Late this past June, the Princeton University Board of Trustees voted to remove 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 for choosing a better role model for Princeton students. While statues and other monuments of racist and otherwise controversial American historical figures have been coming down for months now, this is one of the first times a US president has had their memorialization eliminated.
Woodrow Wilson is considered by many to be one of the greatest presidents of all time. In 2017, historians participating in C-SPAN’s presidential survey ranked him the 11th best president in US history (President Obama was 12th). His accomplishments include leading the US to victory in WWI, signing 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 an unapologetic and dedicated racist? 100% yes. 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: (1) why are these people famous? Also, (2) does their claim to fame merit recognition even despite their less desirable characteristics?
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 question (1), these people are famous for betraying their country and fighting for a slave owning rebel regime. That makes answering question (2) moot, as their claim to fame is extremely undesirable in the first place.
Every single one of these statues, military base names, and other memorials to the Confederacy needs to be taken down and/or replaced immediately. 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 US President Ulysses S. Grant was recently taken down in Golden Gate Park in California. The protesters did so because Grant had owned a slave, 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.
To answer question (1), Grant is famous for leading the Union Army to victory in the Civil war, which allowed for all slaves to be freed on Juneteenth. Regarding question (2), 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. That being said, Grant’s statue should not have been taken down.
Back to Woodrow Wilson, let’s be honest here: he was most active in the 1900s and the 1910s; how many white people weren’t racist in some form at this time? When asking question (1) about Woodrow Wilson, arguing that Wilson’s accomplishments are formidable would be an understatement. His 14 points, promulgated during the 1918 Versailles Conference, were some of the most important declarations in favor of free trade, national autonomy for Poland, Belgium and many other nations, and diplomatic developments towards world peace such as the League of Nations. He not only gave all women the right to vote by signing the 19th amendment into law, but also fought tooth-and-nail for that right for months in Congress while other legislators were convinced that allowing women to vote would harm their own electoral prospects. 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 that women absolutely deserve to vote because they are capable of “service and sacrifice of every kind” for their country.
When asking question (2): consider this: Abraham Lincoln was once against abolitionism, but, like Wilson, switched sides to a more progressive stance and freed the slaves with the 13th amendment. If that helped make him one of the greatest presidents of all time, why can’t Woodrow Wilson be given just as much credit for empowering women with voting rights with the 19th amendment? Woodrow Wilson definitely has an extremely checkered and controversial legacy. However, it is not right to take his name away from a university 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.
As previously stated, Woodrow Wilson’s demise as the name for Princeton’s Public Policy School is 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 acclaimed African American Washington Post Columnist Eugene Robinson, “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 the fact that these people were racist and that Washington and Jefferson were slave owners who played a large role in perpetuating the racially oppressive conditions that haunt African 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.