Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, Confederacy, Confederate flag, Founding Fathers, history, history wars, Im-Politic, political correctness, Princeton University, racism, Robert E. Lee, slavery, Woodrow Wilson
Last week I wrote about my experiences with the political correctness and free speech disputes at my alma mater Princeton University in the mid-1970s and, what do you know? They reappeared on the campus this past week in their “history wars” form. It’s worth covering – but not because the demands for more or less erasing the physical legacy of former university and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson from the campus were especially novel or unusual according to the standards of our time. Nor was the university’s response, which could be interpreted in various ways ranging from a polite brushoff to an instance of kick-the-can-ism.
Instead, this episode is worth covering because it provides a good opportunity for presenting some common-sense guidelines on depicting historical figures in public spaces or within private communities when such a private controversy arises (as in the case of a private university).
The Princeton students protesting the university’s longstanding showcasing of Wilson base their position on the former president’s segregationist views on racial subjects and on the segregationist policies he approved during his White House tenure. There’s no legitimate doubt that their accusations are accurate.
Defenders of the university status quo have pushed back with equally accurate points – noting that some of Wilson’s decisions on a related question – the role of Jews in American society – both on the campus and in Washington, D.C. were enlightened by the standards of his time. Indeed, they legitimately go even further, and argue that, in both these positions, Wilson was a major champion of many progressive values. (Here’s an excellent summary of this case.)
In my view, the pro-Wilson forces have the better argument, by a considerable margin. But they don’t deserve victory for the reasons they emphasize – i.e., because their opponents have failed to recognize what how exemplary Wilson really was. Instead, their position is stronger because it makes clear what should matter most in evaluating and acknowledging the role of historical figures: the sum total of their records and significance. As a result, leaders like Wilson deserve recognition because their impact on university and American history far transcended characteristics rightly regarded as shortcomings today, and that were hardly impressive even in their own eras.
That is, Wilson was not simply a racist. He was someone whose actions shaped American politics and higher education in ways felt even today. And because this record was at worst lamentable in some (but hardly all) respects, it’s fitting and proper that the nation – and the university – have decided to honor him.
In this way, therefore, Wilson resembles the Founding Fathers. As widely known, Washington and Jefferson were slave-holders. But obviously they were so much more. It’s somewhat less widely known that Lincoln held racist views about black people. But he was so much more. This point might seem indistinguishable from the debate over merits that I just belittled, and obviously they’re very close. The essence of it is, though, that for figures of wide-ranging importance whose legacy was not overwhelmingly malevolent, these debates simply shouldn’t be necessary. Therefore, when they break out, the kind of common sense that’s essential for sound decision-making inevitably and damagingly takes a back seat.
Moreover, in this way, Wilson, the Founders, Lincoln, and others in this category fundamentally differ from, say major Confederate leaders. Although Robert E. Lee, for example, served America admirably in the Mexican War (which was not an especially admirable venture), his name wouldn’t be on roads, public schools, and even university campuses all over the country because of that role, or even because he became commander at West Point. He’s only widely remembered at all because he was a leader of the greatest single act of treason – and one motivated overwhelmingly by racist considerations – in American history. So he clearly belongs in the textbooks – along with other prominent Confederates. But honoring their memory, and that of their cause, is disgraceful.
Not every such decision is an easy call. Andrew Jackson, for instance, embodied many praiseworthy populist impulses, and was certainly a consequential president. He also rose above sectional interests and perspectives by opposing southern claims of states rights over federal law, and would have enjoyed great ratings had opinion polls existed back then. But his Indian expulsion policies were reprehensible, and arguably so even for the early 19th century.
If the common sense rule is invoked, however, Americans shouldn’t be faced with too many of these hard calls. Because the essence of history is change, and because it’s vital to keep learning about and rethinking the past, judgments about various historical events and individuals should never be fixed in stone or so viewed. But unless you think that the basic, admirable narrative of American history is fundamentally wrong, or that most of our leading forebears were in fact generally contemptible, you’ll agree that the overwhelming burden of proof is on the revisionists to overturn the current consensus on events and individuals that Americans have chosen to honor – and that far more often than not, this burden has not remotely been met.
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