The new round of campus protests that I blogged about two weeks ago has spread to Princeton University, where black students want to erase the public legacy of Woodrow Wilson, a one-time President both of the University and of the United States. They specifically want to take his name away both from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs and from a residence hall, on the grounds that Wilson as President proved himself one of the worst racists to occupy the White House. I often wonder nowadays how I would fare were I still teaching at a major campus, forced to take a position on controversies like these. Because I cannot agree with this demand, I might become the target of a campaign myself, but I prefer to think that that would not be the case. Throughout my life it has been my experience that most black people respect any white who is willing to tell them frankly how he feels about race. Many years ago I coined my own definition of a racist: some one who won't say what he thinks because there's a black person in the room.
I have not yet done a book about Woodrow Wilson, but I hope to do so some time in the future. Having written accounts of the origins of two of the three biggest American wars of the 20th century, I would be delighted to fill out the trilogy with a work on Wilson and the First World War, in which his role was truly tragic. Almost alone among the statesmen of the world, he realized that the only sane way to bring that conflict to a close was a "peace without victory," in his memorable phrase, and from across the Atlantic he challenged the European states to make one. Sadly for him and for them, he was drawn into the war instead by German submarine warfare, and as it turned out, that ironically doomed any chance of a real compromise, since the allies now had even more reason to fight on until Germany was completely defeated. The result was the one he had predicted in January 1917: a victors' peace, endless recriminations, and, twenty years later, another even bigger war.
Wilson was a key figure both in the history of American education and American politics. A pioneer in the new discipline of political science, he had written prolifically on American history at Johns Hopkins before becoming President of Princeton. There he sought to transform American higher education, which was in the midst of one of its most creative periods. He also tried to democratize Princeton somewhat, by doing away with the socially prominent eating clubs patronized by the undergraduate elite. In that he was unsuccessful. In 1910, the New Jersey Democratic machine tapped him to run for Governor, and he emerged as an advocate of all the great reforms of the Progressive era, including the direct election of Senators, primaries, and some restrictions on economic concentration. But yes, Wilson, a child of Virginia, was a hopeless racist who believed in the inferiority of the Negro race (as it was then called) and in segregation. In 1912 he managed to conceal this sufficiently during his campaign for President and secured the active support of the young NAACP, led by W. E. B. DuBois. Helped by a split in the Republican Party between Theodore Roosevelt's Progressives and William Howard Taft's establishment, he won a huge victory, and began implementing a big program of domestic reforms, including lower tariffs, the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank, and new antitrust legislation.
But the Princeton students are right: Wilson utterly betrayed the NAACP's support, drawing a furious blast form DuBois. Wilson was only the second Democratic President elected since the Civil War, and the first, Grover Cleveland, had been a New Yorker who held office when the Jim Crow era was just getting under way. The white southern counterattack against Negro rights had grown in strength during the 1890s and 1900s, and Wilson entirely sympathized with it. Washington, D. C. had been a center of Negro employment and patronage under successive Republican Presidents. Wilson segregated government offices, the first time this had ever been done, and took other discriminatory steps. Many black civil servants lost their jobs, as a recent op-ed stating the case for the Princeton students has movingly described. He essentially refused to reply to Negro critics when they tried to call him to account. For that, the Princeton students want to erase the most obvious symbols of his legacy from their campus.
What is at stake here, it seems to me, are two views of American history. The first--which has become more and more fashionable over the last half century--holds that American history has been hopelessly blighted by racism since colonial times, and that attempts to expunge the legacy of racism must take precedence over every other priority in our national life, and determine our attitudes towards the past. But a second view emphasizes the contradictions in American history and sees our past and our present as one long attempt to overcome them. Yes, many of the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution owned slaves, but the documents they wrote never endorsed slavery and used universal language that was bound to call that institution into question. That eventually resulted in the Civil War, because the southern whites knew they had to secede to give slavery the protection they wanted for it. The freeing of the slaves by the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment led inevitably to full citizenship, because the Constitution never provided for any intermediate status between citizens and aliens. And yes, white southerners like Wilson went to work in the decades after the Civil War to undo those gains, but in the long run, their efforts were doomed. Whatever Wilson's views on race, the American people fought both wars for ideals of liberty and democracy--ideas which, as the European colonial powers also discovered, simply could not be limited in their application to white people. As an American and a progressive on every issue but race, Wilson was at war with himself, and the racist elements within him were destined to lose. That was true even at Princeton, the South's biggest bastion within the Ivy League, which did not have a single Negro student during his presidency but which is now the alma mater of, among many others, Michelle Robinson Obama, the first black First Lady of the United States.
Today's students would be equally well advised to study the career of W. E. B. DuBois, a great activist and historian whose life also took a tragic turn in his last decades. After undergoing a disgraceful (and unsuccessful) prosecution by the federal government for supposedly failing to register as a foreign agent, DuBois turned to Communism and died in exile just as the civil rights movement was achieving what had been his life's work. But in 1917, despite his anger at Wilson's betrayal four years earlier, DuBois, in a famous editorial, asked his fellow Negroes to "close ranks" behind Wilson and the war and do their part in a struggle for freedom. Like Wilson, he was disappointed by the results of the war, but he had refused to allow his personal feelings towards the President to determine his stance on a great national issue. That is part of the price of citizenship in a democracy, which by definition forces us to work within the whole society in which we live, and ultimately dooms any attempt to recast society according to a particular Utopian vision.
Woodrow Wilson did much to create Princeton University as it is today--and in the long run, he could do nothing to hold back changes that he never would have accepted. His name, in my opinion, should remain on the school of public policy and the residence center he created as a symbol of progress in American history--progress to which he contributed in crucial ways, even as he held it back in others. None of us, black, white, brown or yellow, should reduce ourselves simply to our racial essence. To do so is to turn our backs on our common legacy of equally as citizens, and to risk the disintegration of our nation along racial lines.