If Princeton Expunges Segregationist Woodrow Wilson, Why Not Expunge All Presidential Slave Owners?

by Bob Schwartz

Princeton University is considering the demands of activists who want the legacy of Woodrow Wilson expunged from the university.

Woodrow Wilson was President of Princeton, Governor of New Jersey, and President of the United States. He was also a Democratic progressive in many areas. Not as progressive as his presidential opponent in the 1912 presidential election, former President and Progressive Party candidate Teddy Roosevelt. Wilson, for example, was friendly with Wall Street and opposed some financial reforms. (Sound like any current Democratic Party candidate we know?).

Wilson was also a man of his time and place. He was a Southerner and a segregationist, at a time when segregation was legally sanctioned. That isn’t an excuse for maintaining and promoting injustice, just a fact. That he might be less enlightened than current leaders by modern standards goes without saying. But given all the rest, it does not seem the stuff of an indictment.

If there is validity to the demands, then there is no principled reason not to expunge the legacy of all slave-owning Presidents from all settings. After all, slavery is undoubtedly a greater transgression than segregation.

Here’s the list:

Owned slaves while President

George Washington
Thomas Jefferson
James Madison
James Monroe
Andrew Jackson
John Tyler
James K. Polk
Zachary Taylor

Owned slaves but not while President

Martin Van Buren
William Henry Harrison
Andrew Johnson
Ulysses S Grant

Let’s admit that as national leaders, some of these slave-owning Presidents are more historically benign and popular than others. (We are looking at you, Andrew Jackson.) Even so, if you eliminate the ones whose legacy is now considered shady, you’re still left with some pretty worthy and venerated individuals—including, of course, the father of our country.

No one is saying that Woodrow Wilson is a George Washington, a James Madison, or a James Monroe. But if you’re going to start making principled distinctions, trade-offs and excuses, it’s impossible to know where to begin.

And that is the slippery slope we really don’t want to walk near. Which leaves us with the choice of leaving certain appropriately contextualized history behind, and making things better going forward. Or taking down the legacy of all of them, Washington, et al., because we want history to be thoroughly cleansed of its dark stains.

As if, Princeton and its activists. As if.

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