Donald Trump’s entire presidency can be understood as a sustained attack on the legacy of Woodrow Wilson.
During his two terms in the White House (1913–21), Wilson pioneered policies that ultimately made America richer, safer, and fairer. He defended immigrants, advanced women’s rights, raised taxes on the rich, regulated businesses to protect workers and consumers, and built the Federal Reserve to prevent depressions and shield debtors from devastating deflation. His internationalist foreign policy promoted global peace and prosperity based on free trade and permanent alliances among peace-loving democracies.
A thorough ignoramus, Trump probably would not recognize Wilson as the original author of the aforementioned policies. But Twitler has devoted his entire political career to dismantling Wilson’s legacy. Trump’s policies favor fellow billionaires while relentlessly attacking immigrants, women, workers, consumers, the Fed, free trade, and our allies. All of this makes America less great — less rich, less safe, and less fair.
Sadly, Wilson has few defenders today. For the last few decades, the hard right has caricatured him as a proto-socialist villain. Meanwhile, many on the left fixate on Wilson’s racism and refuse to consider the rest of his legacy.
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.
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. After the Civil War, Republicans ended slavery and briefly gave the freedmen citizenship, legal equality, and voting rights. However, in the late 1870s, when Reconstruction — federal help for southern blacks — became a political liability, the GOP promptly abandoned the project. Republicans let whites reassert 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, his administration 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 two Cabinet departments to resegregate restrooms, cafeterias, and selected workplaces in some federal buildings.
In other areas, Wilson positively promoted racial, religious and gender equality. He signed a law granting citizenship to the diverse residents of Puerto Rico, and repeatedly vetoed immigration restriction bills motivated by ethnic and religious prejudice. 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.
As scholar and politician, Wilson left a long and damning paper trail of bigotry, but also much soaring rhetoric in defense of ethnic diversity: “The country should be divested of all prejudices…. We are all Americans when we vote. There is a common Americanism which is gripping the composite race which peoples this Republic. We have not gotten together as yet, but when this nation once gets together, it is going to be irresistable…. The first Americanism is that we must love one another — forget race and creed.”
In a time of virulent bigotry against Catholic and Jewish immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, Wilson commended the “racial strength and character” that “Italian and other southern [European] peoples have contributed to our composite population.” According to Wilson, these widely hated immigrants “enriched [the US] in every way” and “so abounded in the spirit of our liberty, and… have given so many touches of ideal conception to the whole history of the [American] race.” He had similarly kind words for Poles and Hungarians.
As a candidate, Wilson talked a good game on tolerance; as president, he matched those words with action. He repeatedly vetoed bigoted immigration restriction bills until 1917, when the House and Senate finally mustered the two-thirds majorities needed to override him and make the Immigration Act of 1917 law without his signature.
Wilson’s remarkable domestic record benefited Americans of all colors — especially the poor and the middle class. By slashing the tariff, he promoted free trade while shifting the tax burden to the rich by introducing the first progressive income tax. He launched the Federal Reserve to prevent economic depressions and help low-income Americans by providing 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 it 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’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.
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 and adorns them with bold strokes of internationalism, though it also mars those walls with some 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 saw 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, the worst Confederate memorials should move to museums, but others should stand as monuments to error — answered by the erection of new, larger memorials for the heroes of Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement— built nearby 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), FDR (interned Japanese Americans), Eisenhower (Operation Wetback), JFK (gutless on civil rights), Martin Luther King (weak on gay rights), 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 — despite Trump’s efforts to dismantle it.