The Difficult History Behind Woodrow Wilson The former president is remembered for progressive views on the state, but his views on race were anything but. With his legacy at Princeton now disputed, historians weigh Wilson's complex history.

The Difficult History Behind Woodrow Wilson

The Difficult History Behind Woodrow Wilson

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President Woodrow Wilson, circa 1916. Tony Essex/Getty Images hide caption

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Tony Essex/Getty Images

President Woodrow Wilson, circa 1916.

Tony Essex/Getty Images

The former president is remembered for progressive views on the state, but his views on race were decidedly regressive. With his legacy at Princeton now disputed, Brian Balogh and Peter Onuf, historians and co-hosts of the public radio show BackStory, weigh Wilson's complex history.


Princeton University has not yet decided whether it will remove the name of Woodrow Wilson from its prestigious School of Public and International Affairs as student protesters have demanded. Wilson, the 28th president of the United States, was the driving force behind the creation of the League of Nations. He also has a troubling record on race. Joining us now to discuss Wilson's legacy are Brian Balogh and Peter Onuf, hosts of the public radio show Back Story With The American History Guys. Welcome to both of you.

PETER ONUF: Good to be here, Lynn.

BRIAN BALOGH: Hey, good to be here.

NEARY: Brian, let me start out with you. Woodrow Wilson has a decidedly mixed legacy. He was, as one historian put it, the architect of modern liberalism. But at the same time, his views on race really were aberrant. How do you reconcile these two sides of the man?

BALOGH: Well, the easiest answer, Lynn, is that modern liberalism was not very good on race. Liberals were willing to use state power to even the playing field for middle-class white men and to help lower-middle-class working white men gain a foothold in the political system. So if you go to Wilson himself, he was an advocate of the eight-hour working day for workers who were primarily white guys.

NEARY: Do you then just sort of excuse Wilson's views on race? Or do you attribute them to the fact that he was a man of his time - this is the way the majority of people felt about race at that time?

BALOGH: I do neither. Wilson was an active architect of segregation in the federal government. That was something new, and I don't think that is excusable.

NEARY: Peter, I want to turn to you because you studied Thomas Jefferson extensively.

ONUF: Right.

NEARY: He owned slaves. In the case of Wilson, we're talking about through the years now, the history of slavery has led to a kind of racism that becomes prevalent in Wilson's time and almost acceptable even in a world leader.

ONUF: Well, that racism goes back to Jefferson's time. The whole American narrative begins with Jefferson, you might say, and his famous words in the Declaration of Independence. And Jefferson was a white nationalist. And that's the hard fact we have to come to grips with. I fashion myself as a kind of Jefferson therapist. I think there's a place for...


ONUF: ...Wilson therapy. That is, we have to work through it. Our history is full of -rough patches is a nice way to put it. But let's just say that white supremacy is a major fact and we're only coming to grips with it in the modern period.

NEARY: All right, if we keep that therapy metaphor going for a moment, are you saying we need to confront the truth and then do what?

ONUF: I think what the answer, Lynn, when something disturbs us in history is not to turn away from it but engage it. The answer is more history, not the denial of history.

BALOGH: Lynn, I would just add to what Peter said is that we simply can't understand the racism that exists in society today - and it is significant - without understanding how we got there. And we got there through people like Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson.

NEARY: Well, Brian, at Princeton, now of course students are calling for Woodrow Wilson's name to be removed from the School of Public and International Affairs. Do you think anything would be accomplished by doing that?

BALOGH: No, I actually think it might be a step backwards. I don't believe in kind of buffing or smoothing out the rough edges of history. Of course, Jim Crow segregation and racism is a lot more than just a rough edge.

NEARY: Let me ask you this. That name has been there for a pretty long time. Why is it suddenly bubbling up to the surface like this? Why is that name on that building suddenly provoking a conversation that hasn't been had up until now?

BALOGH: Well, first of all, the main reason I support keeping it there is not about Woodrow Wilson. It's about the almost hundred years of history since Woodrow Wilson that people didn't have a problem with it. And what that says to me is that America is becoming more racially sensitive, and that's a good thing. The negative formulation of that is nobody thought about this for a hundred years. What does that tell you about America?

NEARY: You know, talking about University of Virginia - Peter, you taught there in the past, Brian, you're still teaching there. Of course there are black students at the university now. Are you having these kinds of discussions with those students, and what's the tenor of those discussions? How do you talk about this on your own campus?

ONUF: Well, Lynn, I have had discussions with African-American students in seminars. And we've read some of Jefferson's most upsetting writings together in "Notes On The State Of Virginia" where he expresses his notions of black inferiority. And one of the young women in my class said - and I'll always remember this - as I was reading this, I suddenly had a chill came over me. I felt that I didn't belong in this place - she was reading in the library - that I wasn't welcome here. And we had to talk about that.

NEARY: You know, it's interesting to hear that reaction 'cause I think that's what you're hearing a lot of students on campuses say right now...

ONUF: Yeah, exactly.

NEARY: I feel like I don't belong here, or I've been made to feel like I don't belong here.

ONUF: That's right.

BALOGH: Yeah, Lynn, I think the toughest part of my argument about keeping these names is that it does cause discomfort for some students. But what I would say about my experience in 30 years of teaching is I've met very few women and I've met very few students of color who are not discomforted every day 10 times a day and not just by a name on a building.

NEARY: Brian Balogh is a history professor at the University of Virginia and Peter Onuf is a senior research fellow at Monticello. Both are co-hosts of the public radio show and podcast "Back Story With The American History Guys." Thanks, you guys.

ONUF: Thanks, Lynn.

BALOGH: Real pleasure.

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