Two of my recent essays — one on the title “Master,” the other concerning Woodrow Wilson — attracted many more readers than usual. I often get a few emails in response to essays, but this time I had many, with several suggesting that I pursue further some matters I had raised. I read on the Princeton University website that “The Board of Trustees has appointed a special committee to consider Woodrow Wilson’s legacy at Princeton, and more specifically whether or not changes should be made in how the university recognizes Wilson’s legacy.” The committee seeks opinions. Here is one.
In a literal sense, a legacy is the real property transferred by legal instrument from the dead to the living, most commonly from parents to their children. The more usual word these days is probably inheritance. I actually found Woodrow Wilson’s will online. He left everything to his wife so that we don’t have to worry about a literal legacy, even if that were what the Trustees meant. Of course, it was not. We very frequently speak, as they do here, of legacy in a metaphoric sense. Then it means the spiritual, intellectual or cultural influence metaphorically bequeathed from past to present by a historical figure, an intellectual movement, a social institution and so on. Thus we speak of the “legacy” of Aristotle, or of Cartesianism, or of chattel slavery, etc. Such is the sense of Woodrow Wilson’s legacy at Princeton.
An interesting legal fact concerning legacies is that they can be refused by the proposed heir. The rejection of material legacies is rare but not unknown. If your uncle leaves you a legacy of $1 million, you might want to reject it because (a) accepting it would complicate your taxes, or (b) you were constrained by a vow of religious poverty, or (c) you considered it wrong to benefit from money gained by selling heroin. By filing a timely disclaimer, you legally insulate yourself from any complication or contagion the money might bring.
How about metaphorical legacies? Here it really is entirely up to us, as the current controversy suggests. We apply not merely the voluntary principle but a principle of selectivity. This is particularly true of personal legacies, as people in history, no less than today, tend to be complicated and contradictory. Few people who embrace “the legacy of Aristotle” maintain his errant scientific ideas or hold to his view of slavery as natural and beneficent. When scholars praise the “legacy of Newton,” they do not have in mind his crackpot ideas about the Book of Daniel. It is true that there has to be some kind of consensus that so-and-so’s legacy was mainly or importantly positive. The Germans do not have an Adolph Hitler Autobahn despite his effective leadership in highway construction. But there has been precisely such a consensus with regard to Wilson. The New York Times, which with specific reference to the current Princeton scene a couple of weeks ago ran a blistering editorial about his racist iniquities, in 2008 rated him our 10th best president ever — one rank higher than that assigned him by the Wall Street Journal.
Princeton does not memorialize Wilson for his racial views. In 40 years of active service on the faculty I never met a single person — student, alumnus, faculty, administrator or staff — who espoused them or even covertly tolerated them, let alone who claimed them as a “legacy.” Indeed the two Princeton institutions that bear his name — the academic school and the residential college — have countered them in concrete ways far more impressive than verbal disclaimer or erasure. That many people never heard of his racial views and therefore never devoted a thought to them is a historical failing rightly castigated. For some, it is a cause for grievance; for others, it is an opportunity for fruitful meditation. Presumably it was a stimulus for the historian Eric Yellin, who has two Princeton degrees, to write his recent “Racism in the Nation’s Service.” What I do not think it should be a stimulus for, however, is an extreme, reckless, impractical and divisive act of ideological cleansing.
If in 1930 you were founding a school of public and international affairs, and if you thought it proper that it should bear the name of a famous Princetonian, the name of Woodrow Wilson was close to inevitable. At that time he must have seemed to many the most impressive statesman of the 20th century. One can think of a few possible candidates later on, I suppose: Norman Thomas (‘05), John Foster Dulles (‘08) and Adlai Stevenson (‘22), all of whom have (or have had) their names attached to greater or lesser campus sites. But they are all of far lesser rank. Actually, it’s not too hard to get your name on something around here. I myself used to have a park bench outside of Wilcox Hall before I was purged for reasons unknown by hands unknown. The Woodrow Wilson School has now been in existence longer than Woodrow Wilson himself was. When we talk about a metaphoric “Wilson legacy,” we necessarily mean three-quarters of a century of the prestigious entity that most clearly keeps Princeton “in the nation’s service.”
We should bank that legacy, as well as several of Wilson’s educational ideas that proved prophetic and visionary. His fight over the location of the graduate school — which at the time he lost, as he would later lose with regard to the country’s participation in the League of Nations — was really a fight about the intellectual integrity of a university in which the most advanced original research in many fields is harmonized with a fundamental commitment to the highest quality undergraduate education. Not too many places have pulled that one off. It is impossible to imagine a Princeton education — today or in the memory of any living alumnus — without the distinctive feature introduced by Wilson’s “preceptor guys.” As for Wilson College, Princeton’s first and pioneer residential college, it consciously implemented Wilson’s view that on a residential campus the physical spaces in which students lived might have an educational role beyond that of mere hotel rooms. That might seem a no-brainer today, but it was more than the trustees could swallow hardly a century past.