Late this past June, four years after defending its namesake in spite of backlash from student activists, the Princeton University School of Trustees voted to remove former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s name from its Public Policy school. The decision-makers cited this “searing moment in American History” (i.e. the fallout from the George Floyd shooting) as a wakeup call to choose a better role model for Princeton students. While statues and other monuments of racist and controversial American historical figures have been being removed for months now, this is one of the first times a United States president has had their memorialization eliminated.
Wilson is considered to be a well-regarded president among historians. In 2017, historians participating in C-SPAN’s presidential survey ranked him the 11th best president in U.S. history (President Barack Obama was 12th). His accomplishments include: leading the U.S. to victory in WWI; agreeing to a suffrage amendment that led to Congress passing the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote; and playing a key role in establishing the League of Nations, one of the first intergovernmental organizations in the world. However, Wilson also, among other misdeeds, spoke “approvingly” of the KKK, further segregated the federal government and called D.W. Griffith’s incredibly racist film “The Birth of a Nation” “terribly true.” So was he also an unapologetic and dedicated racist? Quite certainly, but that does not necessarily mean that we can’t honor him for his positive contributions to society. When we consider the legacies of past Americans, we must first ask ourselves these two questions: Why are these people famous and does their claim to fame merit recognition despite their flaws?
Some of the historical figures at the forefront of the current statues and monuments debate are Confederate generals and political figures, such as Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, whose statues are scattered throughout this country, particularly in the South. Regarding the first question, these people are famous for betraying their country and fighting for a slave-owning rebel regime. Therefore the second question is moot, as their claim to fame is extremely undesirable in the first place. Every single one of these statues, military bases and other memorials to the Confederacy need to be taken down and/or replaced immediately as their values represent non-patriotic rhetoric and anti-Black agendas.
However, remaining on the topic of the Civil War, not everyone during this time has such a clear-cut legacy. A statue of Union General and 18th U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant was recently taken down by protestors in Golden Gate Park in California. The protesters did so because Grant had owned a slave named William Jones. While this is true, Grant owned Jones only because he married into a family that owned slaves, and he emancipated Jones in 1859, the same year Jones may have been given to him by his wife’s family. Additionally, Grant is famous for leading the Union Army to victory in the Civil War, which allowed for the last slaves to be freed on July 19, which is now celebrated as Juneteenth. It is pretty safe to say that facilitating the widespread emancipation of millions of slaves greatly outweighs owning a single slave for less than a year before freeing him without any conditions.
Back to Wilson, saying his accomplishments are formidable would be an understatement. His Fourteen Points, promulgated in a speech before Congress that outlined his vision for ending WWI, were some of the most important declarations in favor of free trade, national autonomy for Poland, Belgium and many other nations, as well as diplomatic developments toward world peace such as the League of Nations. While the U.S. did not actually join the League of Nations, it is a widely accepted fact that the League’s principle of international political cooperation (a principle strongly advocated for by Wilson at Versailles) was a major inspiration behind the charter of today’s United Nations, of which the U.S. is an active member. Wilson not only voiced support for the 19th Amendment, but also fought tooth-and-nail for women’s suffrage for months in Congress while other legislators were convinced that allowing women to vote would harm their own electoral prospects. Toward the end of his term, Congress finally passed the 19th Amendment.
While he used to be opposed to female suffrage, Wilson quickly changed his views after recognizing women’s contributions to the WWI war effort and stated women absolutely deserve to vote because they are capable of “service and sacrifice of every kind” for their country. Furthermore, one should consider this: Abraham Lincoln was once against abolitionism, but, like Wilson, switched sides to a more progressive stance and freed the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation. If that helped make him one of the greatest presidents of all time, why can’t Wilson be given just as much credit for empowering women with voting rights?
Woodrow Wilson has an extremely checkered and controversial legacy. After the recent decision, Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber claimed that Wilson’s racism “disqualifies” him from being a “role model” for Princeton students. However, it is not right to take his name away from a university solely because he was a bad role model in terms of race, because this ignores other areas where he can definitely be considered a role model, namely international relations and women’s rights. Wilson’s solid contributions to public policy in those aforementioned areas build a strong case for his name to be on the public policy school of the university where he was once president. It is also worth noting that the de jure segregation that Wilson helped implement is long gone due to legislation such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but the UN and female suffrage still remain among the pillars of democracy and diplomacy today. Americans need to fully recognize Wilson’s failures and injustices but also celebrate how he helped propel America into a more progressive future.
As previously stated, Wilson’s demise as the name for Princeton’s Public Policy School is simply one issue among many right now. Statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other giants of American history are also being defaced and torn down. However, in the words of Eugene Robinson, acclaimed African-American Washington Post columnist, “there is an obvious difference between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who founded our union, and, say, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson, who tried to destroy it.”
When we look at people like Presidents Jefferson, Washington and Wilson, we should absolutely acknowledge that these people were racist and Washington and Jefferson were slave owners who played a large role in perpetuating the racially oppressive conditions that haunt Black Americans to this day. However, this should “temper our admiration of them, not erase it entirely.” These people may have passed down to us a country plagued by slavery, Jim Crow and other problems, but they also created and protected the “constitutional tools” that have allowed later Americans to make our country a better place for everyone to live. For that, they deserve to be recognized.
Tuhin Chakraborty can be reached at email@example.com.