Back in 2008, the Princeton Alumni Weekly published the results of a panel deliberation ranking the university’s most influential alumni. At the top of the list was James Madison (class of 1771) and close behind him, in third place, was Woodrow Wilson (class of 1879), who was Princeton’s president from 1902 to 1910. He left the university to enter politics first as governor of New Jersey between 1911 and 1913 and then as President of the United States from 1913 to 1921. By all accounts, his presidency at Princeton transformed the school from a college for playboys into the serious academic institution that it has become today. He openly urged African Americans to apply and also hired the first Jewish and Roman Catholic faculty members.
It is a sign of the times that there is an active movement at Princeton, led by the students of the Black Justice League, to remove his name from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and from the Wilson House at Princeton. The main charge against Wilson was that he was a racist for overseeing, as President of the United States, the systematic removal of black employees from the federal civil service long after it had been desegregated. He was also a sympathizer of the Klu Klux Klan. His resegregation policy provoked a huge backlash from the NAACP, which had previously endorsed his 1912 presidential campaign given his promises to be “President of the whole nation” and to supply black citizens an “absolute fair dealing.”
Sadly, Wilson’s racial views did not put him outside of the political mainstream during his time. In fact, this troubled part of his legacy has been, until recently, quietly placed on the backburner in light of his other supposed domestic achievements, which in poll after poll consistently place him in the top group of American presidents, with an overall ranking of seventh, behind George Washington (3), Thomas Jefferson (4), Abraham Lincoln (1), Theodore Roosevelt (5), and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (2), and Harry Truman (6).
It should be obvious from looking at the last four names listed that these kinds of surveys are shaped by leftist thinkers working in the progressive tradition. Wilson, notwithstanding his racist views, was a prominent progressive. One sign of Wilson’s political tensions is found by contrasting his first two appointments to the United States Supreme Court. In 1914, Wilson nominated his then Attorney General and former trust-buster, the obnoxious James Clark McReynolds, to a seat on the United States Supreme Court. Two years later, Wilson nominated Louis D. Brandeis, whose progressive views Wilson shared, as the first Jew to serve on the Supreme Court. During the twenty-three years that they served together, McReynolds, a vicious anti-Semite, detested Brandeis and even refused in 1939 to sign the customary letter of appreciation that the other justices wrote to Brandeis at the time of his retirement. But McReynolds was also the justice who penned, in 1925, Pierce v. Society of Sisters, which contained one of the most influential and persuasive defenses of religious, economic, and personal liberty ever delivered by the Supreme Court. The progressive tent was big enough to accommodate some strange bedfellows.
Similar internal contradictions existed in Wilson’s thinking on domestic issues. On the one hand, Wilson worked for the lower tariffs so essential to free trade. On the other hand, he made good on his campaign promise to exempt labor unions from the antitrust law with Section 6 of Clayton Act, which Samuel Gompers, the most influential labor leader of the time, described as follows: “The declaratory legislation, The labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce, is the Industrial Magna Carta upon which the working people will rear their structure of individual freedom.” What a disaster! Far from keeping workers out of commerce, the Clayton Act ushered in monopoly unions, which later received still greater protection with the major labor statutes passed during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, such as the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Wilson’s record was deplorable on other fronts as well. In 1919 and 1920, Wilson’s Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer conducted extensive raids that led to mass arrests and deportations of radicals in the aftermath of the First World War. It was during Wilson’s watch that Eugene V. Debs, the socialist candidate for President, was arrested and convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917, which was upheld against First Amendment challenges, in Debs v. United States. Debs languished in jail for three years until he was pardoned by Republican President Warren G. Harding on the urging of his Attorney General Harry Daugherty, who otherwise did much to disgrace himself.
This incomplete list of incidents shows just how difficult it is to form comprehensive judgments about individuals whose overall legacy looms large over the pages of American history. Against this background, why should any group of students, however well intentioned, be able—by organizing sit-ins in the President’s office, no less—to dictate Princeton policy by pointing to one admittedly regrettable aspect of Wilson’s career?
