Wilson Revisited, Revised... and Rescinded?

While last week I mused about the future legacy of the current president, news stories this week, including a front-page article in the Times, detail the crumbling reputation of a former one. Woodrow Wilson, 13th president of Princeton University and 28th President of the United States, turns out to have expressed – and enforced -- racist sentiments that were widespread in his day. Should Princeton strike his name from places of honor on campus?

As the Times reports, a group of Princeton students calling itself the Black Justice League recently put up posters highlighting racist remarks made by Wilson, demanding that the university “publicly acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson” – and, more concretely, that it find a new name for its renowned Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, as well as for Wilson College, a residence hall on campus. Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber agreed to discuss these demands with university trustees, and meanwhile promised to remove a mural of Wilson from the residence hall dining room – and has caught flak from culture warriors who see such responses as craven capitulation.

I’ve addressed this topic twice before in this space – once concerning symbols of the Confederacy and the controversy over Calhoun College at Yale, and again concerning Lord Jeffery Amherst, the mascot of my alma mater (update: last week, according the Times, the Amherst faculty voted unanimously to jettison Lord Jeff). But the renaming movement extends well beyond campus brouhahas over political correctness. It points up the challenge of how a society goes about altering its memorials to reflect evolving beliefs and changed politics. And that’s a fascinating subject.

Memorials are public history, touchstones that help form the collective story a nation tells about itself and its past. Revising such stories is relatively easy after conquest or revolution: the statues of the hated and defeated regime come down, simple as that. What about the case, however, where there’s no revolution of power, but an evolution of views within a continuing polity? Values change, but memorials are etched in stone. 

Regarding Wilson, Georgetown legal scholar Randy Barnett is one of many laying out the case against him, charging that Wilson’s “record of official racism” should make his name “first on any list” to be expunged from public buildings. (He adds that “racism was not his only sin,” noting that Wilson’s administration jailed numerous antiwar activists for sedition, including Eugene Debs.) Barnett cites a 2013 essay, “The Long-Forgotten Racial Attitudes and Policies of Woodrow Wilson,” by Boston University historian William Keylor. Keylor used the 100-year anniversary of Wilson’s inauguration to recast our understanding of the man, reminding readers that while he made his career in New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson was in fact a Southerner – the first elected to the Presidency in almost seventy years – and that upon his inauguration in Washington, “Rebel yells and the strains of ‘Dixie’ reverberated throughout the city.”

Highlighting the problem of revisionism, Keylor writes that:

Wilson is widely and correctly remembered — and represented in our history books — as a progressive Democrat who introduced many liberal reforms at home and fought for the extension of democratic liberties and human rights abroad.  But on the issue of race his legacy was, in fact, regressive and has been largely forgotten. Born in Virginia and raised in Georgia and South Carolina, Wilson was a loyal son of the old South who regretted the outcome of the Civil War.  He used his high office to reverse some of its consequences.

That reversal entailed dismantling Reconstruction-era measures that had advanced African Americans. Instructing his cabinet to halt racial integration of the federal civil service, Wilson made possible the re-segregating of cafeterias, restrooms and other facilities at the Department of the Treasury, the Post Office, and many other federal buildings. He fired fifteen out of the seventeen black supervisors in federal service at the time of his assuming office. Assailed by a delegation of black professionals protesting these moves, Wilson scolded them that “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.” The consequences of his actions are made vivid in an op-ed by a prominent Manhattan lawyer, Gordon J. Davis, titled “What Woodrow Wilson Cost My Grandfather,” telling the story of how his mixed-race grandfather lost his middle-management position at the Government Printing Office and was reduced to menial jobs, his salary cut in half. “Wilson was not just a racist,” Davis writes. “He believed in white supremacy as government policy, so much so that he reversed decades of racial progress... [and] in doing so, he ruined the lives of countless talented African-Americans and their families.”

Wilson’s work as a scholar is similarly indictable. In his 1902 book, A History of the American People, he attacked Reconstruction and its empowerment of African-Americans, commenting that “the dominance of an ignorant and inferior race was justly dreaded.” Expressing skepticism about black suffrage following the Civil War, he wrote that “it was a menace to society itself that the negroes should thus of a sudden be set free and left without tutelage or restraint.” In an unpublished 1881 article, Wilson described the violent backlash against Reconstruction as the actions of “the white men of the South [who] were aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation to rid themselves, by fair means or foul, of the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes.” Personally, Wilson was a friend of Thomas Dixon, whose novel, The Clansman, provided the basis for D.W. Griffith’s 1915 cinematic ode to the South, Birth of a Nation – a film that celebrated the KKK and depicted African-Americans as barbaric... and that Wilson was sufficiently enthusiastic about to give a private showing at the White House. Dylan  Matthews in Vox sums up with a damning judgment: “Let’s be clear on one thing: Woodrow Wilson was, in fact, a racist pig. He was a racist by current standards, and he was a racist by the standards of the 1910s.” 

Lets stipulate that all this is true. What then? Does it follow that we should remove Wilson’s name from public places?

My first inclination is to say yes, let’s do so; public memorialization is an honor, and honors can be rescinded. As the Times said in an editorial, “the overwhelming weight of the evidence argues for rescinding the honor that the university bestowed decades ago on an unrepentant racist.”

