Students at Princeton University are protesting against the honors and memorials the university bestows upon its former president, Woodrow Wilson. Considering the emphasis of recent scholarship on issues of race, gender, and class in American history, it is probably about time that students got around to challenging the historical legacy of an American President who embraced racism and introduced Jim Crow practices into the structure of the federal government in Washington.
The prominence given to Wilson in many textbooks and memorials is the product of the great man school of American history as a grand national narrative of progress and American exceptionalism. Wilson is extolled as a scholar, university president, reform governor of New Jersey, and a President who embraced progressivism and internationalism.
As a progressive reformer, Wilson is praised for advancing the New Freedom to assure a competitive environment in which all Americans could pursue the American dream. As President, Wilson is often given high marks for pursuing such legislation as the Clayton Anti-trust Act, which Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor called the “Magna Carta of Labor,” as it exempted organized labor from the restraint of trade provision found in the Sherman Anti-trust Act. At Wilson’s urging, the Congress also lowered the tariff and promoted free trade, passed the Federal Reserve Act, and created the Federal Trade Commission to assure fair business practices.
Although in gestation long before his Presidency, Wilson is also linked to the Constitutional amendments enacted during his two terms in office: the sixteenth creating a progressive income tax, the seventeenth providing for direct election of U. S. Senators by the people, the controversial eighteenth calling for prohibition which was also pushed as a measure to provide more grain for the war effort, and the nineteenth enacting women’s suffrage which Wilson had initially opposed.
Wilson is usually celebrated for reluctantly leading the nation into World War I and expressing America’s war aims in idealistic terms; describing the war effort as necessary to make the world safe for democracy and as a conflict that would end all wars. In pursuit of these lofty goals, Wilson crafted the Fourteen Points and offered the Germans “peace without victory.”
The Fourteen Points included idealistic calls for self-determination, disarmament, freedom of the seas, and the creation of a League of Nation to prevent future conflicts. Most of these principles were not endorsed by America’s French and British allies, and the Treaty of Versailles placed considerable burdens on Germany with war debts and territorial losses.
Wilson, who suffered an unreported stroke during the negotiations, compromised most of his ideas in the belief that these problems could later be addressed through the League of Nations. After dealing with the Europeans, Wilson was in no mood to compromise with Republicans in the Senate who wanted changes or reservations with the treaty and League of Nations. While campaigning vigorously against Senators who opposed the League, an exhausted Wilson suffered a second stroke and was incapacitated for the remainder of his Presidency.
As a scholar, Wilson propagated the Southern myth that Reconstruction was the rape of the South by freedmen, Northern carpetbaggers, and Southern scalawags.
In the final analysis, the treaty failed to pass the Senate, and the United States did not join the League of Nations. To those who believed that with American participation the League might have been able to prevent the Second World War, Wilson became a martyr to the cause of peace.
However, there is another Woodrow Wilson whose domestic and international achievements are much more suspect. As a scholar, Wilson propagated the Southern myth that Reconstruction was the rape of the South by freedmen, Northern carpetbaggers, and Southern scalawags. Thus, he embraced filmmaker D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) based upon a novel The Klansman by Wilson’s friend Thomas Dixon. Wilson refused to support legislation that would make lynching a federal crime, but he instituted segregation within the federal Washington bureaucracy.
In addition to his racism, Wilson proved to be no friend of civil liberties. The Wilson administration employed the Espionage Act to silence criticism of conscription and the war effort. Perennial Socialist Party Presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was imprisoned for questioning the draft, while Socialist representative Victor Berger was expelled from Congress.
War hysteria was employed to crush more radical organizations such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In the West, vigilante action was taken against the IWW in places such as Bisbee, Arizona, while the government confiscated IWW literature, and leaders such as Big Bill Haywood were indicted for sedition. In fact, the war was essentially used to destroy the Socialist Party and IWW.
Fears of radicalism and the “new immigration” from Southern and Eastern Europe increased after the Bolshevik Revolution. Following a series of bombings in New York City attributed to Italian anarchists, Wilson’s Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer ordered a series of raids against immigrants accused of supporting anarchism and communism. The Palmer Raids or First Red Scare included wholescale violations of civil liberties and illegal deportations which led to the formation of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The legacy of Wilsonian internationalism is also an area worthy of serious reexamination. The idea that it would be necessary to employ military force to make the world safe for democracy established a dangerous precedent. Thus, Wilson intervened militarily in both the Bolshevik and Mexican Revolutions; asserting that he was going to teach the Mexicans to elect good men.
Under Wilson, the United States also intervened actively in the Caribbean and Central America to supposedly bolster stability and democracy in places such as Haiti. The legacy of using American military might to spread democracy carried over into the Cold War with the Truman Doctrine and bombing of Vietnam in the name of freedom.
In the more recent past, George W. Bush defended his ill-fated invasion of Iraq by insisting that the mission of the United States was to foster democracy in the Middle East. This military action destabilized the region and helped lead to the rise of the Islamic State. Wilsonian rhetoric has certainly been used to justify a great deal of bloodshed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And in terms of self-determination, the continuing support for European colonialism at Versailles suggests that Wilson was more interested in self-government for the white race.
The Wilson legacy is, thus, a troubling one. As some defenders of Wilson argue, we cannot simply erase the past, and for better or worse Wilson is part of American history. Questioning Wilson’s legacy, however, offers an opportunity to broaden the public’s understanding of a complex national history.
How about removing some of these Wilsonian memorials in favor of a more inclusive honoring and rendering of the American past? What about honoring lesser known Americans who have built this nation and moving beyond the great man theory of history by recognizing the diversity of race, gender, and class in the American experience.
It is true that in terms of dealing with issues of race in contemporary America there are more urgent issues than what to do about Woodrow Wilson. Nevertheless, a greater awareness of America’s diverse past should help provide some important context for dealing with the present.