Power to the Powerless at Princeton

It used to be that Wilsonianism was associated with Woodrow Wilson’s vaulted views on foreign affairs. Because of this association Princeton University – of which Wilson once was president – named in his honor its School of Public and International Affairs.

It used to be.

But, because of the recent actions of a small number of Princeton undergraduates, this legacy is now threatened. More likely it has already suffered a serious blow.

Wilson is remembered primarily for his contributions to American foreign policy. While his proposal for a League of Nations suffered a stinging defeat at the hands of the U.S. Senate, the idealism that inspired it has lived on, perpetuating his vision of an ideology and institution that would promote and perpetuate world peace.

Wilson’s status as one of America’s most esteemed presidents – earlier this year he ranked 10th among our 44 chief executives – has essentially remained unchallenged, until now. Now it has been challenged so powerfully and persuasively that the New York Times ran an editorial this week that said first that Wilson was “an unrepentant racist,” and second that in consequence Princeton should revoke the honor of naming after him one of its most prestigious schools.

How did this sea change come about? Credit a year-old student group, the Black Justice League, which a few months ago began exposing Wilson’s racist views. To start there were posters exposing some of Wilson’s more offensive quotes, such as his comment to an African-American leader that “segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you.” Next there were certain complaints, such as that only about 2 percent of Princeton’s faculty is black. Then there were various demands, for example, mandatory courses on “the history of marginalized peoples,” and also a joining of forces. These included not only other undergraduates but also faculty, some 54 of whom eventually signed a Black Justice League petition. Finally there was a sit-in in the president’s office. It dragged on 32 hours, and when it was over Princeton’s President, Christopher Eisgruber, had agreed to many of the students’ demands, including considering wiping Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Affairs.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the Princeton protest, it’s a striking example of how a powerless few, here a knot of undergraduates, can win out over the powerful many, here not only the Princeton establishment, but an American president who historians have judged near great.

Woodrow Wilson will never be discredited entirely. Nor should he be. He was in many a progressive, and in all ways an internationalist. His contribution to American foreign policy thought will endure. Moreover his racism must be placed in context – he was after all a man of his time, born in 1856. Still, because of a handful of activists at Princeton, it is now widely known that in accordance with his views, in some cases at least he engaged public policy to further white supremacy. It is why his estimable reputation will never be completely restored.  And it is why American history textbooks must again be revised – as they were with Thomas Jefferson, who similarly was transformed from marble icon to man in full.




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