Yet this kind of revision raises questions. If we agree to undertake it, how do we decide who merits getting booted, and who gets to stay? Do we go down the list of public memorials case by case, reckoning pros and cons, measuring what the person in question accomplished for good and for ill, according to our values? ( In Wilson’s case, League of Nations, thumbs up; segregated Post Offices, thumbs down.)  Or is the deciding factor the person’s relationship to the prevailing views of his time? In other words, if Wilson was merely an incidental or passive racist, who shared the biases of his day but didn’t do anything particularly vile, he can stay – while, if he turns out to have been notable for racism even in his own day, and actively promoted it, he’s gone? That’s the standard Dylan Matthews proposes in his Vox piece. And, predictably, others have weighed in to argue that Wilson, while racist, was not notorious for it, and that his views were “fairly centrist” for his time.

It’s arduous to imagine vetting all public memorialization along these lines.

And what about the view that cleansing our society of public honorific mention of such figures effaces problematic history and lets us off easy – lets us “forgive ourselves unjustly,” as one Yale student said, asked about changing the name of the Yale residence named for John C. Calhoun, a fierce advocate of slavery. The argument for keeping discredited views in view is made coherently here, by Rutgers historian James Livingston, in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Livingston argues that changing names and removing dedications amount to “ways of forgetting the past — repressing and mutilating it rather than learning from it.”  Our nation was built on slavery and racism, he reminds us, pointing out that most Ivy League endowments bore some connection to the slave trade; “I say keep Calhoun enshrined and teach the history of the Ivy League universities.” As for Wilson, Livingston argues that “if we can acknowledge and teach the centrality of slavery and racism in 19th-century American history by keeping Calhoun on our minds, we can acknowledge and teach the centrality of imperialism and racism in 20th-century American history by keeping Wilson on our minds.”

And maybe the biggest question is, if we revise memorials to reflect our revulsion at slavery and racism, how do we reckon with the great foundational figures of the American nation who nonetheless shared the race sentiments of their day, embracing prevailing notions of African inferiority and in many cases owning slaves? Livingston reminds us that “by the standards of our time, Abraham Lincoln was a racist who plainly stated... that he wasn’t in favor of political or social equality between white and black people.” So what is the logic, or formula, that banishes Woodrow Wilson but retains Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington? At Princeton a second, dissenting student group issued a counter-petition, asserting that “any steps to purge this campus of its Wilsonian legacy creates a dangerous precedent and slippery slope that will be cited by future students who seek to purge the past of those who fail to live up to modern standards of morality.” In other words, today Wilson, tomorrow Jefferson.

For perspective on all this I emailed my friend James Young, professor at UMass and author of The Texture of Memory, a scholar whose field is public art, memorials, and national memory, and who was the lone American to serve on the panel that chose Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. James tells me that while he fervently supported banishing the Confederate flag, he shares “some skepticism on the expunging of history,” and says we need to distinguish “between the juvenile preoccupation with Halloween costumes and mascots and the deadly serious preoccupation with the continued honoring of a racist symbol of a traitorous, secessionist regime.” Woodrow Wilson would seem to lie somewhere in between. “Rather than changing the names of places (or institutes at Princeton),” James wrote in his email, “I say make the names re-own their history, as a measure of just how far we’ve come, or of how far we have yet to go, as the case may be.”

Make the names re-own their history. An interesting example of memorial revision in my neck of the woods may help shed some light. For a century, a hilltop street in Mystic, CT, overlooking the Mystic River, was home to a statue of Major John Mason, leader of a colonial military effort against the local Native Americans that resulted in the slaughter of all 500 inhabitants – men, women and children – of the Pequot village on the banks of the river below. The monument’s dedicatory plaque announced that it was “Erected AD 1889 by the State of Connecticut  to commemorate the heroic achievement of Major John Mason and his comrades, who near this spot in 1637, overthrew the Pequot Indians, and preserved the settlements from destruction.” While those words expressed the dominant and conventional view of 1889, a century later, Mason’s “achievement” no longer seemed so heroic. Wielding political power from their thriving new Foxwoods casino, the descendents of those Pequots undertook to get rid of the Mason statue, and in 1996, it was taken down and moved across the state to Windsor, Mason’s hometown – and its plaque removed and replaced with one explaining that “this monument was relocated to respect a sacred site of the 1637 Pequot War.”

In a sense, the Mason statue in its original location died a natural death -- with a boost from Pequot casino influence -- because it no longer represented anything that anyone wanted to stand up for or cling to. It stopped being inspirational, in other words. But what about being instructive?  Is Mystic better off for the statue’s non-presence at the site of its historical significance? One can argue that the figure of the swashbuckling soldier, stepping forward aggressively while drawing his sword from its scabbard, conveys a bracing historical reality – that of expansionist violence, a colonizing soldier striding toward his victims and readying himself to kill. While keeping that image in front of our eyes, the memorial – together with its original, reverential dedication --  also reminds us that the very image we now see as ominous appeared valiant and heroic in the eyes of an earlier era. Such a monument implicates, indicts and instructs all at once. It is, in other words, a challenging and complex lesson in history.  

I’m certainly open to accepting the notion that Wilson is no longer a person we would enshrine today. Yet earlier generations felt he was. Is reckoning with that fact facilitated by getting rid of his name? Especially at a university, we want to take controversies and turn them, as the saying goes, into teachable moments. But erasing the blackboard doesn’t seem like teaching.  

What do you think?

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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