The Black Justice League, a Princeton University student organization, demands that the university remove images of Woodrow Wilson and rename the university’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs. The former president’s support of segregation and other racist doctrines and policies incense the students. In a recent Huffington Post piece University of Chicago law professor, Geoffrey Stone, defends Wilson; he gives him a pass while raising nettlesome questions. He gets a pass primarily because he was a “product of his time.” I’ll call it the Historical Defense.
Stone readily acknowledges Wilson’s racism – white supremacy and segregation. Nevertheless, all is forgiven because Stone figures that Wilson did more good than evil. He promoted curriculum reform while president of Princeton and hired the first Jew and Catholic. And, as president of the United States, he promoted progressive legislation while appointing the first Jew, Justice Brandeis, to the Supreme Court.
However, Wilson gets a pass primarily because: “Like all of us, he [Wilson] was a man of his own time, and he should be judged accordingly.” Today’s moral standards don’t apply. Surely this law professor doesn’t promote the Historical Defense carte blanche – I doubt he’s inclined to give everyone a pass regardless. No problem playing “gotcha”; substitute “Hitler” for “Wilson” in Stone’s apologia: Like all of us, he [Hitler] was a man of his own time, and he should be judged accordingly.” Today’s moral standards don’t apply. An unqualified Historical Defense turns law and morality into a charade – no one’s accountable.
So who gets a pass? There are no bright lines, no agreed upon metric, no authoritative tribunal to adjudicate disputes to everyone’s satisfaction. We’re stuck with ourselves.
What will the Princeton administration reveal about itself? Evidently, it doesn’t buy the Historical Defense. Responding to the demands of the Black Justice League and its allies, President Christopher Eisgruber authorized the Board of Trustees to investigate Wilson’s background and to make appropriate recommendations. (If nothing else, the League directs attention to the shadow side of Wilson and other historical figures.) What the trustees – or the rest of us, for that matter – deem salient is self-confessional. Here’s what I consider relevant:
I don’t give Wilson a pass because he was a product of his time – he wasn’t. Had Stone done his homework he would have recognized that the Virginia native was a product of another time – the antebellum South. Wilson rescinded the gains enjoyed by African-Americans in the Federal Civil Service. Managers and other successful officials were demoted, humiliated, and reassigned (if they were employed at all) to menial jobs. Adding insult to proverbial injury, Wilson lauded the Klan and screened racist films in the White House.Writing in the New York Times Gordon Davis laments that, prior to Wilson’s presidency, his African-American grandfather supervised a federal office with many white employees, enjoyed a handsome salary, and had a home in Washington and farm in Virginia: “But only months after Woodrow Wilson was sworn in as president in 1913, my grandfather was demoted. He was shuttled from department to department in various menial jobs, and eventually became a messenger in the War Department, where he made only $720 a year.” His grandfather lost everything and died a broken man.
Stone goes beyond student criticism by lamenting Wilson’s suppression of dissent – perhaps he had the Palmer Raids in mind. I share this criticism. Even so, in Stone’s final accounting, Wilson deserves memorialization for his lofty virtues. However, neither Stone nor the students indict what I deem Wilson’s greatest transgression – American entry into World War I. Reckless military campaigns seldom tarnish a president’s reputation: Consider Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis; Reagan supporting Islamic jihadists; or the elder Bush devastating Iraq. Turning to Wilson, contrary to campaign promises, he embroiled that nation in a senseless tragedy that killed millions and made the world safe for demagoguery. This sin of omission reminds me of that old quip: “Besides that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”
Will Stone undergo a change of heart as evidence regarding Wilson is amassed – or overlooked? Giving a notable figure gets a pass reveals more about us than about the notable. Like the rest of us, Stone reveals what he lauds and what he tolerates – racism, apparently, is lamentable but tolerable. In any case, by rising to Wilson’s defense, Stone raises nettlesome issues. He urges us to consider the implications of denouncing those who don’t meet our standards – a troubling prospect.
The Founding Fathers owned slaves, and there’s no difficulty citing Lincoln’s racist polemics. Derided in his time, Lincoln is worshiped in the civic religion as the greatest president – a Christ-like savior of the Union murdered on Good Friday. Can we overlook a war that killed 600,000 Americans? The shortcomings – if not the perfidy – of presidents from Washington to Obama are obvious to those who care to look.
Honored founders of elite colleges fare no better. Leland Stanford wanted to exclude Chinese immigration lest Orientals undermine white supremacy and racial purity. Slaver Elihu Yale’s treachery and illegal profiteering were not his finest hours at the East India Company. And we can, of course, go back farther – much farther. Many hallowed, scriptural figures violated the best in the prophetic traditions. Idols – to be entirely unoriginal – have clay feet.
What about Bernie Sanders?
I suspect that many Tikkun readers join the increasing number of Americans enthusiastically supporting Sanders’ candidacy. They do so despite his record on gun control. Some suggest his record reflected the need to placate his Vermont constituency. In any event, the record is clear, a record Sanders came to regret:
He voted against the Brady bill mandating background checks and waiting periods for gun purchases; supported permitting Amtrak riders to carry guns in checked baggage; and argued against holding gun manufacturers legally liable for mass shootings.
Happily, unlike the luminaries just mentioned, Bernie is still with us, and remains the best choice among viable candidates. He offers a long overdue progressive agenda. (See FDR’s Economic Bill or Rights.) Time remains to make amends for his previous decisions. Determinative from my perspective: I laud Sanders for consistently opposing the tragic folly of senseless, cruel wars.
Ron Hirschbein authored five books taking radical, humanistic approaches to the causes of war and prospects for peace.