moon. Follow the political campaigns and listen to people who aspire to the nation’s highest office talking absolute nonsense about things that are absolutely knowable. Historical illiteracy is a dangerous condition in a democracy.
So, to connect the dots: it seems fine to me that Princeton students debate the legacy of the man who made their school a world-class university, served as governor of New Jersey and two terms as president of the United States. That Woodrow Wilson was also a racist, and even by the low standards of his day a virulent one, is also part of his legacy.
Wilson: Not Either/Or…But Both…
But the Princeton debate about Wilson really requires that we struggle with the nuances of his legacy, as well as the contradictions of the national story. The effort to really understand American history requires that we frequently hold two – or more – conflicting ideas in our heads at the same time. Wilson’s legacy is that he was both an unreconstructed racist and an enormously important president.
As the accomplished University of Chicago legal scholar Geoffrey Stone argues, “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.”
The substantial Wilson legacy, also part of the effort to judge the man and his times, includes creating the Federal Reserve System, the income tax, wage and hour laws, the Federal Trade Commission and appointing the first Jew – the great Justice Louis Brandeis – to the Supreme Court. Wilson’s arguably naïve and idealistic notions about international relations in the wake of World War I nonetheless created a theory of America’s role in the world that persists to this day. For good or bad, and I’d argue for good, there would be no United Nations today had there not been Wilson’s vision for a League of Nations.
Thus, as Geoff Stone says, “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.”
History is full of things we might conveniently forget, but does that really help the Princeton student’s quest for true equality?
All Had Feet of Clay…
You need not embrace Wilson’s racism to appreciate the importance of his presidency whether at Princeton or in Washington, D.C. You can repudiate Jefferson’s slave ownership, while marveling at the language of his Declaration of Independence. Lincoln saved the Union and trampled on civil liberties, just as Wilson presided over some of the worst abuses of civil liberties in modern history.
Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, the most important in the 20th Century, helped create modern America, including the establishment of lasting institutions like the Securities and Exchange Commission and Social Security. Roosevelt led the Allies to victory in World War II, but he also interned thousands of American citizens merely because they were of Japanese-American descent and refused to buck public opinion to assist Jewish refugees fleeing Europe’s horrors. Roosevelt never appeared to have a second thought about such decisions, which must be included in a significant part of his legacy.
Teddy Roosevelt was an occasionally reckless warmonger who was also the greatest conservationist to ever sit in the White House.
American history, like all history, is fascinating because the people and events are complicated and contradictory. It forces us to look at the conflicting realities of our ideal by placing the great and the terrible side-by-side. Woodrow Wilson fascinates and bedevils us not because he was perfect, but because he was far from perfect and still matters. Rather than erase his legacy we should learn from it. Understanding the lessons of a racist president of a hundred years ago really should help us grapple with the reality of the racism that still pervades America in 2015.
You don’t need to be steeped in American history to know that the country with all of its flaws and marvelous accomplishments remains a work in progress. Scrubbing out the flaws of a Wilson, a Jefferson or a Lincoln, all of whom were part of the progress and examples of some of the greatest flaws, doesn’t illuminate, but rather obscures.
Better to debate Wilson than forget him or worse yet air brush him from the far larger American story.