Ross Douthat: The ghost of Woodrow Wilson

In this 1916 AP file photo, President Woodrow Wilson throws out the first ball at a baseball game in Washington.

When it comes to hating Woodrow Wilson, I was an early adopter. Raised with the bland liberal history that hailed the 28th president as a visionary for championing the League of Nations, I picked up in college what was then a contrarian, mostly right-wing perspective — that many of Wilson’s legacies were disastrous, including an imperial understanding of the presidency that has deformed our constitutional structure ever since, the messianic style in American foreign policy that gave us Vietnam and Iraq, and a solidification of Jim Crow under a scientific-racist guise.

Now his racism has finally prompted Princeton University, which once had Wilson as its president, to remove his name from its prominent school of public and international affairs. This move was made under pressure from left-wing activists, but it also answered conservatives who had invoked Wilson’s name to suggest that progressive racists might be unjustly spared from cancellation.

For this Wilson-despiser, his fall was a clarifying moment. I expected to be at least a little pleased and justified when the name was gone. Instead, the decision just seemed fundamentally dishonest, a case study in what goes wrong when iconoclasm moves beyond Confederates to encompass the wider American inheritance.

Our civil religion, back when it had more true believers, sometimes treated departed presidents like saints. But our monuments and honorifics exist primarily to honor deeds, not to issue canonizations — to express gratitude for some specific act, to acknowledge some specific debt, to trace a line back to some worthwhile inheritance.

Thus when you enter their Washington, D.C., memorials, you will see Thomas Jefferson honored as the man who expressed the founding’s highest ideals and Abraham Lincoln as the president who made good on their promise. That the first was a hypocrite slave owner and the second a pragmatist who had to be pushed into liberating the slaves is certainly relevant to our assessment of their characters. But they remain the author of the Declaration of Independence and the savior of the union, and you can’t embrace either legacy, the union or “we hold these truths …” without acknowledging that these gifts came down through them.

To repudiate an honor or dismantle a memorial, then, makes moral sense only if you intend to repudiate the specific deeds that it memorializes. In the case of Confederate monuments, that is exactly what we should want to do. Their objective purpose was to valorize a cause that we are grateful met defeat, there is no debt we owe J.E.B. Stuart or Nathan Bedford Forrest that needs to be remembered, and if they are put away we will become more morally consistent, not less, in how we think about that chapter in our past.

But just as Jefferson’s memorial wasn’t built to celebrate his slaveholding, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs wasn’t named for Wilson to honor him for being a segregationist. It was named for him because he helped create precisely the institutions that the school exists to staff — our domestic administrative state and our global foreign policy apparatus — and because he was the presidential progenitor of the idealistic, interventionist worldview that has animated that foreign policy community ever since.

Which means, in turn, that the school will remain his school, whatever name gets slapped upon it, so long as it pursues the projects of enlightened progressive administration and global superpowerdom. Obviously there are people, right and left, who would prefer that one or both of those projects be abandoned. But they aren’t likely to be running the renamed school. Instead, it will continue to be run by 21st-century Wilsonians — who will now act as if their worldview sprang from nowhere, that its progenitor did not exist, effectively repudiating their benefactor while accepting his inheritance.

Or consider a different example, one raised by puckish conservatives in the last few weeks: The case of Yale University, named for a 17th-century merchant, official and dealer in slaves named Elihu Yale. What is honored and memorialized in the school’s name (and this is true of many schools) is exactly one deed from Yale’s often wicked and dishonest life — the donation of his money to the young college. The name “Yale” doesn’t honor old Elihu’s slaving; it simply pays the school’s debt to him, acknowledging that Yale owes part of its very existence to a rich man’s desire to see ill-gotten money put to better use.

Now some might suggest that Yale’s existence is not in fact a good thing, and that honoring the man whose money helped establish it is therefore a mistake. But if Yale is bad in this profound sense, then renaming the school won’t magically make it good; it will remain the same bad place, continue taking money from today’s Elihu Yales (how much money touched by slave labor in China fills Yale’s coffers even now?), and all it will have done is added self-righteous amnesia and historical ingratitude to its list of sins.

Or consider a case with wider application — the monuments to Christopher Columbus, like the one removed from a small park in my hometown, New Haven, Connecticut, last week. These statues acknowledge the general debt that the New World’s colonists, settlers and immigrants owe to the man who connected Europe and the Americas, along with (in most cases) the specific desire of Italian American immigrants to acknowledge and lay claim to an Italian explorer. And just as Yale’s debt to Elihu exists so long as anyone believes that Yale is good and worth preserving, the American debt to Columbus’ audacity exists so long as we are grateful to have had ancestors who crossed the seas to settle here — notwithstanding his cruelty in governing Hispaniola or any other crime.

Again, as in the previous examples, you can believe that gratitude of any sort is the wrong emotion to feel for 1492; you can believe that the settlement of the Americas was a purely wicked project whose fruits should be redistributed and whose legacy abjured. This belief is consistent with taking down the statues of Columbus; indeed it is consistent with smashing them.

But unless the endgame of New Haven’s removal of Columbus is the expropriation of white property (Yale’s property, I suppose, especially) and its redistribution to the Pequots and Mohegans, then a consistent rejection of Columbus’ legacy isn’t what my city is embracing. Instead, it is just doing the same thing as Princeton: keeping the inheritance, but repudiating the benefactor. Keeping the gains, but making a big show of pronouncing them ill-gotten.

If this dance eventually falters, and the true radicals take over, maybe I will regret being too critical of its hypocrisies. (The Committee for the De-settling of the Americas can wave this column in my face when they come to expropriate my house.) But that possibility is one reason not to accentuate historical ingratitude so glaringly, lest the people who really pine for some genuine Year Zero take you up on the implied offer.

Meanwhile, for now the ingratitude is being presented as a clear moral advance, and it is not. To enjoy an inheritance that comes from flawed men by pretending that it comes from nowhere, through nobody, is a betrayal of memory, not its rectification — an act of self-righteousness that may not bring the revolution, but does make our ruling class that much less fit to rule.

Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.