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In Your Opinion: Honor Wilson, Flaws And All

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Woodrow Wilson. Photo: Whitehouse.gov

By Michael D. Purzycki, Somerset.

One town over from Franklin, Princeton University is debating whether the racism of a former president (of both Princeton and the United States) is enough reason to cease honoring him. Several weeks ago, a group of Princeton students occupied the university president’s office and demanded, among other things, that the university rename both Wilson College and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. The demand comes as multiple college campuses, from Yale to the University of Missouri, have been roiled by debates over race, political correctness, and free speech.

There’s no denying that, even by the standards of his time, the 28th President of the United States was a racist. As president of Princeton University, he actively discouraged African Americans from applying for admission. During Wilson’s presidency, his administration brought racial segregation to federal offices that had previously been integrated. And he held a showing of “The Birth of a Nation”, a blatantly racist 1915 film glorifying the Ku Klux Klan, at the White House. That America is not free of bigotry in 2015 is undeniable, but the fact that no modern president would dare do such things is a sign of how far our country has come.

In other ways, however, Wilson was remarkably progressive for his time. He signed legislation creating the first progressive income tax, which today is the cornerstone of federal revenue. He stabilized an often-reckless financial system with the Federal Reserve, and created the Federal Trade Commission to protect businesses and consumers from unfair corporate practices. And at a time when all too many Americans worked long hours in dangerous conditions for low wages, Wilson promoted laws allowing workers to join unions and go on strike.

Wilson was even further ahead of his time in foreign policy. Although he resisted attempts to bring America into World War I until he felt he had no choice, once the U.S. joined the war, Wilson insisted that it help bring a fair, stable postwar settlement to Europe. He insisted that the victorious Allies not seek reparations from the defeated Germany, and he spearheaded the creation of the League of Nations as a forum for settling international disputes without war.

Although Britain and France eventually treated Germany harshly, and although the U.S. Senate refused to bring America into the League, decades later Wilson’s strategy was a blueprint for the peace that followed World War II, one based not on retribution, but on institutions like the United Nations. It is for this reason that “Wilsonian” is used to describe U.S. foreign policies with a humanitarian edge, and why a Princeton school that trains new generations of public servants bears Wilson’s name.

Ever since the slave-owner Thomas Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal”, there have often been wide gaps between America’s ideals and its reality. Even when our country achieves great things, we allow ourselves to be stuck in an unjust past: witness that fact that the U.S. fought World War II, our ultimate triumph over tyranny and genocide, with a segregated military. America has never been perfect and, like any country populated with human beings, it never will be.

But if we insist on only honoring historical figures without significant flaws, we will make a serious mistake. We will hold our heroes to impossibly high standards, and risk doing the same to ourselves as we try to follow in their footsteps. If, instead, we honor people’s accomplishments while also bearing in mind the harm they’ve done, we can remind ourselves that all of us are capable of both good and bad, and that doing harm does not make it impossible for a person to also do good. For this reason, let’s hope Woodrow Wilson stays at Princeton.

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