In November, 2015, a group of Princeton University students demanded that the university stop honoring President Woodrow Wilson, such as naming buildings after him; e.g., the “Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.” The students want university recognition of the former Princeton University president and New Jersey governor removed because he was a racist.
He was a racist. But that fact alone does not justify dishonoring Wilson. Historical figures, as with all people, must be judged within the full context of their ideas, actions, and accomplishments. For example, Thomas Jefferson, one of our most significant Founding Fathers, was a slave owner. But he wrote and, along with 55 other Revolutionary leaders, signed the Declaration of Independence, which set down the political principles that would eventually eradicate slavery in America; that all men are created equal, possessing unalienable individual rights that deserve equal protection before the law from a government whose sole purpose for being is to protect those rights.
Those principles fueled the Abolitionist, Women’s Suffrage, and Civil Rights movements. Martin Luther King Jr. built his famous “I Have a Dream” speech around Jefferson’s words—words that still resonate as a beacon to pro-liberty forces here and around the world. Jefferson did many great things in helping to create the United States of America, and from a pro-liberty American perspective his positives more than offset his negatives, like being a slave owner. He is a genuine American hero.
But there are plenty of reasons for eliminating Wilson as an American hero, or even as a great president. In fundamental ways, Wilson was the opposite of—indeed the anti-—Jefferson. New Jersey Star-Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine has a great article explaining why titled Removing Woodrow Wilson's name from Princeton? I'll drink to that. Mulshine, citing Georgetown law professor and "Restoring the Lost Constitution” author Randy E. Barnett, writes:
It's not merely that Wilson, who grew up in the Deep South, imposed segregation as a federal policy. Those horror stories have been chronicled in detail in the past few days.
What's been overlooked is the fact that Wilson was not a fan of the system of limited government and individual rights set up by the founders.
"He hated our constitution," said Randy E. Barnett. "He didn't like our system at all."
There is no way Jefferson and Wilson can stand side by side as American heroes. If one is a hero, the other can’t be. Jefferson believed government should be limited by a constitution based on fixed principles. Wilson rejected the principles as laid out in the Declaration—or any fixed principles, on principle. By Wilson’s logic, a constitution should be a “living” document; which means, it can be interpreted in any way that meets the political expediency of the moment—in effect, there are no limits on political power. Jefferson is the champion of the free individual. Wilson was the champion of the power-luster.
I left these comments:
Great article. I do believe that historical figures should be judged in the full context of their times, ideas, and actions. By the big-picture analysis, Wilson was our first counter-American Revolutionary president. He’s a hero to the Left. But he’s no American hero.
The only thing I can think of that this crusading statist got right was his economic policy in the face of the 1920-21 deflationary depression: His policy was to do nothing. James Grant documents this in his book, “The Forgotten Depression” (See my review in The Objective Standard). That depression started a year before Wilson left office. Under Wilson, there was no “quantitative easing” from the Fed; no taxpayer-soaking “stimulus” packages from Congress; no perpetually extended government unemployment benefits; no saver-screwing 0% interest rates; no efforts to keep wages, prices, or profits artificially propped up.
Grant gives two reasons for Wilson’s inaction. First, pre-Keynesian conventional economic wisdom at the time taught that the depression was a necessary corrective to the rampaging wartime inflation, and that the economy should be left to take its natural course back to normal peacetime equilibrium. Second, Wilson was preoccupied by his League of Nations cause and recovery from a stroke.
Grant calls Wilson’s inaction “laissez-faire by accident.” But, laissez-faire it was. The result was that—unlike the milder 1929 recession, which was met by massive Keynesian Hoover/FDR interventionist policies and thus turned into a Great Depression—the 1920 downturn was “forgotten” instead of turning “great.” Instead, the depression was over and done with by June the following year, and the job-filled 1920s boom got underway.
Obviously, Wilson was no admirer of laissez-faire. He certainly would have approved of Hoover, FDR, Bush 43, and Obama-type interventionism in the face of economic adversity. Nevertheless, Wilson’s inaction in the face of the 1920 crash, though contrary to his statist inclinations, demonstrates the power of free economies to correct and move on. This post just goes to show that some bad can be found in the best, and some good in the worst—and that context is paramount.
Progressivism and Liberalism—The Heritage Foundation
The Progressives derived their political ideas from European thinkers. The seeds of Progressivism were first sown by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (born in Geneva, lived in France) who wrote that citizens ought to be “forced to be free” and that the “general will” should govern the individual wills of citizens, placing individuals in the service of the collective will of society.
These ideas made their way to Germany in the early 19th century, and had an important influence on the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. Hegel incorporated them into what he called a philosophy of History, in which ideas, society, and humanity itself are evolving toward a higher form of freedom. This progress is achieved, Hegel argued, by abandoning the antiquated ideas and traditions of the past, and embracing a new form of freedom, where individuals give the government unlimited authority over their lives.
Many of the American Progressives studied in Germany, and were taught by students of Hegel. They brought the German model of education and German political ideas back to America with them and established Ph.D. programs in several areas of study, producing a new generation of professors and students who sought to replace the principles of the Founding with the new Progressive teaching on politics. These ideas, mixed with Darwinism and a deep faith in science, form the roots of modern American Liberalism.
Lincoln Understood the Indispensable Connection Between Rights and Self-Government