Students at what Amy Alkon aptly describes as “nursery schools with beer” continue to issue demands. Walter Olson compiles the most outrageous ones and John McWhorter, who has some experience with racism, address the broader issue. But one weird thing that’s come up at Princeton is the demand to acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson and remove his name from some buildings.
This may seem odd to some of you. Wilson is frequently rated as one of our greatest Presidents by historians. And just a few years ago, beating up on Wilson was regarded as right wing lunacy by no less than the New York Times. This, despite, as Radley Balko points out, Wilson having an awful awful record on race, civil liberties and executive power:
He dishonestly led us into a pointless, costly, destructive war, and assumed control over huge sectors of the economy to wage it. He seized railroads, food and energy production, and implemented price controls.
He suppressed dissent and imprisoned war critics. Said Wilson, “Conformity will be the only virtue. And every man who refuses to conform will have to pay the penalty.” He signed the Espionage and Sedition Acts, the latter of which made it a criminal offense to “oppose the cause of the United States.” He retaliated against critical newspapers, and directed the U.S. Postal Service to stop delivering mail determined to be critical of the war effort.
Wilson not only continued existing racial segregation of federal government workers, he extended it.
He instituted the first military draft since the Civil War.
He signed the first federal drug prohibition.
He reinstituted the federal income tax.
A few more, from Gene Healy’s book, The Cult of the Presidency:
Wilson believed in an activist, imperialist presidency. In his 1909 book Constitutional Government, he made the case against checks and balances and the separation of powers. The government, Wilson argued, is a living organism, and “no living thing can have its organs offset against each other as checks, and live.”
He ordered unconstitutional, unilateral military interventions into Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. (He also oversaw military interventions in Panama and Cuba, and instituted American-favored dictators throughout Latin America.)
Wilson believed God ordained him to be president, and acted accordingly, boasting to one friend in 1913 that “I have been smashing precedents almost daily every since I got here.” Every president since Jefferson had given the State of the Union in writing. Wilson reinstituted what Jefferson derided as the “speech from the Throne,” and ordered Congress assembled to hear him speak, giving rise to the embarrassing spectacle the SOTU has become today.
He oversaw a massive domestic spying program, and encouraged American citizens to report one another for subversion.
Healy’s book is very good, incidentally. Wilson is a central figure, with a detailed analysis of his early writings wherein Wilson detailed exactly what he through the President should be and exactly what he tried to make him: a monarch.
And the students are right on thing: Woodrow Wilson was racist, even by the standards of his time. He praised the Klan. He made numerous racist statements. He refused to do anything about lynching. He re-segregated the government, which meant black federal employees got demotions, pay cuts and, in at least one case, were put in literal cages so they wouldn’t interact with white people.
And yet … historians still talk about how great he was because he was progressive and “lead” us through World War I and tried to broker a reasonable peace after the war. That’s all fine and dandy. No President is uniformly awful. But, when you include everything, Wilson was a bad President. A really bad one.
I’ve talked before about the tendency of historians to love Presidents who start wars and crush liberty and look down on Presidents who provide simple competent leadership:
As Boaz notes, the historians favor guys who make for interesting history books. Roosevelt, who turned his back on the plight of European Jews, interred the Japanese, ignored race issues and prolonged the Depression, ranks his usual #1. Teddy Roosevelt, a “progressive” who abused his power, expanded government and slimed the nation of Panama into existence, ranks #2. I have no quibble with some of the others. But ranking the racist, free-speech crushing Woodrow Wilson at #8 is ridiculous. Andrew Jackson was a lunatic who defied the Court to send thousands of Indians to die on the Trail of Tears. But he’s ranked 14th.
The list of Presidents historians regard as great includes the over-rated Harry Truman, the racist Woodrow Wilson, the murderous Andrew Jackson and the “OK, but what did he actually do?” JFK. Meanwhile, Presidents who expanded freedom, kept us out of wars and basically did their jobs are regarded as, at best, mediocre. Cleveland, Clinton, Harding, Coolidge, Bush I … these guys have generally been regarded as “meh” (although Reagan and Clinton have moved up in recent years). I had issues with Clinton and his accomplishments were mainly a result of having a Republican Congress. But ranking him below Wilson and Jackson is ridiculous. Say what you want about Clinton. He wasn’t a genocidal maniac or an unapologetic racist.
Returning to Wilson, let’s contrast him with his successor, Warren Harding, generally rated as one of the worst Presidents of all time. Warren G. Harding cleaned up much of the mess Wilson had left after the end of World War I, presided over an important arms reduction treaty, repaired some of the diplomatic damage Wilson had done in South America, cut taxes, embraced aviation and radio, promoted anti-lynching legislation and racial equality, released Wilson’s political prisoners and made solid SCOTUS appointments. The result was one of the most peaceful and prosperous decades in American history. He also increased tariffs, restricted immigration and had huge problems with corruption, so it wasn’t all roses. But, on balance, that’s a decent record and way better than Wilson or Jackson. He was very popular when he was in office and mourned around the world when he died. But historians literally regard him as the worst President of all time because of the corruption and his infidelities, problems that don’t seem to bother historians when they consider Clinton or Kennedy or Johnson.
In the end, I think historians tend to rate President by how interesting the books about them are. This goes double for any power-hungry President that Doris Kearns Goodwin has written an overlong (and possibly plagiarized) slavering hagiography of. This is one of the reasons I expect historians to start regarding Bush II in a better light one day. Historically, he’s the kind of liberty-crushing incompetent bumbler they like to write books about.
As for the Princeton business … I’m reluctant to whitewash history. However awful a President Wilson was, he was still a President and still played a huge role in making Princeton a premier institution. I’m fine with acknowledging his awful racist legacy. I’m less fine with pretending he never existed.