The march of history moves so swiftly that yesterday’s progressive hero inevitably becomes today’s reactionary villain.
Progressives delighted when Woodrow Wilson took the reins at Princeton University. The first non-clergyman to lead the Ivy League school, Wilson further secularized an institution founded on religious principles and nudged a college imparting broad knowledge into more of a university of specialized instruction. But the Virginia-born political scientist also held uncouth racial opinions, which inspires the Campus Taliban to ready their sandblasters to remove his name off Princeton’s gothic buildings.
When do the sins of the Goths coax the wrecking ball to the New Jersey campus’s arresting architecture?
The New York Times calls America’s 28th president “an unapologetic racist whose administration rolled back the gains that African-Americans achieved just after the Civil War, purged black workers from influential jobs and transformed the government into an instrument of white supremacy.”
The editorialists are not wrong, just late.
“The first and vital object to be accomplished today is the election of Woodrow Wilson,” the newspaper of record editorialized on Election Day in 1912. Four years later, the Times again endorsed the man insulted by the Times this week as an “unrepentant racist” and an “unapologetic racist.” Times change.
But don’t expect the Times to repent and apologize for its record. The Old Gray Lady was for Woodrow Wilson before she was against him. And his record once smiled upon in Times Square exhibits much beyond race to frown upon.
Long after Edwin Katzen-Ellenbogen collaborated with Governor Woodrow Wilson as New Jersey’s eugenicist, he collaborated with the Nazis. Though a prisoner of the Third Reich, Katzen-Ellenbogen aided his captors in killing hundreds. Sentenced to life after the war, he expired in prison.
A man hubristic enough to meddle in reproduction naturally meddled in the economy. Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act that jarred a relatively stable currency onto an inflationary path. A dollar from his inaugural year in office shrunk to nearly fifty cents by the end of his presidency. The top income tax rate, nonexistent upon Wilson’s election to the presidency, jumped from 7 percent his first year in office to 77 percent in his second term before falling to 73 percent. He spearheaded a “Food Administration” that unleashed a children’s “garden army,” “wheatless Wednesdays,” and price controls on specific agricultural products.
After railroad magnates refused his entreaties to capitulate to striking employees, Wilson became their boss. “I pray God to forgive you,” the lemon-faced president told the railroad executives. “I never can.” Wilson subsequently installed himself as America’s lone railroad executive, disastrously nationalizing the main means of transportation in an experiment that predictably ended the profitability of the trains hauling people and goods. Thankfully, the scheme did not outlive his presidency.
And, yes, Wilson reversed predecessors by instituting discriminatory policies within the federal bureaucracy. The president brazenly admitted, “I would say that I do approve of the segregation that is being attempted in several of the departments.”
The Left overlooks the rest now the way it overlooked the racism then. People embracing an ends-justify-the-means outlook happily tolerate injustices for the imagined greater good. And movements that perpetually imagine themselves as the wave of the future rarely reflect upon the sins of their forward-looking forebears as a means to question current mistakes. Who has time to look back for constructive criticism when there’s a Brave New World to make?
Most people, even most Princeton presidents, born more than a century ago held beliefs we find peculiar, offensive even. Ashbel Green owned (and manumitted) slaves. Jonathan Edwards regarded the pope as the antichrist. Edward, Green, Wilson, and the other men who presided over the university during its first 222 years excluded women from admittance.
When does the Campus Taliban dynamite their statuary and redact them from the record?
The Left’s movement to erase Woodrow Wilson from Princeton’s history simultaneously plays as a self-righteous movement to whitewash the Left’s complicity in the malevolent policies that the sour-puss president embraced. The self-righteous Two-Minutes Hate refuses to grasp what Pogo once did: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”