This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
Princeton University’s decision this weekend to strike the name of its former president — and ours — from its public policy school for his “racist thinking and policies” was long overdue. Woodrow Wilson was in wide company in being a white supremacist at the turn of the 20th century, but he stands apart in having overseen the triumph of this ideology at home and abroad.
Son of the Confederacy’s leading cleric, apologist for the Klan, friend of the country’s most prominent racist demagogues, and architect and defender of an apartheid international racial order, the amazing thing is that Wilson’s name was ever associated with idealism or respectable statesmanship. In fact, delving deeply into his life to write “Union” — a book on the battle over whether the United States was to be defined by adherence to “natural rights” ideals contained in the Declaration of Independence, or to Anglo-Saxon bloodlines — I came away wondering how any institution would have wanted to be associated with his name at all, even in the 1920s or 1940s.
Wilson was raised in Augusta, Georgia during the Civil War, the son of Joseph Ruggles Wilson, leading light of the Presbyterian Church of the Confederacy who made his name through the publication of his popular sermon arguing for the Biblical sanction of slavery. After the war the slaves who served the Wilson family in the Rectory became wage laborers, but little else changed until the elder Wilson relocated the family to South Carolina’s capital, Columbia, a city that remained half-ruined after a fire spread during General Sherman’s advance five years earlier. Under the protection of the U.S. Army, South Carolina’s African-American majority had sent a 78–46 Black majority to the lower chamber of the State House, just four blocks from the Wilson’s Greek Revival home, and ten to the 21-seat senate, where Republicans — then still very much the party of Lincoln — also enjoyed a majority. As an academic and president, Wilson would later reveal just what he thought of these developments.
After dropping out of Davidson College (he had a “cold”) and loafing about his parents’ home for a year, Wilson’s father enrolled him at another Presbyterian, Southern-friendly college in Princeton, New Jersey which, unlike Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, or Brown, refused to admit African-Americans. Two thirds of Princeton’s students came from the former Confederacy, but Wilson was confronted with non-Southerners for the first time, an experience that bolstered his reactionary politics and Southern identity. He took up the secessionist side in debates with classmates, and nearly came to blows with some Northern students during the contested 1876 election. He fumed over Rutherford B. Hayes’s ascension to the presidency — “How much happier we would be now if [we] had England’s form of government instead of the miserable delusion of a Republic” — and was outraged by the prospect of universal male suffrage, which he called “the foundation of every evil in this country.”
He graduated from Princeton, but dropped out of University of Virginia’s law school after a year, again alleging a cold, and spent another sixteen months at his parents’ home, writing articles nobody would publish. “The determination of the Saxon race of the South that the negro race shall never again rule over them is, then, not unnatural and it is necessarily unalterable,” one concluded, arguing that Southern whites must maintain “united resistance to the domination of an ignorant race.”
He eventually wound up at Johns Hopkins University to study history, but was soon annoyed by his professors’ insistence that he do archival research, “digging … into dusty records” and “other rummaging work of a dry kind, which seemed very tiresome in comparison with the grand excursions amongst imperial policies which I had planned for myself,” as he put it to his fiancée. He made friends with a fellow Southerner, Thomas Dixon Jr., and wrote a book about the “living reality” of U.S. government without once visiting D.C., a short train excursion south of Baltimore, and then dropped out, believing he did not need a doctorate to pursue an academic career. Discovering otherwise, he convinced his former mentors to let him submit his book as his dissertation and stand for oral exams specially devised to ensure his success. In June 1886, he was awarded a PhD he hadn’t really earned.
He ultimately taught at Princeton, where he made his mark with a compact textbook, “Division and Reunion,” about the Civil War and postwar reconciliation. Contained within was an outline of the post-Confederate vision of a nation reunited based on shared Anglo-Saxon interests. He declared the “charges of moral guilt” leveled against Southern slave lords were unjust because slaves “were almost uniformly dealt with indulgently and even affectionately by their masters,” who themselves were the beneficiaries of “the sensibility and breeding of entitlement.” He condemned Reconstruction — the effort to enforce the civil and political emancipation of African-Americans in the occupied South — and said allowing Blacks to vote was a “carnival of public crime.” The mass slaughter of Black people by white terrorists in Hamburg, Vicksburg, Colfax, New Orleans and other cities went unmentioned, as did attacks occurring in dozens of South Carolina towns right under Wilson’s nose the whole time he was coming of age.
