Racism & the real record of Woodrow Wilson

A Woodrow Wilson mural at Princeton (Photo Credit: New York Times)

In November 2015, a multiracial group of student activists demanded that Princeton expunge Woodrow Wilson’s name and image from all campus buildings and institutions. A dozen members of the Black Justice League occupied the office of the university president for 32 hours, until the administration agreed to “initiate conversations concerning the present legacy of Woodrow Wilson on this campus.”

A few days later, the New York Times editorial board, after selectively summarizing Wilson’s record of racism, concluded that “The overwhelming weight of the evidence argues for rescinding the honor that the university bestowed decades ago on an unrepentant racist.”

In fact, neither the students nor the Times appear to have considered the overwhelming majority of the evidence in this case.

Wilson’s worth as a person cannot responsibly be reduced to a narrow sample of his actions and attitudes. Like anyone, the former president deserves to be judged on his complete record. Most of us have made enough mistakes in life that we, too, would be deemed unworthy if an exaggerated account of our errors were considered out of context, without reference to our good deeds. If the universal ethical principle of the Golden Rule is valid, then it must apply equally to the living and the dead. We should be decent enough to judge historical figures as fairly as we would want to be judged.

Wilson was indeed a bigot. His views on race were typical for white people of his time, heritage and political party. During the prime of his life — the period from the 1880s to the 1910s — Western civilization embraced white supremacy without shame, with the endorsement of mainstream science, literature, and academics like Wilson. As a son of the South — he grew up in Virginia during the Civil War and Reconstruction — Wilson supported segregation and sympathized reflexively with the Lost Cause. Those impulses influenced his partisan affiliation. Since the early 1800s, the Democrats had been an alliance of rural white supremacists and urban immigrants, and as a party leader, Wilson did nothing to change that.

Wilson as President of Princeton, 1902–10 (Photo Credit: Princeton)

However, the Times irresponsibly exaggerated when it claimed that the president “rolled back the gains that African-Americans achieved just after the Civil War.”

When Wilson took office, there were few liberties left to take from African-Americans. Shortly after the Civil War, Republicans had granted freedom, citizenship, legal equality and voting rights to blacks. However, in the late 1870s, when Reconstruction — federal support for African-Americans in the South — became a political liability, the GOP quickly abandoned the project. In the ensuing decades, Republicans let whites take control of the South and pass Jim Crow laws to impose segregation, annihilate black rights and revive racial slavery in the forms of debt peonage and prison labor. That work was complete well before Wilson first entered politics in New Jersey in 1910.

The Times stretched the truth more modestly when it claimed that Wilson “purged black workers from influential jobs.” Yes, the president systematically fired and demoted African American federal workers. That was racist and wrong, and constituted a personal tragedy for the families affected. However, the jobs in question were few in number and lacking in influence; they constituted the meager crumbs of traditional Republican patronage, a thin salve for the blighted conscience of a party that had once stood against slavery and for racial equality. Moreover, the Wilson Administration fired many more whites than blacks from federal employment to make room for “deserving Democrats.” Since Andrew Jackson, presidents of both parties had always terminated the appointees of political opponents to free up federal jobs for loyal supporters. Wilson’s successors continued the practice.

When the Times wrote that the president “transformed the government into an instrument of white supremacy,” and asserted that “racist policies enacted during Wilson’s presidency are still felt in the country today,” the Old Gray Lady left hyperbole behind and entered the realm of pure fiction. Wilson did little to help African Americans, but he also did little to harm them. Aside from the aforementioned firings, his only significant action to advance white supremacy was allowing a couple Cabinet departments to resegregate restrooms, cafeterias, and selected workspaces in some federal buildings.

Wilson as president, 1913–21 (Photo Credit: NBC)

In other areas, Wilson positively promoted racial, religious and gender equality. He signed a law granting citizenship to the diverse residents of Puerto Rico. In a deeply anti-Semitic time, he appointed the first Jew — Louis Brandeis — to the US Supreme Court. During World War I, black and white soldiers received equal pay, and Wilson thanked women for aiding the fight against Germany by supporting the 19th Amendment for national woman suffrage. His support for Prohibition also satisfied a long-held feminist aspiration.

Wilson’s remarkable domestic record benefited Americans of all colors — especially the poor and the middle class. He began shifting the tax burden to the rich by slashing the tariff and introducing the first progressive income tax. He launched the Federal Reserve to provide lasting relief from the deflation that had crushed debtors for decades. He created the Federal Trade Commission to protect Americans from predatory business practices. The Clayton Antitrust Act outlawed monopolies and legalized labor unions. He provided low-interest mortgages for farmers and continuing education through federal agricultural extension programs. He signed legislation banning child labor, though the Supreme Court later ruled that ban unconstitutional.

The Democrats have always aspired to be the party of the common people, but Wilson helped rewrite the recipe for helping them. Jefferson and Jackson argued that the rich would always dominate politics, so the best the poor could hope for would be a small government with little power to tax or control them. Wilson—and his contemporary, William Jennings Bryan — believed commoners could capitalize on their numerical superiority to outvote the rich and use the government to create a fairer society.

