The Disastrous Legacy of Woodrow Wilson
Princeton University has made it official: Woodrow Wilson’s name no longer will have any place on campus. The former president, or at least his memory, now is part of cancel culture, which is sweeping the nation. The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs will replace the former president’s name with “Princeton,” and Wilson College now will be called First College.
This hardly is surprising but in many ways discouraging, but not for reasons that many people might assume. Wilson did, after all, leave a sorry legacy of Jim Crow racial segregation and actively sought to damage if not destroy race relations in the United States, so the drive to remove his name is not a surprise given the wave of renaming and destruction of statues and monuments that has dominated the headlines ever since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd.
The reason for discouragement is not that the university where Wilson served as president before becoming president of the United States has “canceled” him for his racism—something that no one ever sought to hide when discussing Wilson’s legacy—but rather the stubborn insistence that despite his racial policies Wilson’s record of pushing progressive legislation as well as his role in bringing the United States into World War I should be considered as pluses for his presidency. Declares Princeton president Christopher L. Eisgruber:
Wilson remade Princeton, converting it from a sleepy college into a great research university. Many of the virtues that distinguish Princeton today—including its research excellence and its preceptorial system—were in significant part the result of Wilson’s leadership. He went on to the American presidency and received a Nobel Prize. People will differ about how to weigh Wilson’s achievements and failures. Part of our responsibility as a University is to preserve Wilson’s record in all of its considerable complexity.
Translation: Wilson’s record is complex, as he did many positive things both for Princeton and for the USA when he was in the White House. In fact, the “complex” review of Wilson is quite common with historians and journalists, many of whom seem to believe that if it were not for his fealty to Jim Crow and institutionalized racism Woodrow Wilson would have been a great president. That is the legacy that we need to reexamine, and as we do, we find that Wilson’s presidency was a complete disaster, one that reverberates to the present time and still inflicts great harm to our body politic. There is nothing complex at all when examining the cataclysmic aftermath of those eight years Wilson spent in office.
Dick Lehr of The Atlantic seems to be typical of journalists, as he condemns Wilson’s racism but portrays him positively when it comes to his imposition of a progressive legislative and social agenda:
Wilson might have bumbled, and worse, on civil rights, but
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