Lessons From Princeton’s Struggles With Woodrow Wilson’s Racism

Posted in: Constitutional Law

As part of a negotiated resolution with protesters who recently occupied his office for 32 hours, Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber agreed to request that the Board of Trustees “initiate conversations concerning the present legacy of Woodrow Wilson on th[e Princeton] campus.”

Wilson was the 34th Governor of New Jersey, the 28th President of the United States, and both a leading progressive and internationalist. Wilson’s name and likeness are ubiquitous at Princeton, where, before entering elective politics, he was a political scientist, and then university president. Wilson’s academic vision transformed a relatively sleepy college into one of the world’s premier research universities. He was also a racist segregationist who not only resisted admitting African Americans to Princeton but actively purged them from the federal civil service as U.S. President.

The protesters’ contention that Princeton should not honor Wilson in light of his racist views and policies can and should be seen in the context of the broader movement erupting on college campuses throughout the country. As I argued in my last Verdict column, protests at the University of Missouri, Yale, and elsewhere call attention to the distance that educational institutions and American society still must travel in order to treat African Americans and members of other minority groups as more than second-class citizens.

Meanwhile, the objection to honoring Wilson raises distinct questions with implications far beyond the Princeton campus. Some students at Yale object to the fact that a residential college there is named for South Carolina slaveowner and states’ rights champion John C. Calhoun. Some students at Harvard Law School want to change the school’s seal, which incorporates the family coat of arms of the brutal slaveowner Isaac Royall Jr.

And that’s just scratching the surface at three Ivy League universities. If Princeton should change the name of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, what other institutions should also change?

George Washington, the “father” of our country, was a slaveowner. Andrew Jackson, who committed genocide against Native Americans, graces the twenty-dollar bill. Harry Truman, for whom a prestigious scholarship is named, deliberately targeted hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians for death by nuclear bombs.

Should we change the name of our capital city? Would purging our institutions of honors for these and the many other flawed figures of the past recognize or revise our history? Is it fair to judge people who lived in different times by our current standards? Such questions have no easy answers, but we can identify some useful guiding principles.

Put the Past in Context

Judged by today’s values, nearly everyone who lived in past eras held offensive views. They were racist, sexist, and homophobic. As a vegan, I hope that in the not-too-distant future, people will regard nearly everyone alive today as a speciesist. And I expect that one or more of the widely shared attitudes that I now hold will come to be regarded as benighted.

Given that norms evolve over time, honoring just about anyone with a lasting memorial will inevitably mean honoring someone whose views will come to be regarded as offensive. Does that mean that no one should be honored with a school, a building, or a statue? Or conversely, that we should never re-examine such honors?

Two criteria suggest a middle course between these two extremes. First, we can distinguish between actions and viewpoints. If virtually no one escapes the prejudices of her age, there is nonetheless a difference between those who passively hold those views and those who act to strengthen or entrench them.

Second, while it may be anachronistic to criticize people for holding views that were simply taken for granted by everyone around them, we should not be too quick to assume that views that were once widely held were universally held or unquestioned.

For example, slavery was condemned by Quakers and others even in the seventeenth century, and after the adoption of the Constitution, Benjamin Franklin (who once owned slaves) delivered a petition seeking its abolition to Congress. Likewise, the Justices who, in 1872, thought it consistent with the Constitution for Illinois to deny a woman a license to practice law on the ground that “the paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother,” wrote those words a full generation after the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments expressly challenged patriarchy.

If it is unfair to judge people of the past by then-unknown norms, we nonetheless can evaluate them by comparison with views and conduct of more enlightened thinkers of their own time.

It’s All a Matter of Degree

In pushing back against the anti-Wilson protesters, a Change.org petition objects (among other things) that Wilson was a “significant historical figure who, despite his flaws, made great contributions to” Princeton. Evan Draim, the Princeton student who wrote the petition explained to the author of a recent New Yorker article (another Princeton student) that Princeton honors Wilson “not because the school is trying to sanction his terrible beliefs on race” but in memory of the fact “that he made many positive contributions to this college.”

Draim is no doubt correct that few if any current Princetonians wish to honor Wilson’s racism. To borrow a principle from the constitutional law of equal protection, Princeton recognizes Wilson despite his racism, rather than because of his racism. Yet that fact should not, by itself, be dispositive.

Suppose that a major American university had an “Adolf Hitler School of Space Exploration” in recognition of the contributions that Nazis made to American rocket science. It might well be true that the school was named despite rather than because of Hitler’s crimes against humanity, but so what? Surely Hitler’s evil acts so taint his legacy that honoring Hitler to recognize how the space program benefited from projects undertaken by the Nazis would be grotesque.

