The case for Woodrow Wilson

While the week of Thanksgiving was hardly a slow news week, the other paper that I read regularly seemed to devote an extraordinary amount of space to a coordinated campaign against the twenty-eighth president of the United States.

Beginning with a front page news article on November 23, followed by an unforgiving op-ed on November 24, and culminating with its lead editorial on November 25 called, “The Case Against Woodrow Wilson,” The New York Times embraced student protests at Princeton against the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, arguing that his record as a white supremacist and segregationist calls for Princeton University to take his name down from the school and dormitory named in his honor.

The argument was hailed by some and ridiculed by others. Should we remove Washington’s name from the federal capital, one respondent argued, because he was a slave-owner?

Wilson’s legacy is particularly significant to New Jerseyans. He made his name in our state, first as a popular if controversial president (and alum) of Princeton, and then as the 43rd governor of New Jersey. While Wilson’s term in the White House was 100 years ago, he was the last — and so far the only — New Jersey governor to be elected president.

Wilson always has been my hero, decades before I became a New Jerseyan. My parents bought for me a small portrait of him from his birthplace in Staunton, Virginia, which I hung above my desk. It stayed there through high school and college. I seem to have been reading books by and about Woodrow Wilson for the past 30 years. He has inspired me: he was an academic who took his ivory tower ideals into the real world, a wartime president who sacrificed his health pursuing a vision of world peace, a reformer who crafted the foundations of the liberal democratic agenda that has continued to win the overwhelming support of the majority of American Jews, the president who successfully pushed through the women’s suffrage amendment, and the one who appointed the first Jew to the US Supreme Court, the outspoken Zionist Louis Brandeis.

But Woodrow Wilson was racist. He did not consider the African-American to be the equal, or even the potential equal, of the Anglo-Saxon. Writing in his five-volume “History of the American People” about African-Americans in the South and how they were influenced by the “carpetbagger” northern Republicans who worked in the Reconstruction era, Wilson explains how “their ignorance and credulity made them easy dupes. A petty favor, a slender stipend, a trifling perquisite, a bit of poor land, a piece of money satisfied or silenced them. It was enough, for the rest, to play upon their passions. They were easily taught to hate the men who had once held them in slavery, and to follow blindly the political party which had brought on the war of their emancipation” (vol. 5, p. 46).

In discussing the Ku Klux Klan, Wilson writes that “it became the chief object of the night-riding comrades to silence or drive from the country the principal mischief-makers of the reconstruction regime, whether white or black. The negroes were generally easy enough to deal with: a thorough fright usually disposed them to make utter submission, resign their parts in affairs, leave the country — do anything their ghostly visitors demanded. But white men were less tractable” (vol. 5, pp. 62-63).

And while these passages might be dismissed as a benign gentlemanly racism, especially as Wilson carefully chides the Klan as destructive (“Brutal crimes were committed; the innocent suffered with the guilty; a reign of terror was brought on, and society was infinitely more disturbed than defended” [vol. 5, p. 64]), he presided over a policy of segregation and what we might call “racist cleansing” of federal service during his administration.

While Wilson admitted to being “shamed” over the spate of lynchings that plagued the country after the armistice, he continually disappointed the African-American leaders who appealed to him for protection and justice. His biographers note that the segregationism of his administration was driven by certain cabinet secretaries who were given leeway under Wilson’s management style. They also note that Wilson made several appointments of African Americans in the District of Columbia, and he faced fierce opposition from segregationist members of Congress over those appointments. But at the same time, they tell the story of how the president watched “Birth of a Nation,” a film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan, at the White House, even though he may not have realized or intended to give his approval to it.

Wilson’s legacy of racism is ambivalent. While he certainly was prejudiced, he was no Klansman, and he may be more guilty of allowing racist policies to take hold in his administration than of driving it himself. But we must remember one key fact: Wilson was born in antebellum Virginia, deep in the Shenandoah Valley. He was, in fact, the first Southerner to be elected to the White House after the Civil War. While he earned the Nobel Peace Prize for envisioning a new era of peaceful relations after the world war, he still was a product of his upbringing.

As Jews, we are particularly sensitive to racism and prejudice. But just as we have learned through our long and painful history how to recognize the dangers of such thinking, we also have learned how to contextualize it and live with it. Harry Truman, whom Jews laud as being the first to extend recognition to the State of Israel, was also remembered as exclaiming during a cabinet meeting about Jewish leaders: “Jesus Christ couldn’t please them when he was here on earth, so how could anyone expect that I would have any luck?” (Henry Wallace, The Price of Vision, p. 607; cited in Dennis Ross, Doomed to Succeed, p. 17). So President Truman still blamed us for being Christ killers. It is often in bursts of anger that our true feelings are revealed. But that did not prevent him from recognizing Israel, nor us from remembering the good that he did.

During the same week that The New York Times ran its revision of Wilson’s legacy, the paper printed another article, also posted from Princeton, this one a retrospective on Einstein and relativity as this year marks the hundredth anniversary of Einstein’s general theory. What a contrast there! The relativity article tracked the 100-year staying power of a scientific idea about how the nature of reality is flexible, whereas the Wilson articles sought to apply a current standard of morality to a moment and person 100 years ago in history, a discipline of knowledge that examines the changes and development in human society and culture.

What frustrated me about the Times’ case against Woodrow Wilson was its lack of historical perspective, that is, that our sense of morality is relative to time and place.

This touches upon one of the fundamental problems of Jewish theology, the tension between the eternal and temporal nature of Torah from Sinai. That is, the commanding word of God always is mitigated by how each generation understands that word in its own terms, from its own perspective. A classical rabbinic teaching advises us that the Torah is written in the language of men. We are warned not to judge Torah on what we know today, because it was written in a language that the ancients had to be able to understand. For this reason, I tell people not to walk away from Judaism in anger when they come to synagogue and read a book that not only starts off with how the world was created in six days, but goes on to condone mass slaughter and human slavery, and find spiritual salvation through the myriad details of animal sacrifice.

That is not the way to read the Torah, I explain. A more sophisticated reading would understand that although the Torah was written to make sense to those who lived two millennia ago, its lessons can scream out to us from between the lines.

So too with Woodrow Wilson. He surely was a product of his time, a Southern gentleman of the late 19th century. But he had ideas that continue to inspire the course of world history: the idea that war is legitimate only when it is fought on a path to peace; the idea that individual peoples have the right of self-determination, to chose their own destinies rather than be ruled by others (a worldview that created space for Zionism and Israel, by the way, on the international stage); the idea that free and open debate and deliberation between people ultimately will bring them together through the determination of common ground; the idea that the political process ought to be driven by the charge to make the world a better place (what we call tikkun olam), and the faith that history is moving toward an attainable future of peace and harmony (what we call faith in the coming of the Messiah).

By all means, Princeton University should expose and struggle with the racism and prejudice that men like Woodrow Wilson carried with them. But to erase his name from the fabric of the university is to concede that the darkness from which he came overcomes the light that he sought to establish for the world.

God forbid.

About the Author
Dr. David J. Fine is the rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood and past president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. He holds a doctorate in modern European history and is an adjunct professor of Jewish law at the Abraham Geiger and Zacharias Frankel colleges at the University of Potsdam in Germany.
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