Changing History: Can Woodrow Wilson Still Stand?

Recently, students at several universities have been protesting the presence of certain historical figures on college grounds. Students at Yale have demanded the renaming of Calhoun College while those at Princeton have ordered that Woodrow Wilson`s name be taken off of two buildings. At both the College of William and Mary and Missouri, students are trying to get rid of statues of Thomas Jefferson. While it makes perfect sense to remove some individuals such as John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis from campuses, leaders like Wilson and Jefferson present a different problem. The first two figures have overwhelmingly negative legacies, and they are now predominantly known for their appalling treatment of African Americans. Wilson and Jefferson however, occupy a special place in the American psyche, and their exalted positions should be preserved.

Woodrow Wilson led the US during the First World War. Under him, America liberated Europe, fought in the trenches, survived chemical weapons, and eventually brought an end to the bloodiest war to date. Committed to a lasting peace, he tried to institute his Fourteen Points. Although he failed in this respect, his ideals eventually evolved into the UN, and his influence will never be forgotten.

Thomas Jefferson hopefully does not need much of an introduction. He wrote our Declaration of Independence, solidifying the ideals of our country that have had an untold impact. He helped wrest America from the tyranny of England, and then grew our country with the Louisiana Purchase. For this, every US citizen owes him a debt.

Unfortunately, both of these men also have complicated histories with African Americans. Jefferson was a slave owner, and he sexually abused one of his female slaves, eventually producing several children with her. Wilson supported segregation, and praised the depictions of African Americans in The Birth of A Nation.  Despite this, these blemishes should not overshadow their entire legacies. While this may be recorded as a darker chapter in both of their lives, it is not the whole book, and it would be foolish to let their positions on Civil Rights take the front stage.

It is easy to look back and judge historical figures for their views. Wilson and Jefferson both supported the degradation of African Americans, but at the times in which they lived, this was the societal norm. When you try to take your personal views and apply them to others from history, it quickly becomes apparent how ridiculous it is to judge those born in another time. Should we despise George Washington, or Mahatma Gandhi for their regressive view of women? Is it right to disparage the legacy of nearly every male in history on this basis?

Furthermore, surely most men and women until quite recently were homophobic, and would be horrified at the world today.  Yet if you continue to judge those living in the past for adopting the beliefs of the time, there are no heroes left. While it is necessary to understand the full story of each historical figure, and not to blindly idolize them, it is important to withhold full judgment. We are lucky to live in a time where the concepts of civil rights, feminism, and tolerance are somewhat accepted in general society. Who is to say that anyone of us would have followed these ideas had we not been born in this country and this era?

Additionally, one must examine the intention of these colleges in celebrating Wilson and Jefferson. These buildings and statues are not intended to celebrate their treatment of African Americans, the legacy of slavery, or segregation. It is only meant to celebrate the courage of these men, their handling of our country, and positive impacts that continue to this day. Recently, I was researching a college, and noticed that they tweeted a photograph praising their alumnus Ezra Pound. He was an excellent poet in the modernist movement… but he also was a virulent anti-Semite who supported Mussolini, Hitler, and made numerous radio broadcasts for the Italians attacking the US and the Jews during WW2. Although the college was celebrating their famous alum, it never occurred to me that they were advocating for his treasonous and discriminatory actions. They were simply proud of his poetry and his numerous and significant contributions to the world of writing.

Overall, students must examine a figure from history’s full legacy before demanding that their images be banned from their campus. Of course, there are some people who really don’t deserve to be exalted and are merely leftover idols of a different time such as Calhoun and Davis.  Wilson, Jefferson, and many others do not fit this mold. Everyone must make an effort to fully understand America’s complicated past, and this means appreciating the good along with the bad, instead of trying to whitewash our history.