“Division and Reunion” was met with mixed reviews, but was a commercial success, as it embraced an account that let white Americans put the Civil War and civil rights behind them. And it inspired Wilson to write “A History of the American People,” a poorly written and shoddily researched five-volume, illustrated tome published in 1902. (“A disappointment after the pleasure of examining the pictures is past,” a leading journal wrote of it.) It furthered the white supremacist arguments in “Division and Reunion,” calling freed slaves “dupes” and the KKK a group formed “for the mere pleasure of association [and] private amusement” whose members accidentally discovered they could create “comic fear” in the Blacks they descended on. Immigrants were a problem because they were no longer “of the sturdy stocks of the North of Europe” but contained “multitudes of men of the lowest classes from the South of Italy and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland” and Chinese people, “with their yellow skin and strange, debasing habits of life,” who seemed “hardly fellow men at all, but evil spirits” and who provoked understandable mass killings by white mobs.
Then he went into politics, swapping the presidency of Princeton for the governorship of New Jersey by convincing the Democratic Party bosses of that state that he would be their puppet, but backstabbing them once he achieved power. After his 1911 inauguration, he did little governing, as he was soon laying groundwork for a presidential campaign. With the Republican vote split between incumbent William Howard Taft and the third party candidacy of former president Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson won the 1912 election with less than 42 percent of the vote, becoming the first Deep Southerner to hold the presidency.
It’s said that the South lost the war, but won the peace, but it was Wilson’s presidency that sealed the victory. Wilson presided over the segregation of the federal government, with Black civil servants directed to use only certain bathrooms and to eat their lunches there too so as to not sully the cafeterias. At the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, makeshift partitions were erected in offices so white clerks would not have to see their Black counterparts. Dozens of prominent African-American officials were replaced with whites, which came as a shock to many African American leaders who’d supported Wilson because he’d promised to treat Blacks “fairly.” When the (white) head of the NAACP, erstwhile Wilson ally Oswald Garrison Villard, begged the president to reverse course, Wilson told him it was all being done “in the interest of the negroes.” The president famously ejected Black civil rights leader William Monroe Trotter from the Oval Office for having temerity to tell him that his delegation came to him not as “wards” but as “full-fledged American citizens” demanding equality of citizenship.
The first Hollywood blockbuster was released in 1915, “The Birth of a Nation,” an epic film celebrating the KKK’s reign of terror against African-Americans in the South Carolina of Wilson’s adolescence and denigrating the black majority legislature that convened in his hometown with crude racial stereotypes. Co-produced by Wilson’s friend from Johns Hopkins, Thomas Dixon Jr., who wrote the novel it was based on, it contained numerous quotes from Wilson’s “History of the American People” substantiating its point of view. Massive protests broke out in cities across the country, seeking to have it censored, a common occurrence in the years before the Supreme Court ruled that artistic productions were protected speech. Threatened with bankruptcy, Dixon turned to his old friend to intervene. Wilson screened the film in the White House for his Cabinet, and the following day Supreme Court Justice Edward Douglass White — whose statues in Louisiana and the U.S. Capitol are also subject of current protests — agreed to show it to the other justices and congressional leaders because he himself had been in the Klan and loved the film’s message. These tacit endorsements from the highest levels of power turned the tide and the film went on to be a massive financial success and was until very recently celebrated as a great work of art.
Wilson has been described as “idealistic” because of his efforts to create an international governing order at the Paris Peace Conference that ended World War I. But his plans for the world order presided over by the League of Nations paralleled his vision of the United States. He promoted the principles of democracy and national self-determination, but only for European nations and Anglo-Saxon settler countries like the U.S., Canada, and Australia. Czechs, Romanians, and Serbs deserved their own national states, African, Arab, Indian, and Pacific Island peoples did not. Those living in the Axis powers’ former colonial possessions were sorted into a racial hierarchy of League mandates — Class A, B, and C — based on the level of tutelage they required.
Japan, an allied power in the war, introduced a measure to include the principle of racial equality in the League’s mandate. Wilson opposed it because it would have compelled the U.S. to ensure equal treatment to Japanese, Haitian, or Liberian citizens in hotels, restaurants, and transport across the Jim Crow South. The measure passed anyway, 11-5, but Wilson, who chaired the proceedings, unilaterally and arbitrarily declared the measure had failed because it was not unanimous. He also refused to meet Trotter, who had arrived with a petition for African-American equal rights, and a 29-year-old Vietnamese man seeking self-determination for his French-ruled people, who would later take matters into his own hand under his nom de guerre, Ho Chi Minh.
Princeton’s school of public service was reorganized in 1948, eighteen years after its creation, to add graduate education and a new emphasis on training the governmental experts the U.S. was thought to need to win the developing Cold War. “Many problems must be solved at home if our democratic institutions are to flourish,” the New York Times paraphrased Princeton president Harold Dodds as saying at the time. Having named his institution for someone opposed to the ideals of human equality set forth in the Declaration of Independence seems a straightforward problem for Princeton to have finally solved.
Colin Woodard is the author of six books including “Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood” and “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.”