Woodrow Wilson was an unadulterated racist. Princeton students who are demanding the removal of his name from everything named after him at the university he served as president are right to point it out. Born in Virginia in 1856, and raised in Georgia and South Carolina during the Civil War and the repressive Jim Crow years that followed it, Wilson absorbed southern bigotry as a birthright. As Princeton’s president, he made clear that he would welcome no black applicants. As president of the United States from 1913 to 1919, he oversaw the racial segregation of the federal civil service. Segregation, he asserted, “was not a humiliation but a benefit” for blacks. He also held a White House screening of “Birth of a Nation”, praising its degrading portrayal of blacks and romanticization of the Ku Klux Klan as depictions of reality. Although the Klan’s resurgence after the film’s release cannot be blamed on Wilson, his approval of it doubtless lent encouragement to its activities.
Wilson is now the latest target in proliferating demands to topple monuments and reputations that honor long dead Americans tainted by racism. Students at Yale are engaged in a similar, much publicized campaign to remove John C. Calhoun’s name from one of the university’s undergraduate colleges. A former vice president, and a senator who was a member of the “Great Triumvirate” that also included Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, Calhoun, who died in 1850, regarded African-Americans as fundamentally “low, degraded, and savage.” He adored slavery and defended it tenaciously, declaring that it ennobled masters and slaves alike, and formed the foundation of true republicanism, by creating the affluence and leisure for white men to engage in self-government.
His advocacy for slavery was accompanied by a broader disdain for mass democracy and its basic freedoms, even for white men, which he claimed led only to “violence, injustice, and anarchy.” He mocked the assertion of the Declaration of Independence that all men were born free and equal, declaring, “There is not a word of truth in the whole proposition,” adding that “the attempt to carry into practice this, the most dangerous of all political error…has done more to retard the cause of liberty and civilization than all other causes combined.” He advocated that police powers, and censorship of both speech and the press be imposed on the rest of the country to silence slavery’s enemies, and actively fostered, if he did not invent, the South’s antebellum narrative of perpetual resentment and grievance. At a time when Congress was gridlocked and Civil War threatened, in 1850, he stood out among his contemporaries as the leading enemy of compromise.
Calhoun’s legacy remains a vital if too little acknowledged part of American politics today. It survives in appeals to racism cloaked in anodyne present-day appeals to “states rights,” in the continued devaluation of black lives, and in the kind of cultural purism that wishes to build walls against immigrants in the guise of patriotism and “self-defense.” Calhoun of course cannot be blamed for every retrograde tendency in twenty-first century American politics. But nor should his ghostly influence be underestimated.
Wilson’s record pales beside Calhoun’s contempt not only for blacks but also for basic democratic values. Although Wilson’s policies on race were shameful, they must be balanced against his commitment to political reform, which resulted in the passage of a raft of progressive legislation – the Federal Reserve Act, creation of the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Farm Loan Act, the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote, and much more – as well as his advocacy for the League of Nations and self-determination of the world’s oppressed colonial minorities. His contributions to the liberalization of American government and to the export of America’s higher political values were significant and lasting. Calhoun, by contrast, did more than any other American politician in history to sow suspicion of the federal government, to undermine democracy, and to rationalize authoritarian tendencies in the United States.
It may prove relatively easy to remove Calhoun’s his name from the college that bears it. But it will not scrub his reactionary legacy from the body politic. The more difficult challenge is to confront the pernicious thinking that he championed and that Wilson was heir to. Princeton students, and the rest of us, will benefit more from a fully rounded understanding of Wilson, who illustrates disturbingly but not all that uncommonly how racism can coexist alongside the highest idealism. He deserves to retain his place in the American political pantheon, tainted though it may be: Calhoun does not.