The American Left finally admits that one of the leading lights of the early Progressive movement was a racist, segregationist, and generally unseemly fellow.
Princeton’s Black Justice League protestors have urged that early-twentieth century President Woodrow Wilson’s “racist legacy” be acknowledged, and any mention of his existence purged from campus.
Breitbart News’ Michelle Fields reported that the activists are “demanding the removal of a mural of Wilson, the creation of a diversity training program on campus, and a special space on campus for ‘cultural affinity.’” Oddly enough, the activists also demand “cultural space on campus dedicated specifically to Black students” and “affinity housing for those interested in Black culture.” Given Wilson’s segregationist impulses, he likely wouldn’t have balked at this demand.
In response, Princeton’s administration has done little to quell the protest or defend the its most famous former president. They have agreed to open a discussion about stripping his name from the school. Additionally, few in the media have come out vociferously to defend Wilson from the left or right of the political spectrum.
Modern progressives at Slate, Salon, and numerous other outlets have conceded that Wilson’s racial views were terrible “even for the time.” And while they note some similarity between the Virginian’s views and their their own, they dismiss him as not really being one of them.
For instance, in an interview with Salon, historian Mae Ngai said, “Well, he did do some pretty bad things. He segregated – or re-segregated – the federal government. That was a capitulation to Jim Crow and Southern racists; he didn’t have to capitulate to them, he could have stood firm.”
This is a clever attempt to make it appear that an exasperated, non-racist Woodrow Wilson backed down to the mean, racist, conservative Democrats in his party. This simply isn’t true. Racial attitudes were woven into Wilson’s Social Darwinist beliefs. It may be difficult for modern progressives to admit, but one of the founders of their creed–of expansive federal government, the bureaucratic-administrative state, and the “living” Constitution–was a racist Social Darwinist.
In a conversation with a leader of a delegation of black professionals in the White House, Wilson said:
Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen. If your organization goes out and tells the colored people of the country that it is a humiliation, they will so regard it, but if you do not tell them so, and regard it rather as a benefit, they will regard it the same. The only harm that will come will be if you cause them to think it is a humiliation.
The black leader, Monroe Trotter, noted that federal departments had been desegregated for a generation, including during two Democrat administrations under President Grover Cleveland.
The case against Wilson is easy to make to those on the right, despite some protestations from Joe Scarborough.
Writing in National Review, John Fund called Wilson a “Progressive Bogeyman” who has been “particularly difficult for Democrats and liberals to give up” due to his championing of the most prominent progressive causes in the 20th century: The Federal Reserve Act, progressive income tax, scrapping governmental checks and balances to establish the administrative state, and the idea of an “evolving,” living Constitution.
There is a good reason for conservatives who wish to return America to its Founding principles label Wilson as their historical arch-enemy. As historian Ronald Pestritto noted, Wilson was the “Godfather of Liberalism.”
Wilson was a prolific scholar and successful academic for over two decades; he was, in fact, the only professional political scientist ever to become President of the United States. And while Wilson’s presidency certainly helped to launch a variety of landmark revisions in the framework of American government (the Federal Reserve and the income tax, to name just two), the ideas that came from his academic work were even more influential on future waves of liberalism in the course of 20th and 21st century American politics.
Wilson used America’s involvement in World War I as a means to accomplish the ends of establishing powerful, progressive governance. As Historian William E. Leuchtenburg noted in The Impact of World War I, the war ushered in a slew of powerful administrative agencies that were the brainchild of the Progressive movement and, “occasioned the abandonment of laissez faire precepts and raised the federal government to director, even dictator, of the economy.” These changes provided the groundwork for President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal just over a decade later and the massive increases in government power since.
The explosion of administrative agency expansion under Wilson granted powers to the Federal government unheard of in the entire history of the republic. The war and expansion of governmental power also “gave a home to a new class of university-trained intellectuals which had emerged in the generation before the war… After the United States intervened, Washington swarmed with professors, until, one writer noted, ‘the Cosmos Club was little better than a faculty meeting of all the universities.’”
And in a sentence would should be all to familiar to conservative Americans then and since, Leuchtenburg wrote, “Public administrators of this type represented a new force in American politics. They were advisors and technicians but, more than that, men of influence and even of power.”
During the war, Wilson enacted brutish policies to clamp down on dissent—such as the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918—and didn’t hesitate to centralize and control all aspects of American life. One could chalk these measures up to wartime desperation, but really, it was all part of the plan.
“Since the best government, according to Wilson, is the one that best adjusts itself to the current historical epoch, increased national power ought to be accepted and embraced,” Pestritto wrote in Challenges to the American Founding. “In Congressional Government he concedes that the original intention behind the law of the Constitution had been to reserve significant power for the states. But he reasons that abandoning that original intention is a matter of acquiescing to the changing conditions and necessities of contemporary society.”
Wilson’s greatest desire was to ultimately take a hatchet to the federalism and careful checks and balances the Founding Fathers put in place when they designed the Constitution. This, along with his philosophical attack on the individual, God-given rights of the Declaration of Independence as just an outmoded set of beliefs from an earlier, irrelevant era makes Wilson one of the primary critics of the of the Founding in this country’s history.
Wilson’s outlook should make it clear to Constitutional conservatives that he certainly deserves his infamy. However, bulldozing Wilson puts modern progressives in an awkward position.
The line from the American Left has constantly been that a defense of federalism and the return to the principles of the Founders were simple veils for racism and a defense of slavery. However, though they pride themselves on their crusades to stop racism and the various other “isims” that they believe plague American history, progressives cannot escape the fact that racism and progressive principles were wrapped together seamlessly in one of their greatest champions of the 20th century.
The crusade to wipe Woodrow Wilson from history is foolish, as have all the recent attempts to strip historic figures from public places. Wilson deserves to be studied, and in fact should be studied by Americans on the right and the left; he had an enormous impact on what this nation has become. This is unlikely to dissuade the Social Justice Warriors though—the heirs to Wilson’s political legacy. America’s 28th president has simply become another uncomfortable part of the American past that needs to be purged in the forward march of history.
Follow Jarrett Stepman on Twitter:@JarrettStepman. Reach him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.