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Killing Woodrow Wilson: The Battle of Princeton

The country, as well as Princeton, has moved on from Wilson's bigotry as it has from Lowell's. But the institutions they led, now stronger and hopefully more enlightened, must take pride in and embrace their ever developing history, "warts and all," not erase it.
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Student protesters at Princeton, some of them members of the "Black Justice League," have demanded the elimination of all institutional references to Woodrow Wilson at the University, including a name change to the iconic Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, which has educated those seeking a career in public service since 1948. The League claims that Wilson's legacy makes certain students feel "unsafe." The University's President, Christopher Eisgruber, said he would seriously consider the student demands.

The legacy of Woodrow Wilson, the Nation's 28th President, is a mixed bag. On May 24, 1926, two years after Wilson's death, an editorial in The New York Times, hardly a racist institution, praised the establishment of a Woodrow Wilson Professorship of English Literature as perpetuating at Princeton "the name of a man who had a distinguished career there before he entered public life." It was Wilson who coined the aspirational phrase, which has become Princeton's watchword, "Princeton in the Nation's Service."

It took only 89 years for the Times to change its editorial tune on Wilson. On November 24, it trashed Wilson's "toxic legacy," calling him an "unapologetic racist" whose administration "purged black workers from "influential jobs" and transformed the government into an instrument of white supremacy." Strong medicine considering that most of the "influential jobs" that Wilson purged were in the post office.

No name has been more identified with what Princeton stands for than that of Woodrow Wilson. There is the possible exception of James Madison, father of the Constitution, who undoubtedly owned slaves. There is a Madison Hall at Princeton, which someone might want to rename as well. The Woodrow Wilson School has graduated many national leaders, including former Secretary of State George Shultz and former Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker. Many of its distinguished graduates are African American, presumably proud to accept a diploma bearing the name Woodrow Wilson. The School now has an outstanding African-American dean, Cecilia Rouse. Surely, the University would say that in honoring Wilson, we do not honor his bigotry--that would be a profanation. Instead we honor his progressivism, his internationalism, and all he accomplished "in the Nation's service."

At Princeton, Wilson was the first University president to admit Catholics and Jews. But for this step the diversity represented on campus today would probably never have happened. As President of the United States, he signed the Federal Reserve Act, helped found the League of Nations (which failed in the near term only to be reincarnated in the UN), and made the historic appointment of Louis D. Brandeis as the first Jewish Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He also reintroduced the spoken State of the Union address, which had been out of use since 1801. He was responsible for the passage of progressive legislative policies unparalleled until the New Deal in 1933. These included the Federal Trade Commission Act, the Clayton Antitrust Act, and the Federal Farm Loan Act. Having taken office one month after ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment, Wilson called a special session of Congress, whose work culminated in the Revenue Act of 1913, reintroducing an income tax and lowering tariffs. The institutional and legislative foundations carefully laid by Wilson are the pillars of the liberal democracy we enjoy to this day. In short, Princeton honors Wilson's place in its glorious history, as well as the ever-developing history of the Nation, and in so doing, it need not say that everything he did was good.

Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber, as part of a settlement with the student protesters, who had occupied his offices at Nassau Hall for 32 hours, stated that while recognizing Wilson's "lasting imprint on this University," said he found Wilson's record on race "disturbing," and promised to "develop a process to consider" the issue of Wilson's legacy. I deeply sympathize with Eisgruber's predicament, but he must not knuckle under.

In 2002, Harvard's president Larry Summers, who happened to be a Jew, wisely retained the name of Lowell House, named after President Abbott Lawrence Lowell of Harvard, who left a far more "toxic legacy" than Wilson. Lowell was a virulent bigot who urged the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, started an investigation to expose gays and prevent their living in the freshman dorms, believed in segregating blacks in campus housing, vehemently opposed the Brandeis appointment in an infamous letter signed by 55 "protestants," and established quotas for admission of Jewish students.

Ultra-liberal New York Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to remove the name of Calhoun from Calhoun College where his son Dante, a Yale undergraduate, resides. Calhoun College is named for 19th century South Carolina slaveholder John C. Calhoun. de Blasio said he was open to renaming other New York institutions such as the George Washington Bridge and Washington Heights because George Washington owned slaves. I cannot tell a lie. If Washington Heights is unsafe tonight, it is on Mayor de Blasio, not George Washington.

Where is it going to stop? Are we to rename the Nation's capital? Let's rename the Washington Monument while we are at it? This is surely an iconoclasm run riot that smacks of the "off with his head" approach found in Moscow or Baghdad.

The country, as well as Princeton, has moved on from Wilson's bigotry as it has from Lowell's. But the institutions they led, now stronger and hopefully more enlightened, must take pride in and embrace their ever developing history, "warts and all," not erase it.

Juliet asked the rhetorical question, "What's in a name?" President Eisgruber will need to answer this question. To declare the end of history, however, and sever Woodrow Wilson from Princeton because his attitudes towards race would not pass muster today is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

James D. Zirin, a lawyer, is a Princeton alumnus. He is the author of the book, The Mother Court--Tales of Cases That Matter in America's Greatest Trial Court. His second book, entitled Supremely Partisan, about raw politics and the Supreme Court will be released next year.