On Patriarchs and Presidents with Feet of Clay


I’ll admit to mixed emotions about the protests against Woodrow Wilson at Princeton University. I first read about the racism of the former president (of both Princeton and the United States) in junior high in a piece claiming he endorsed the film Birth of a Nation as being “History written in lightning.” Though I subsequently learned that the quote is dubious, Wilson’s favorable writings about the Ku Klux Klan were not, nor was his work to promote segregation in the federal government and in the armed services.

Seeing a man formerly considered a hero of liberals and the Democratic Party torn from a podium of honor like communist statues after the fall of the Wall has its appeal for me. But another part of me — a better part, I think — sees the foolishness of a cultural revolution to purify unpleasant history from our presence. I think a healthy perspective comes from my faith and knowledge of Scripture.

One of the great heroes of the Bible is Abraham, the great man of faith who followed the call of God to find the Promised Land. But the book of Genesis repeatedly presents embarrassing episodes of this great man denying his own wife in moments of cowardice. And his son, Isaac, did the same thing. And his son, Jacob, was a momma’s boy and a swindler. Yet these men are honored as founders of the nation of Israel.

Moses is believed to have written the first books of Scripture and was God’s agent in presenting the Law to the nation of Israel and, in turn, the world. But Scripture also records the unfortunate fact that he murdered a cruel overlord who was abusing a Hebrew slave. David, of course, later murdered to cover up an adultery.

Those of us who grew up with the Bible learned these stories from an early age. And yet, there were never any protests. Never any occupations of the clergy’s office. Never any talk about throwing the Ten Commandments out of the Bible because the words were given by a killer or throwing out the Psalms because they were written by a philanderer who arranged the death of the man he cuckolded.

Those Bible stories prepared us to face the ugly truths of life that all men were imperfect and that nothing on this Earth was pure. That’s why, I think, we were able to accept that many of the Founding Fathers — who wrote so movingly about liberty — were slave owners. Just as Moses presented Laws he himself failed to follow, our country’s Founding Fathers often failed to live up to their own ideals. They recognized their own weakness, which led to such important concepts as the balance of powers.

How much better it is to have, as an example to follow, men and women who strove to do better, to proclaim virtue greater than they could themselves accomplish than to look for perfect heroes? We who believe in  Original Sin are not surprised by the shortcomings of the cast of history.

There are a great many people in our history more worthy of respect than Woodrow Wilson but — for better or worse — he’s an indispensable part of our nation’s history and, specifically, of Princeton’s. Past or present, none of our leaders has ever been perfect. But many of them served a God who is perfect and sought to honor ideals greater than themselves.

Someday, these campus protesters may come to realize they aren’t perfect either.

Published in Culture, Education, Religion & Philosophy
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  1. TG Thatcher

    Thank you.

    • #1
  2. Trink Coolidge

    Beautiful.   Thank you.

    • #2
  3. I Walton Member
    I Walton

    Yes it’s important to know the nature of this progressive father because the progressivism he promoted remains racist, intolerant and un moored from reality.  We all were taught that Wilson was one of the great leaders who would have helped us avoid WWII had he not been so ill.   He would have led us into the league of nations.   Of course, that was an empty semi isolationist goal.   What he allowed was a punitive peace that set the stage for the eventual collapse of the post WWI economy and the rise of Nazism.  He did so because, like a good progressive, he didn’t understand how the world worked, had no understanding of finance, economics and trade, the role of gold and what the Treaty of Versailles would cause.    We weren’t even taught that he was a progressive, nor what that meant.      All these kids are Wilson’s direct descendants, to the extent they have any intellectual predecessors.

    • #3
  4. David Foster Member
    David Foster

    An interesting book about Wilson’s character was written by William Bullitt (who worked with him closely at Versailles)…and Sigmund Freud. Excerpt:

    Throughout his life he took intense interest only in subjects which could somehow be connected with speech…He took no interest in mathematics, science, art or music–except in singing himself, a form of speaking. His method of thinking about a subject seems to have been to imagine himself making a speech about it…He seems to have thought about political or economic problems only when he was preparing to make a speech about them either on paper or from the rostrum. His memory was undoubtedly of the vaso-motor type. The use of his vocal chords was to him inseparable from thinking.

    Remind you of anyone we know?

    • #4
  5. David Foster Member
    David Foster

    Also, Wilson believed that the Constitutional separation of powers was obsolete, based on simplistic reasoning about the “organic” nature of government and the assertion that an organism could not have “organs offset against each other as checks, and live.”

    The falseness of his organic analogy should be obvious to anyone who knows anything about the biological concept of homeostasis, or the way in which feedback control systems work, or even the separation of disbursements from auditing in business and other organizations.

    • #5
  6. Tim H. Inactive
    Tim H.

