A sad day for Princeton

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I am a proud alumnus of Princeton University, and a former member of the advisory board of what once was known as the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. In a stunning turnabout, Princeton’s board of trustees last week voted to purge Wilson’s name from the school. I suppose in teaching American history, the faculty still will acknowledge that he was the 28th president of the United States and honestly teach his vast accomplishments, as well as his failures. 

In November 2015, student protestors occupied the office of Princeton’s president, demanding, among other things, that Wilson’s name be eliminated because Wilson was a racist. The board of trustees formed a committee to consider the matter. It’s always good to appoint a committee to consider weighty matters. The committee consulted with leading scholars among the professoriate on Wilson’s contributions. It’s always good to consult leading scholars. The committee discussed the issue with the “broad university community.” This was certainly a wise move. After due deliberation, the committee recommended “reforms.” I suppose they had to recommend some change to mollify the “students” who occupied the president’s office. Judiciously, they left Wilson’s name on Princeton’s public policy school and the residential college. 

However, Princeton’s trustees reversed that decision in light of George Floyd’s tragic killing at the hands of police in Minneapolis — a craven and brutal act with which Wilson had nothing to do.

Wilson owned no slaves and was not a slave trader like Elihu Yale and Nicholas Brown, after whom Yale and Brown universities (no matter how they try to slice and dice history) were named. Nor did he own 300 slaves like George Washington and his wife, after whom our nation’s capital and our 42nd state were named. Nor did he sire children with his slave like Thomas Jefferson, whom we venerate for coining the rich promise of our country that “all men are created equal.” He omitted women from the aphorism, but he would have included them today. 

Wilson was a Princeton alumnus; he taught there; became president of the university, as well as governor of New Jersey and president of the United States. In a recent thoughtful New York Times column, Brett Stephens argues that the acid test of perpetuation should be whether the historical figure strived to seek a “more perfect union” or whether his conduct was treasonable.

Woodrow Wilson passes both tests with flying colors. Unlike Robert E. Lee, John Calhoun or Jefferson Davis, whose statues we are pulling down, Wilson  doubtless sought to achieve a “more perfect union.” I agree with Stephens that we should not honor these leaders of the Confederacy. Unlike Confederate generals Bragg, Hood and Benning, who levied war against the United States and whose names we honor on military installations, Wilson committed no treasonable act. I also agree with Stephens that we should not burnish their memory. 

Wilson was a different sort. As president of Princeton, he tried to reform the discriminatory social system, the remnants of which largely remain in place until this very day, appointed the first Jews and Catholics to the faculty and coined the university’s motto (or former motto), “Princeton in the Nation’s service.” In 1918, he issued a statement condemning lynching as “this disgraceful evil.” As president of Princeton, he scandalized his southern in-laws by inviting Booker T. Washington to speak at his 1902 inaugural, and told his daughter it was the best speech he had ever heard. 

Today, he almost certainly would have condemned George Floyd’s murder, I believe, in far stronger terms than has our incumbent president or our incumbent attorney general, whose portraits will certainly hang in the White House and the halls of the Department of Justice. Unlike our leaders today, he most likely would have joined with the cause of the protesters, and not assaulted them with pepper spray or threaten to send in the troops

Wilson appointed the first Jew to the Supreme Court of New Jersey. As president, he appointed the great Louis D. Brandeis, the first Jewish justice, to the United States Supreme Court. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for a peace that others couldn’t keep. He founded the Federal Reserve system. He was, for his time, a great progressive who looked to America’s future, not its racist past.

But he was a mixed bag. He was, by today’s standards, a racist. He didn’t want to see black applicants applying to Princeton, although his successors continued admissions quotas for Jews. While president of the United States, he allowed a racist film to be shown at the White House, although, distracted, he left half-way through it. As an economic measure, he laid off postal workers who happened to be predominantly black. He segregated the civil service when previously it had been integrated. 

History will not record that everything he did was right, but for this he might be excused. As Harvard historian Jill Lapore writes: “This wasn’t Wilson’s doing; this was the work of his generation, the work of the generation that came before him, and the work of the generation that would follow him, an abdication of struggle, an abandonment of justice.”

We are in the midst of a national debate about which statues should remain and which we should topple, and I suppose this is healthy. To a traumatized generation, symbols are important. Reform is always good and, in proper circumstances, iconoclasm is not misplaced. But we must temper justice with mercy in Wilson’s case, as we certainly must in Washington’s and in Jefferson’s cases. 

It is a sad day for Princeton that it has made such a harsh judgment. Princeton has cut its history off at the knees. It will not produce such an accomplished alumnus as Woodrow Wilson any time soon. 

James D. Zirin, a former federal prosecutor, is the author of the recently published book “Plaintiff in Chief-A Portrait of Donald Trump in 3500 Lawsuits.”

Tags Confederate statues death of George Floyd Donald Trump George Washington killing of George Floyd Princeton University Thomas Jefferson Woodrow Wilson

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