The Board of Trustees of Princeton University has voted to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the University’s public policy school and one of its residential colleges.
This is an interesting and I think correct decision. Wilson is a complicated figure. In many ways he created the modern Princeton University, changing it from a small, albeit elite college catering disproportionately to Southerners to a modern research university. He had an important reformist presidency, which saw the creation of much of the modern federal state, and led the country through World War I and its abortive push for global democratization and world peace.
But Wilson was also a thoroughgoing Southerner and Lost Cause defender. Indeed, his scholarship as a history professor – mostly notably in Division and Reunion – played an important role in building a historiography that portrayed slavery as a generally benign institution and Reconstruction as a tragic failure that oppressed the white South with corruption and tyranny. Wilson was a thoroughgoing racist even by the standards of his own day. His attitude toward African-Americans and their political rights don’t just look bad from the perspective of the day. They were widely considered retrograde even in his own day.
This was a through-line throughout Wilson’s career, first as a scholar, a university president, governor and finally President. When he became President he segregated the federal workforce which had been integrated since Reconstruction. Indeed, it’s not too much to say that on becoming President Wilson began a thoroughgoing program of bringing Jim Crow to the federal workplace. The Post Office and Treasury set up separate bathrooms and lunch rooms for black and white employees. He even went so far as to institute a policy of requiring federal office-seekers to append photographs to their applications.
What can be hard to see clearly from the distance of more than a century is that the federal government had mostly been run by the Republican party since the Civil War. The one Democratic President between the Civil War and Wilson was Grover Cleveland who served two non-consecutive terms in the 1880s and 1890s. But he was the exception that proves the rule and very much a Northerner. Wilson was the second Democrat and the first Southerner to become President after the Civil War. He brought thoroughly Southern white attitudes toward Blacks to the federal government and worked quickly to put them into effect.
The one thing to consider – and I think the University Board gave it close consideration – is that the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy is after all a school of public policy. It’s not a foreign policy school or a center of historical studies. It’s designed to train people to serve in government or create scholarship that informs the work of government. That’s a hard legacy to square with the questions and challenges we bring to the work of governance today. It’s a vastly closer call than that for men who we only know anything about because of their defense of slavery and treason but still I think the right call.