    Right on, Eustace.  I’m an opponent of Wilson, though I cringe when Glenn Beck makes him out to be history’s greatest monster, and I think that his ideas for the end of the First World War would have made history better if our European allies had listened.  But I dislike his domestic policies, his views on the Constitution, his Progressivism, and his racial policies…which went hand in hand with Progressivism.

    Nevertheless, I take no pleasure in erasing his name from Princeton.  He was President of the university for eight years, where he made a number of improvements.  He was Governor of New Jersey and then President.  He is someone who should be honored by his school, and I say this as an opponent!

    The real radicals on the Left aren’t going to wake up at this point and realize that their campaigns to erase our history of my heroes has been folly.  They’re not going to stop; they’re simply going to deny that people like Wilson ever were their own heroes to begin with.  They’ll find ways to portray them as conservatives by the time they’re done.  Oceana has always been at war with Eastasia.

    We have to stand for the principle of preserving our history and allowing people to honor flawed men, as all men are flawed.  I don’t even want our histories putting that darned “but” in there.  Let us simply honor those who have contributed to American life.

    • #6
  7. Austin Murrey Inactive
    Austin Murrey

    Is anyone else annoyed that they’re forced to defend Woodrow Wilson? Woodrow Wilson people!

    • #7
  8. hokiecon Inactive

    The only ones calling for his erasure from Princeton’s history are the spoiled campus fascists. Conservatives don’t want history erased because it reflects a dangerous pattern of thinking.

    • #8
  9. Fricosis Guy Listener
    Fricosis Guy

    Obama is Woodrow Wilson, Part Deux: extra-constitutional at home, craven abroad.

    • #9
  10. MarciN Member

    In the context of the Yale incident, the students look like an angry mob and Mao’s Red Guard.

    However, I have very mixed feelings about this. Reading the article in National Review that is linked in the original post made me cringe. Wilson went beyond little acts of racism to great acts of racism. His promulgation of eugenics is beyond evil:

    But Wilson’s “survival of the fittest” led him to want to “improve” people as well. As governor of New Jersey in 1911, he signed a law providing for the sterilization of the “feeble-minded . . . and other defectives”  a law extreme enough that it was declared invalid by the New Jersey Supreme Court.

    The article describes so many acts of aggression against blacks that Wilson was responsible for that I’m afraid I’d be joining the students. Requiring pictures with civil service applications to screen out blacks? Firing black federal government appointees in the South? Showing Birth of a Nation in the White House?

    It upsets me just to read the column.

    It’s interesting the kids are upset about Wilson particularly. This may be a positive turn of events. I was told by teachers in high school that Wilson was a nearly perfect person and president. If you had asked me as a young adult which presidents I most admired, I would have said Wilson because he established the League of Nations.

    Beware the wrath of a student who has been lied to.

    • #10
  11. Weeping Inactive

    Eustace C. Scrubb:Someday, these campus protesters may come to realize they aren’t perfect either.

    Especially when judged by the social norms and mores of the future.

    • #11
  12. Ed G. Member
    Ed G.

    I’ve been uncomfortable with the situation too, Eustace. I understand and agree with both points you raise along with the framework for considering them. However, we also shouldn’t reflexively oppose all attempts like this. Erasing from history and failing to assess a person for his time and as a whole person is one thing, but continuing to revere and respect someone/something which doesn’t deserve it is another matter.

    • #12
  13. Ed G. Member
    Ed G.

    On the specific matter of assessing historical figures and how we should treat them now, I think historical proximity matters as does the nature of their shortcomings.

    There is a shelf life for personal connection to historical figures. I don’t know how to calculate it with any accuracy, but the connection differs based on how long ago something happened and the connection of one era to another. While I wasn’t alive to experience any of these people (Abraham, Moses, and Wilson), Wilson seems far more connected to me by the cords of culture and everyday reality than these others. Wilson is a contemporary while Abraham is ancient history.

    Also, Abraham, Moses, and even Jefferson are historical figures for whom their shortcomings were personal and localized; their shortcomings were more than ameliorated by their moments of broader greatness. Is that so with Wilson? I’m not sure, and I’m sympathetic to the thoughts of those for whom the tacit respect and admiration are too much to stomach.

    • #13
  14. Ed G. Member
    Ed G.

    The main problem at Princeton is the approach and the response. It’s not a reasoned debate. It’s a tantrum without respect for other considerations.

    • #14
  15. Melissa O'Sullivan Member
    Melissa O'Sullivan

    This dispute had been on the periphery for me-thanks for a thoughtful essay about it!

    • #15
  16. Songwriter Inactive

    Perhaps there is a lesson for us all here. Perhaps it would be wise to forego the naming of buildings and streets and such after any human being. We are all of us screwed up somehow, and it is only a matter of time before our sins, large or small, will come under scrutiny.

    Honestly, assuming the impossible that I ever did anything that warrant the naming of  some great building after me, even after my death, I would hope my family would say “Thanks but no thanks,” just to avoid the inevitable future embarrassment for my poor descendants.

    It just ain’t worth the all the hassle.

    • #16
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