Of course Woodrow Wilson was not Adolf Hitler. Yet the basic principle applies. Even if an institution intends to honor someone for only his positive contributions, the honor will inevitably be perceived as extending to that person as a whole. Perhaps in Wilson’s case, the good outweighs the bad, but if so, those who defend retaining Wilson’s place of honor at Princeton should make that argument. Pointing out that Princeton seeks to honor Wilson for the good he did is not enough.

Adopt a “Reasonable Outsider” Perspective

It is easy to see that the beneficial side effects of the Nazi regime cannot possibly justify honoring Hitler, but Wilson’s case, like many others, is more complicated. How do we weigh the good against the bad?

Here too there is no formula, but we can gain insight from another area of constitutional law—the cases construing the limits the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause places on religious displays on public property. Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor argued that whether a given display is constitutional should turn on whether a “reasonable observer” would see the display as endorsing religion or a particular religion, and thereby disapproving of his own religious choices.

But here as in other contexts—such as the “reasonable person” standard in tort law—there is no single reasonable person. What seems reasonable to members of a minority group may seem unreasonable to the majority, and vice-versa. As I explained in a 2011 article in the Virginia Law Review, there can be more than one reasonable perception. Using a potent example, I noted that “white Southerners who vote to fly the Confederate battle flag reasonably believe that they are thereby honoring the bravery in battle of their ancestors, while the people who take offense reasonably perceive a symbol of slavery and white supremacy.”

Which perspective should prevail? As a matter of constitutional law, that is a hard question, because courts could be flooded by complaints seeking the removal of public symbols reasonably deemed offensive by some group. As a matter of public policy, however, I would favor what some critics of Justice O’Connor’s approach call the reasonable outsider perspective. The satisfaction that members of the in-group (such as those white Southerners who wish to see the Confederate flag flying over their state capital building) derive from honoring a past person or institution will usually be inadequate to justify communicating to out-group members that they are in some sense second-class citizens.

Recognize Complexity

The criteria I have set forth here do not apply themselves. Different people acting in good faith will reach different judgments about whether to disestablish honors for particular figures in various institutional settings. While astute readers will see in my principles considerable sympathy for Princeton’s anti-Wilson protesters, my analysis would not result in purging honors in all cases. For example, I would leave in place the memorials honoring George Washington.

But even if one concludes that, on balance, a flawed figure from the past deserves to retain the honors that have been bestowed upon him, that all-things-considered judgment should not be used as an excuse to whitewash history. In recent years, museums and preservation societies have begun to grapple with the fallibility of the people they honor. For example, Mount Vernon’s website notes George Washington’s somewhat contradictory attitudes towards slavery, including mixed evidence about how he treated the people who were enslaved on his plantation.

Recognizing complexity at a museum or in educational materials is relatively easy. It is more difficult to convey ambivalence in a name. Yet that is no reason not to try. Institutions that choose to retain names and honors for flawed figures of the past thus have a special duty to take other very public measures to disavow those figures’ flaws.

  • Laura Inman

    Why not step back and consider why we have a mania for
    naming building, bridges, roads concert halls, whatever, after some man (and I
    mean man as opposed to woman, although I am not suggesting that the practice
    would be more defensible if only it were more gender neutral). I would hate to
    be called upon to write the essay explaining why it is important that we put
    names on things. I could write the essay why it makes little sense that we do memorialize men from the past, both distinct and recent, in this way.

    Any man who has received this “honor” did whatever it was he
    did in his own self-interest and reaped the rewards. Second, we did not need
    the example of Woodrow Wilson to know that there is no such thing as a “great
    man.” I have no reverence for a slave owner. I don’t think a single founding
    father who owned slaves could be seen as a positive sum of very negative parts. They did some notable things (again, of their own volition and to their own
    aggrandizement while alive), but if they owned slaves, they were not moral in
    that regard, which is not hindsight given it was the age of reason and
    enlightenment, that most of the Western world at that time did not own slaves,
    and that England was on the verge of ending, or had abolished slavery. They also of course
    were sexist, appropriating for themselves power and rights and depriving women
    of pursuing meaningful lives. Leaving the “great man” idea aside, many others
    find their names worthy of a bridge or road. Such men have some special
    talents, like ball players, or successful politicians, or productive
    executives. So what — what does anyone gain by consecrating their names by
    attaching them to structures?

    The only exception to the pointlessness of naming buildings,
    bridges, and roads is when a large donor of funds insists on having his name
    attached to the project. Okay, if there is quid pro quo attached to the money,
    then it must be done; spend the money and question what that donor gets from
    seeing his name on the placard.

    Why not have meaningful symbols of ideas rather than flawed
    men, old and young, all over the place, which will a fortiori do away with the problem
    of having Jefferson Davis Highway or a Woodrow
    Wilson School of anything. The stature of liberty would serve; depictions of
    the natural wonders of the United States (Grand Canyon, Red woods, Rocky Mountains,
    even city skylines would work as well.