BackStory historians say Woodrow Wilson shows the ugly side of liberalism

Historians in the News
tags: Woodrow Wilson, Jefferson

The former president is remembered for progressive views on the state, but his views on race were decidedly regressive. With his legacy at Princeton now disputed, Brian Balogh and Peter Onuf, historians and co-hosts of the public radio show BackStory, weigh Wilson's complex history.


Princeton University has not yet decided whether it will remove the name of Woodrow Wilson from its prestigious School of Public and International Affairs as student protesters have demanded. Wilson, the 28th president of the United States, was the driving force behind the creation of the League of Nations. He also has a troubling record on race. Joining us now to discuss Wilson's legacy are Brian Balogh and Peter Onuf, hosts of the public radio show Back Story With The American History Guys. Welcome to both of you.

PETER ONUF: Good to be here, Lynn.

BRIAN BALOGH: Hey, good to be here.

NEARY: Brian, let me start out with you. Woodrow Wilson has a decidedly mixed legacy. He was, as one historian put it, the architect of modern liberalism. But at the same time, his views on race really were aberrant. How do you reconcile these two sides of the man?

BALOGH: Well, the easiest answer, Lynn, is that modern liberalism was not very good on race. Liberals were willing to use state power to even the playing field for middle-class white men and to help lower-middle-class working white men gain a foothold in the political system. So if you go to Wilson himself, he was an advocate of the eight-hour working day for workers who were primarily white guys. 

NEARY: Do you then just sort of excuse Wilson's views on race? Or do you attribute them to the fact that he was a man of his time - this is the way the majority of people felt about race at that time?

BALOGH: I do neither. Wilson was an active architect of segregation in the federal government. That was something new, and I don't think that is excusable.

NEARY: Peter, I want to turn to you because you studied Thomas Jefferson extensively.

ONUF: Right. ...

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