In other words, Wilson and Bryan invented modern American liberalism. They were the direct ideological ancestors and the necessary preconditions of more recent reformers like FDR, LBJ and Barack Obama.

Evidently, neither the Black Justice League nor the Times understands any of this.

Wilson re-election campaign signage in 1916 (Photo Credit: PHUP)

Wilson’s foreign policy record, however, remains relatively well known. He was the founding father of modern American diplomacy. The ideals he developed to lead the US to victory in World War I became orthodox during World War II and the Cold War, and continue to wield some influence in our country’s response to terrorist threats in the Middle East.

As evinced by his 1916 reelection slogan — “He kept us out of war” — Wilson would have preferred to avoid the fight in Europe entirely. Unfortunately, the Allies failed to hold the line against the Central Powers, and the president recognized that the US and the rest of the world would suffer if the illiberal and oppressive regimes of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire prevailed.

In 1917, when Russia overthrew the tsar, Wilson seized the opportunity to cast the conflict both as a battle against autocracies — “a war to make the world safe for democracy” — and a chance for lasting peace, “a war to end all wars.” His 14 Points effectively addressed many of the ills that caused the Great War and previous conflicts. Most notably, he proposed a League of Nations — closer to NATO than to today’s United Nations — which, if implemented as written, would have strongly discouraged future armed conflicts.

After the armistice, Wilson persuaded Britain and France to incorporate most of the 14 Points into the Treaty of Versailles. Unfortunately, the Republican Senate refused to ratify the accord, expressing a mixture of principled isolationism and partisan spite. Tragically, a crippling stroke cut short the president’s appeal to the American people and prevented him from cutting a sensible deal with the GOP. The 1919 Nobel Peace Prize gave him little consolation. He died a few years later. Because the US never joined the League of Nations, the body never realized its promise. World War II broke out within two decades.

Fortunately, Wilson’s ideological heirs — Franklin Roosevelt & Harry Truman — led the free world to victory over the Axis, and then averted further world wars by building Wilson-inspired institutions like the United Nations and NATO. We can thank Wilsonian foreign and economic policies for delivering the most peaceful and prosperous 75-year era in human history.

Clemenceau of France, Wilson & Lloyd George of Britain after signing the Treaty of Versailles (Photo Credit: Pinterest)

Wilson’s racism was repulsive, but in my view, his progressive domestic reforms and visionary foreign policy redeem him as a leader and a human being. As the president of Princeton, he helped transform the college from a punch line to the respected university it is today. If anyplace in the world should revere his virtues while conceding his flaws, it is his alma mater.

Somehow, Wilson became a scapegoat for the cause of diversity at Princeton. One of the Black Justice League’s most noted supporters, Ruth Simmons — a former administrator at Brown and Princeton — said, “Why do we even care about Woodrow Wilson at this juncture? Because a lot of time that you are walking around this campus and you feel like you don’t matter … the reason is because his legacy is sticking around these walls.”

If the students, Dr. Simmons or the Times understood the entirety of Wilson’s legacy, then they would not object to its residue on campus. His record — like that of most people — is a mix of good and bad. If Wilson’s legacy adheres to the walls of Princeton, then it washes them with the warm hues of domestic liberal reform, adorns them with bold strokes of internationalism, and — yes — also mars them with unsightly smears of racism.

Certainly, we should topple monuments to monsters like Stalin and Hitler, but good people like Wilson — whose virtues vastly outnumbered his flaws — deserve to be remembered and celebrated.

Apparently, some advocates of diversity believe we can advance the cause of justice by demolishing the relics of our imperfect past. If the goal is to signal that our country (or a college campus) is inclusive, then we could achieve that either by addition or subtraction.

Sometimes, subtraction makes more sense. For example, retiring the Confederate flag from public display is so obviously just, decent and necessary that even South Carolina has seen the light. (Mississippi’s heart, unfortunately, remains two sizes too small.)

More often, however, the best way to advance diversity is through addition. Rather than erase Wilson’s face and name from Princeton, simply install tributes to racial equality. Name buildings, install sculptures and paint murals that celebrate the diverse heritage of the university and the country. In the South, instead of removing every Confederate statue, answer them by erecting even larger monuments to the Civil Rights Movement and the heroes of Reconstruction — on the same sites, to continue the historical conversation.

Admittedly, achieving diversity through addition is more expensive. It is cheaper to remove an old monument than to build a new one. However, inclusion through addition would enrich our public spaces, while political correctness through subtraction would increasingly impoverish them. If the inexorable illogic of leftist iconoclasm cannot tolerate public honors for Wilson — a great leader with unfortunate racial views — then how can we tolerate monuments to Lincoln (also racist), Martin Luther King (did not champion gay rights), JFK (gutless on civil rights), Eisenhower (Operation Wetback), FDR (interned Japanese Americans), or Jesus of Nazareth (never condemned slavery)?

It would be unjust and historically illiterate to dismiss any of those great men on the basis of those errors and omissions. The same is true of Wilson. While racism will always mar his record and discredit his character, he was still a brilliant president whose domestic and diplomatic legacy continues to benefit all Americans today.

History, politics, education, music, culture. Award-winning high school teacher, former principal. College instructor. Seahawks Diehard. Twitter: @brian_mrbmkz

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store