One should properly appreciate Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879,in light of the contextof his time and hisimpacts on national politics and race, saidJohn Milton Cooper Jr. ’61 in a lecture focused on the former President’s legacy at the University on Thursday.
“I want to concentrate, somewhat briefly, on one issue — and that’s race. Because that’s what the recent controversy here has been about,” he said.
Cooper is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His 2009 book, “Woodrow Wilson: A Biography,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.
Cooper explained how one scholar described Wilson as a racist, but “not the racist of white supremacists’ dreams, or of many historians’ imaginations. The Klan’s visions did not inspire, but repelled him,” he said. Cooper added that, throughout Wilson’s life, he did not embrace traditional Southern values, like the notion of state’s rights and the Southern racist mindset, noting that Wilson did not live in the South for a substantial amount of time as an adult.
“In judging Wilson on race, it’s also necessary to keep him in the context of his time… you simply cannot judge Wilson in isolation,” Cooper said, noting that Wilson’s accomplishments as president of the United States should not be overlooked. Among them were the establishment of the Federal Reserve, the first federal child labor law (although it was struck down by the Supreme Court at the time) and the first legislation regulating wages and hours. “Can anybody doubt that this was a significant President? If you’re at all in sympathy with those policy directions, can you doubt that he was a great President? Wilson ranks with FDR and LBJ as one of the great legislative Presidents,” Cooper noted, explaining that Wilson was additionally superb in his executive powers because of his lack of political background compared to the aforementioned Presidents.
Cooper noted that Henry Fine, Class of 1880, for whom Fine Hall is named, said a year that Princeton was an unprogressive institution before Wilson and that Wilson left it as one of the strongest universities in the country with an excellent faculty.
“Even Fine may have understated [Wilson’s] importance to Princeton,” he said, explaining that when Wilson became the University president, the University had a reputation for social exclusivity but not academic excellence.
“[Love] is the only word that should be used to describe how Wilson felt about this place. He loved Princeton… I think many, most of us in this room including me, can and will say that we have loved and still love Princeton. But I doubt that any of us can say it the same way that Wilson did. For him, Princeton was one of the great loves of his life,” he said. Cooper later explained how Wilson’s love for the University started as a student being involved in the Whig-Cliosophic Society and The Princetonian (not yet The Daily Princetonian). Cooper also noted that Wilson was interested in baseball and that it was a shame that the mural in Wilcox Hall, portraying Wilson in a lighthearted manner throwing a pitch, was taken down.
Cooper noted that because Wilson loved the University he, by extension, loved those affiliated with it.
“How should we respond to his love? We should remember him. Certainly, we should question his thoughts and deeds, we should criticize and even condemn them, if we think that’s proper. We must honor him, and I think, above all, we must love him back,” Cooper said.
The lecture, titled “Woodrow Wilson and His Legacy,” took place at 4:00 p.m. in the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. The event was sponsored by the Class of 1961.