Nonetheless, that ill-advised movement has received an additional boost from an outspoken editorial in the New York Times entitled “The Case Against Woodrow Wilson at Princeton,” which shows how easy it is to go over the top in times of political turmoil. For its first mistake, the Times insists that Wilson’s “racist policies . . . are still felt in the Country today.” The question is how. The civil service is no longer segregated. That bad act was undone by Franklin Roosevelt. And there are many affirmative action programs in education and employment, both inside and outside government, that have helped advance African Americans in this country for over the past 50 years. Ironically, that movement had to overcome the historical opposition of the national labor movement to all black advancement, which persisted far longer than Wilson’s inexcusable resegregation of the civil service. Thus, organized labor strongly supported the insidious 1931 Davis-Bacon Act, whose “prevailing wage” for government program froze itinerant black workers from the South out of government contract jobs in the North.
Similarly, organized labor used its monopoly power under the Railway Labor Act and National Labor Relations Act to consign black workers to inferior positions. When black workers were forced into white-dominated unions, these unions stripped them of their desirable jobs. Indeed the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was only possible because the law insulated unions from any liability for the “mere perpetuation” of earlier discrimination. Surely, if the Times followed its own logic, it would advocate for the repeal, not expansion, of laws like Davis-Bacon.
Indeed, in this connection, remember from where the opposition to segregation came. The first John Marshall Harlan wrote a passionate 1896 dissent against the “separate but equal” principle that Plessy v. Ferguson used to justify government segregation of the railroads, segregation of schools, and anti-miscegenation laws. It is no accident that Adair v. United States rightly struck down as unconstitutional a federal law that imposed mandatory collective bargaining on common carriers. The classical liberals saw what the modern Princeton progressives miss—the huge dangers that labor legislation held, and still holds, for minority workers.
The Times also slanders the past by claiming that in 1948, when the Wilson school was named, “Black Americans were still viewed as nonpersons in the eyes of the state.” That’s not quite right. In 1947, New Jersey, Wilson’s own state, abolishedsegregation by constitutional amendment. In July 1948, Harry Truman began the process of desegregating the armed forces by an executive order. This executive order represented an enormous turnaround in government policy, for a decade before segregation was a fixed feature of military life. Looking more broadly at society, in 1947, Jackie Robinson came to the major leagues on the initiative of Branch Rickey, then general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Today’s willful misinterpretation of the past ignores the efforts of many people of all races to remove the stain of segregation from public life. Additionally, Wilson’s Princeton critics have no idea where to stop. Perhaps Princeton should expunge all reference to James Madison, who was a leader at the 1787 Constitutional convention that gave us the three-fifths clause and fugitive slave provisions entrenching slavery in the Constitution. Perhaps the United States should rename the Washington and Jefferson monuments, since both men owned slaves. Sadly, no people in high positions press the protestors on these issues. Quite simply, there can be no honest discourse on matters of race, or indeed on any other issue that divides this nation today, unless everyone who enters the conversation knows that their views are open to attack from critics on the other side.
The protesters all too readily embrace progressive policies that block the improvement of race relations in the United States. The operation of minimum wage and labor laws has that effect indirectly by cutting minority kids out of the workforce in droves. Elsewhere, the modern civil rights movement poses major dangers to civil liberties. The aggressive overreading of the antidiscrimination laws by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education hounds businesses and universities with endless demands and investigations. Too many so-called human rights organizations attack fundamentalist Christians who refuse, for religious reasons, to supply wedding services to gay couples or contraceptive devices to their female employees.
Today’s myopic and dogmatic protestors have become so focused on their own grievances that they have lost track of how outsiders look at their demands. In an age of fundamental disagreements, our national leaders have to stress once again the case for showing tolerance for radically opposing views on religious, racial, and personal matters.
*Considered one of the most influential thinkers in legal academia, Richard Epstein is known for his research and writings on a broad range of constitutional, economic, historical, and philosophical subjects.