Princeton University’s decision to remove the name “Woodrow Wilson” from its School of Public and International Affairs is a big win for progressive activists, and the implications will extend far beyond the campus.
It hardly surprises me, in today’s polarizing environment, that my alma mater caved to pressure from radical progressives. What is surprising, however, is that the school caved now, after resolutely standing against the pressure for so many years.
Five years ago, as part of a broader nationwide effort to rewrite American history, Princeton students mounted a campaign to remove President Woodrow Wilson’s name from the school because of his racist views and his efforts to prevent the enrollment of black students. In response, the Board of Trustees formed a committee to review the matter. The following year, the board released a report detailing how to handle President Wilson’s legacy.
The 2016 report drew this important conclusion:
The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Woodrow Wilson College should retain their current names and . . . the University needs to be honest and forthcoming about its history. This requires transparency in recognizing Wilson’s failings and shortcomings as well as the visions and achievements that led to the naming of the school and the college in the first place.
How refreshing — a recognition that the school should be “honest and forthcoming about its history” and employ a sophisticated approach to reconciling Wilson’s moral failings with his accomplishments for the university.
Princeton’s own statement tacitly acknowledges the key factor here. It was not the name “Woodrow Wilson” that was under attack; history itself was the target. As we see across the nation, progressives now use Alinsky tactics on history itself. Saul Alinsky’s formula of “picking a target, freezing it, personalizing it, and finally polarizing it” is no longer reserved for living people; historical figures and even episodes in history receive the Alinsky treatment.
Back in 1852, Daniel Webster delivered a speech to the New York Historical Society, on the importance and “dignity” of history. “The dignity of history,” he orated, “consists in reciting events with truth and accuracy.” History is unapologetic in its presentation of facts. History demands that we examine facts and incidents that make us uncomfortable. Such study challenges us, inspires us, and serves as a call to action in our own lives. The progressive pressure campaign is not about progress. Rather, it is an attempt to erase parts of history leftists do not like. This is a slippery slope, as many left-wing activists are even attempting to tear down statues of Abraham Lincoln, the president who ushered in the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves.
History, it turns out, is little concerned with our comfort level.
In the speech, Webster also explained that history’s main purpose is “to illustrate the general progress of society.” History and progress are inextricably linked. History tells the story of progress, and progress is possible by studying history — and, in some cases, learning from past mistakes.
What the Princeton incident reminds us of, however, is how little progressives care for progress. They are unable to recognize the progress the university has made, which the school noted in its 2016 report, in rejecting Wilson’s racist policies and championing the enrollment of black students. Former first lady, Michelle Obama, a Princeton graduate, frequently cites her experience at Princeton as an empowering opportunity — one that was possible only through the school’s progress.
How do we celebrate America’s accomplishments if we do not acknowledge where we started?
The Princeton name change is part of a larger movement of destruction. As Americans watch in horror and disbelief while statues, national monuments, and even war memorials are removed and defaced, we are left to wonder: What is the end goal of all of this destruction? When will it stop?
Elihu Yale, an early benefactor of Yale University, actively participated in trading slaves, including purchasing and shipping slaves to the English colony of St. Helena. American universities are littered with this type of racism: William Marsh Rice, the Lowell family of Boston, Thomas Jefferson, and Jesuit priests in Maryland all used the profits derived from slave labor to build some of the most prestigious universities in the country. Will tearing down these institutions achieve progressives’ goal?
Will changing a college’s name or removing the statue of a Founding Father change a Klansman’s deeply held racist beliefs? Will erasing certain books and movies from our public lexicon truly change the hate in someone’s soul? These changes might appease progressives for now, but their goal is much larger.
In my forthcoming book, The Capitol of Freedom: Restoring American Greatness, I explore this very topic. Progressives are determined to destroy not just statues, but historical memories, because they know American history is incompatible with their goals. America’s founding documents, and even the stories behind the statues in the U.S. Capitol building, tell the story of American greatness and offer a roadmap for us to renew our commitment to our founding principles.
Slavery is a dreadful part of our history. Despite what progressives say, the abolition of slavery occurred because of, not in spite of, our history and foundation. A nation that was formed with liberty as the chief objective of government was on the right path. The 19th century improved what the 18th century got horribly wrong, and the 20th century continued to build upon the 19th century’s advancements. With each century that passes, we move toward a more perfect union. That is progress.
From its founding, our nation’s history is the story of individual freedom and personal responsibility, with limited government as a means for accomplishing both. Our Constitution simultaneously protects individual liberty and thwarts the progressive agenda. Progressives are constantly frustrated in their attempts to remake America into a socialist and godless society because of our Constitution. Is it any wonder that they devote so much of their energy to undermining, subverting, and circumventing the Constitution?
Progressives know that what can be erased can be replaced. Knocking down statues and removing names of institutions are the necessary first step in reshaping America’s future.
For Americans hoping to stop the progressives’ destruction, Princeton provides the answer. No, not the Princeton of 2020 with its disappointing decision to abandon Woodrow Wilson’s name, but the Princeton of 2016 that recognized the importance of being truthful about our history.
In our fight against the progressive agenda, our history is not only what we seek to protect — it is also our primary weapon.