Students at Princeton University recently occupied the office of their President. They are demanding that Woodrow Wilson’s name be removed from campus because of his history of racism. Though President Eisgruber admitted Wilson’s racism, he urged students to consider the totality of Wilson’s career as university president. As the debate continues, it may be appropriate to read Wilson himself.
Before becoming Princeton’s President, Governor of New Jersey, and the 28th President of the United States (1913-1921), Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) was a scholar. His writings are voluminous. He is still the only President to have had a Ph.D.
Wilson was also a Southerner, at a time when his party, the Democrats, had a solid base among Southern whites. The post-Reconstruction Republican Party, meanwhile, had largely been purged of African Americans in the South by the “lily white” movement.
So Wilson was very much a (white) man of his time. By the turn of the 20th century, this meant that both sides of the Civil War had come together to heal a divided nation, a healing that very much excluded former slaves and their descendants, as well as free blacks of the North.
Wilson encapsulates that historic moment himself in a profile of Robert E. Lee. He calls Lee noble, heroic, and “a conscious model to men who would be morally great.” There is nothing about the cause of the Civil War in this essay, beyond the South’s “older conception of the union.” Slavery, in which nearly half the population of the South was in shackles (and the basis of Lee family wealth and prestige), goes unmentioned. Wilson instead celebrates the new age, in which national respect for Lee means “there are no sections in this country any more.”
W.E.B. Du Bois’s impressions of Wilson are telling. Du Bois, who was so often in the vanguard, recounts Wilson’s betrayals of the African Americans who helped elect him in the four-way election of 1912. Du Bois had even withdrawn from the Socialist Party to support him.
In the aftermath of Wilson’s victory, African American interests were abandoned as Southern whites strove for even harsher race laws, and succeeded in segregating the civil service. Only after a hard lobbying campaign would Wilson speak out against lynching. Du Bois’s critique, ending with the horrible treatment of black soldiers in World War I, is harsh. Thus while he may have been a man of his time, his softening attitudes towards African-Americans may have been more so a political maneuver than an ethical one.