Princeton University has made it official: Woodrow Wilson’s name no longer will have any place on campus. The former president, or at least his memory, now is part of cancel culture, which is sweeping the nation. The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs will replace the former president’s name with “Princeton,” and Wilson College now will be called First College.
This hardly is surprising but in many ways discouraging, but not for reasons that many people might assume. Wilson did, after all, leave a sorry legacy of Jim Crow racial segregation and actively sought to damage if not destroy race relations in the United States, so the drive to remove his name is not a surprise given the wave of renaming and destruction of statues and monuments that has dominated the headlines ever since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd.
The reason for discouragement is not that the university where Wilson served as president before becoming president of the United States has “canceled” him for his racism—something that no one ever sought to hide when discussing Wilson’s legacy—but rather the stubborn insistence that despite his racial policies Wilson’s record of pushing progressive legislation as well as his role in bringing the United States into World War I should be considered as pluses for his presidency. Declares Princeton president Christopher L. Eisgruber:
Wilson remade Princeton, converting it from a sleepy college into a great research university. Many of the virtues that distinguish Princeton today—including its research excellence and its preceptorial system—were in significant part the result of Wilson’s leadership. He went on to the American presidency and received a Nobel Prize. People will differ about how to weigh Wilson’s achievements and failures. Part of our responsibility as a University is to preserve Wilson’s record in all of its considerable complexity.
Translation: Wilson’s record is complex, as he did many positive things both for Princeton and for the USA when he was in the White House. In fact, the “complex” review of Wilson is quite common with historians and journalists, many of whom seem to believe that if it were not for his fealty to Jim Crow and institutionalized racism Woodrow Wilson would have been a great president. That is the legacy that we need to reexamine, and as we do, we find that Wilson’s presidency was a complete disaster, one that reverberates to the present time and still inflicts great harm to our body politic. There is nothing complex at all when examining the cataclysmic aftermath of those eight years Wilson spent in office.
Dick Lehr of The Atlantic seems to be typical of journalists, as he condemns Wilson’s racism but portrays him positively when it comes to his imposition of a progressive legislative and social agenda:
Wilson might have bumbled, and worse, on civil rights, but he was overseeing implementation of a “New Freedom” in the nation’s economy—his campaign promise to restore competition and fair labor practices, and to enable small businesses crushed by industrial titans to thrive once again. In September 1914, for example, he had created the Federal Trade Commission to protect consumers against price-fixing and other anticompetitive business practices, and shortly after signed into law the Clayton Antitrust Act. He continued monitoring the so-called European War, resisting pressure to enter but moving to strengthen the nation’s armed forces.
It is hard to know where to begin here. First, and most important, “industrial titans” were not “crushing” small businesses. They made their fortunes through mass production of iron, steel, petroleum, railroad locomotives, and farm implements, along with making automobiles affordable for those people they allegedly were “crushing.” These industries required large-scale capital, not backyard furnaces, and this was a time when the American standard of living was rising rapidly. It is one thing to write about how “price fixing” allegedly was cheating American consumers but quite another to provide credible examples.
Most historians and journalists writing about this period take it on faith that antitrust laws and other so-called reforms brought on by progressives actually improved the lot of most people in this country. Finding proof that these “reforms” did what supporters claim can be a bit more quixotic.
Let us look at some of the actions that Wilson and his progressive Democratic Congress accomplished during his presidency. For example, most historians and journalists see the Sixteenth Amendment, which provided the legal base for a national income tax, as a “reform” that made the lives of most Americans better. How a tax that takes a significant share of individuals’ earnings has been spent such that those paying are better off having the government spend those monies than they would be by directing their own resources requires creative thinking. Given that most federal employees receive better pay and benefits than the people who work to create the wealth those federal workers consume, one is hard-pressed to explain why the taxpayers are getting a better deal than if they hadn’t paid those taxes at all.
Then there was the creation of the Federal Reserve System in 1914. It is the rare journalist, historian, and even economist who does not lavish praise upon the Fed even though one can effectively argue that it is often responsible for the very conditions that breed financial crises in the first place. Most people would not praise an arsonist who throws fuel on a fire he started, but somehow Federal Reserve governors who provide “liquidity” for financial institutions that acted irresponsibly—often with government and Fed encouragement—are seen as economic saviors.
There is much more. During Wilson’s first term, Democrats pushed through law after law that bolstered the Jim Crow system of racial segregation in the federal government system, which up until then had not followed the lead of many states that were instituting an apartheid system for whites and African Americans. While the federal government was not directly involved in medical care, nonetheless progressives such as Wilson were also firmly behind the guiding principles of the Flexner Report of 1910, which according to Murray N. Rothbard created and maintained the medical cartel that even now deprives Americans of many healthcare options. (Note that very few, if any, journalists and historians have any problem with the cartelization of medical care despite their supposed love affair with competition and their uncritical endorsement of antitrust laws.) Furthermore, the Flexner Report and its aftermath doomed medical education for black Americans and women and left the country woefully short of physicians.
Yet the “crowning achievement” of Wilson’s presidency is American involvement in World War I and its role in the disastrous “peace process” that followed Germany’s surrender. Not surprisingly, journalists and historians see Wilson’s manipulation of this country into the war as being something both inevitable and necessary, a move that launched the USA as a “great power” in world affairs.
Germany posed no danger to the United States, the infamous Zimmerman Telegram notwithstanding. Its armies could not have invaded our shores, and had the Americans not turned the tide in favor of Great Britain and France, almost certainly the belligerents would have entered into a negotiated settlement that would not have laid the conditions for the rise of Adolph Hitler and what turned out to be an even more cataclysmic World War II and its warring aftermath.
Wilson’s contempt for black Americans extended into military service. Like other Americans, they were conscripted into the armed forces and forced into subservient roles, as the prejudices of the day held that blacks were cowards in battle despite their fighting records in previous American wars. Those who did carry a rifle mostly did so under French leadership, where they excelled on the battlefield but also were slaughtered like so many others in the hellish trenches that came to define that war.
On the home front, Wilson’s Congress pushed through laws that turned the USA into a virtual police state, such as the Espionage Act of 1917 (used to prosecute people who dissented against US involvement in the war) and the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917 (which Franklin Roosevelt used as the “basis of authority” for his executive order to seize gold from Americans). The legacy of both laws continues to this day, as the Obama administration used the Espionage Act to prosecute Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.
If one defines “greatness” as dragging a country into a disastrous war, promoting legislation that hamstrung the economy, vastly increasing taxation, and leaving a racial legacy that wreaks havoc to this very day, then Woodrow Wilson was a “great president.” However, if one sees “greatness” in the Oval Office as someone, according to Robert Higgs, “who acts in accordance with his oath of office to ‘preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States,’” then Wilson is neither great nor “near great” (the ranking bestowed on him by progressive historians).
Woodrow Wilson does not have a “mixed” legacy. The America that existed before Wilson took office was a very different and less free country after his second term ended in 1921. The dictator-like military organization of the economy that was used to direct war production would form part of the basis for FDR’s attempts to further cartelize the US economy during the New Deal. Wilson pushed through laws to eviscerate the First Amendment and to imprison dissenters, and his racial policies speak for themselves. He did not “lead” the nation during crises; he drove the country into crisis, and this nation never has recovered.
William L. Anderson is a professor of economics at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Maryland. This article was originally featured at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and is republished with permission.