A Moral Abdication

A Moral Abdication

Reckoning with the past is a struggle that should be constantly engaged in, and nowhere more than in universities, in regard to their own histories. Avoiding this struggle is not an acceptance of the past. It is, rather, a moral abdication.

At Yale (Thomas Autumn Photography / Flickr)

This article is part of a forum on “Free Speech on Campus.” To read contributions by Marcia Chatelain, Jim Sleeper, and Anne-Laure White, click here.

When I first read that students at Princeton, where I teach, wanted to remove the name of Woodrow Wilson from the university’s School of Public and International Affairs and one of its residential colleges, my first impulse was to scoff. The idea seemed to me a classic case of political correctness run amok, an attempt to pretend the past did not exist. Removing the name might produce a momentary glow of satisfaction, but would do nothing to address real inequities. And, in any case, should we judge figures in the past by the moral standards of our own age?

But the more I talked to students and colleagues about the issue, the more I came to question this initial reaction. As an historian, I am by nature suspicious of phrases such as “the standards of our own age.” Does an age ever have a single, hegemonic set of “moral standards”? There were plenty of people in Woodrow Wilson’s day who condemned his actions on behalf of white supremacy for the same reasons that Princeton students and faculty are condemning them today. And in any case, should we not have sufficient confidence in our own moral standards to apply them as broadly as possible, including to figures in the past? Have standards merely “changed,” or have they, as we might fervently hope, improved? It strikes me that the people declaring most insistently that we should not judge men and women in the past by our own moral standards are the same people who, in other circumstances, leap over themselves to denounce “moral relativism.”

Renaming things in accordance with our own moral standards seems even more obviously correct if we look at the issue a little less parochially, and introduce examples from other countries and other times. Who thinks it was a mistake for Germans to remove the names Hitler and Goering from countless locations and monuments after the Second World War? Should the name of Stalin still adorn streets and institutions in Russia? For that matter, was New York City’s King’s College wrong to change its name, in the wake of the American Revolution, to Columbia University? Was that an example of rewriting history and denying the past?

But recognizing that we have the right—indeed, the duty—to judge figures in the past by moral standards we ourselves have confidence in today is hardly the end of the matter. For how do we arrive at that judgment? And what do we do once we have judged?

When we invoke moral judgments in deciding which past figures to honor, it is important, first of all, to do so in the name of a reasoned moral standard common to the entire community. During the debates over Wilson, some students of color argued that his name should be removed because the very sight of it adorning university institutions gave them pain. But the feelings of a particular part of the campus community cannot become a rule for the community as a whole. If it is morally wrong to honor Wilson, then it is wrong, whether or not that honor causes pain to anyone. If the students in question did not feel pain—or if they all chose to transfer to other universities—would it then be morally acceptable for the university to forget about the entire issue?

It is also crucial not to insist on spotlessness—to consider only a person’s flaws, rather than his or her record as a whole. Here is where we do have to introduce an important distinction between past and present. Judging someone like Woodrow Wilson by our own moral standards does not mean demanding he should have been a twenty-first century liberal. Abraham Lincoln, by the standards of most Americans in the twenty-first century, was a racist. “I have no purpose,” he declared in 1858, “to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is physical difference between the two which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality.” In our own day, an American politician would rightly incur ostracism for such a remark. But when looking at a man like Lincoln, born in 1809, it is important to put all his actions and statements into the balance. If we do so in his case, it is hard not to endorse the common opinion of his greatness, despite his racial attitudes.

And it follows that while very few, if any, figures in the past lived up to twenty-first century liberal standards, this fact hardly means we cannot draw moral distinctions between them. The comparison of Woodrow Wilson to Lincoln offers a case in point. We should, arguably, applaud Wilson for the progressive domestic reforms he helped to introduce, and for the idealism he brought to bear in international affairs (although to the extent that the post–First World War settlement he did so much to engineer set the stage for the cataclysm of the Second World War, it can hardly be judged a success). But against this record must be set the deliberate, consequential actions Wilson took in support of white supremacy, including not only the segregation of the federal service, but also the invasion and occupation of the independent black republic of Haiti, beginning in 1915. Nothing in Abraham Lincoln’s record was as morally wrong as these actions. They are reasons for drawing a sharp distinction between the two men. By the same token, removing an honor from Wilson in no way automatically implies that we have to do the same for Lincoln—or, for that matter, for Washington, or Jefferson, or Madison. In each case, we need to put all these men’s actions and statements into the balance in order to judge.

Having reached a judgment, we then need to draw another important distinction: between honor and recognition. The fact that Princeton might decide to remove Wilson’s name from university institutions does not mean pretending that he never existed. Woodrow Wilson was one of Princeton’s most consequential alumni, and one of its most consequential university presidents. For this, he should have prominent recognition in the literature the university produces about itself, and at appropriate places on the campus. But this recognition implies no honoring of Wilson as a moral hero, and it should be accompanied by a full and frank discussion of his record as president of the United States, including his actions on behalf of white supremacy. For what it is worth, in my opinion, the name of something as important as a School of Public and International Affairs, with all the honor and approval this connotes, is not an appropriate place.

As all of the above implies, the process of coming to and acting upon moral judgments in cases like these is neither simple nor easy. There is room for disagreement and debate. A community has a right collectively to change its mind. But a change of mind does not amount to an Orwellian “rewriting of the past.” As historians know, the past is not one thing, with a single, intelligible record. It is an immense mass of things that we observe through a glass, darkly. We must struggle to discern patterns in it, to decide what matters in it, and still more, to decide what to honor in it. It is a struggle that should be constantly engaged in, and nowhere more than in universities, in regard to their own histories. Avoiding this struggle is not an acceptance of the past. It is, rather, a moral abdication.


David A. Bell is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor of History at Princeton. He is the author of four previous books, including the prize-winning The First Total War, and writes regularly for a number of journals and magazines.

Return to the forum to read contributions by Marcia Chatelain, Jim Sleeper, and Anne-Laure White.


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