Is the Indefensible Worth Saving?

Woodrow Wilson

Princeton University has determined that Woodrow Wilson’s legacy is a complex one and is, thus, worthy of preservation. Perhaps only those whom the 28th President would have regarded as his political enemies will be happy with that outcome.

On Monday, a committee convened by Princeton University with the aim of determining if it was still appropriate to recognize the legacy of the school’s prodigal son reluctantly concluded that it was. The 10-member board had the mission of reviewing Wilson’s legacy – specifically, his unapologetically racist and pro-segregationist views – with the aim of establishing whether modern standards of decency should force the institution to consign Wilson’s image to an ignominious grave. They determined that, in spite of the fact that he was an avowed racist, Wilson’s accomplishments were such that his record deserved recognition by the university, although without any whitewashing. Let future generations render their own judgments on Wilson, warts and all.

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More on a Model Friendship

In a recent post, I recounted the marvelous story of the restoration of the friendship of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, a friendship that had been disrupted by political differences. The fact that they moved past their differences was the vindication of the spirit of friendship over the spirit of party, in the words of Merrill Peterson.

In response, I received a note from Diana Schuab, Professor of Political Science at Loyola University Maryland. She wrote this:

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The Spirit of Friendship

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson

Merrill D. Peterson’s 1976 book Adams and Jefferson: A Revolutionary Dialogue tells the story of their friendship from their first meeting in 1775 as delegates to the Second Continental Congress to their extraordinarily bitter contest for the presidency in 1800 through to their reconciliation a dozen years later. It’s on the healing of the relationship that I want to focus.

As Peterson tells it, Dr. Benjamin Rush, America’s most eminent physician, took upon himself the task of reuniting his old friends. “In them the spirit of the American Revolution was personified, Rush thought, and their continued estrangement was a national calamity.”

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To Get History Right, Democrats Would Erase It

Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson

More than a month after the coldblooded murder of African-American churchgoers in South Carolina by an overt racist prompted an intense and grief-stricken national discussion about racism in the United States, it is now possible to apply some perspective to the events that followed. Across the South, in public and private spaces, the Confederate battle flag was furled for the last time. Few responsible commentators saw this as anything less than a public good. Some even suggested that further steps were necessary; monuments to Confederate leaders should be torn down, roads and bridges named for Confederate generals retitled, and municipalities with Confederate roots renamed. What followed this catharsis was, however, a full-scale national moral panic. Perhaps the most ludicrous example of this overcompensation came when television networks cancelled re-airings of the Dukes of Hazard and the owner of the program’s original prop car, the General Lee, revealed that the vehicle’s famous rebel flag roof art was to be painted over. It was then that some cautiously began to wonder if the well-meaning decision to remove this historical artifact with all its negative baggage had gone too far. There was clearly no limiting principle to this national effort to address historical grievances. Where would it all end? Today, it is clear that, for some, the fight to make history conform to today’s moral standards has only just begun. 

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“No Mind Has Stamped More of Its Impression On American Institutions”

Lynne Cheney has written a splendid new biography, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered

There are many things one could focus on in a book on Madison, from his personal modesty and his “remarkable sweet temper” (in the words of William Pierce), to his loving marriage to Dolley and his lifelong, intimate friendship with Thomas Jefferson, to his indispensable role in the creation of the Constitution and his wartime leadership as president. Madison was a man of unusual self-possession and a steady temperament, brave in his struggle with seizures (which may have been caused by epilepsy), and fervently committed to religious liberty. 

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Race, Reparations, and the Idea of America

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic cover essay making the case for reparations has something for everyone to like and to dislike, because a wise and serious depiction of the subject–which Coates provides–scrambles ideological predispositions. Conservatives will be hesitant toward this essay because they are generally accused of racial animus at the drop of a hat. But conservatives should give the essay a chance, not only because of the parts they will agree with but because of the parts of the essay that challenge them.

Conservatives who decry the corrosive power of welfare-state institutions to insinuate poisonous effects into the fibers of family and community are often right, but they tend to forget how much more poisonous, yet less visible, are the generational effects of slavery and Jim Crow. A good explanation of this comes from the political scientists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson in their bestseller Why Nations Fail. In a chapter on the “vicious circle” of extractive institutions, they write that the South’s economic doldrums caused by its reliance on slavery should have been shaken off after abolition. Instead:

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Jefferson’s Lesson for Conservatives

Yesterday, timed almost perfectly with the unlawful extension of the ObamaCare employer-mandate delay, President Obama was touring Monticello with the visiting French president when he joked about breaking protocol there. “That’s the good thing as a President, I can do whatever I want,” he said according to the pool report. I’m never sure anymore if this sort of thing is really a gaffe, or if the president is just trolling conservatives. Either way, it got the requisite attention.

One of the comments was to note the irony of Obama making such imperious boasts at the home of a president who feared just such a display of lawless executive whim. At Hot Air, Ed Morrissey, for example, said: “That’s precisely the opposite of the example set by Jefferson, at least in terms of the presidency. Too bad Obama hasn’t learned that lesson yet.” And of course I agree … mostly. The truth is, Jefferson actually has something in common with Obama in this regard. Both found their presidencies weighed down by public disapproval. But Jefferson, of course, respected it–and in the end, like many things Jefferson set his mind to, took it a bit overboard.

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Jefferson Lives

When John Marshall became chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1801, notes the historian James F. Simon, the high court “could not, in fact, claim parity with the executive or legislative branch of the federal government in either prestige or power.” He sought to rectify that, first and foremost by thwarting the desire of new President Thomas Jefferson to devolve more power to the states. Marshall would thereby increase the high court’s influence and standing while creating a larger pool of executive power from which to claim an equal slice.

Jefferson, for his part, didn’t believe a government had to be powerful to be strong: “I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest government on earth,” he declared. The two would battle for years over the question, and there is no doubt that Marshall largely succeeded in amplifying the power of the court while protecting executive power in the process. What was so intriguing about this particular conflict was that an American president was trying to reject the expansion of his own prerogative.

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Why Virginia Matters (Besides the Obvious)

Republicans looking for a silver lining in last week’s Virginia elections got some bad news today: it looks like the Democratic candidate for attorney general, Mark Herring, will eke out a victory by less than 200 votes, enabling the Democrats to sweep Election Day’s major contests in that state. The current margin of victory allows the Republican candidate, Mark Obenshain, to request a recount, which the state will pay for since the margin is less than one half of one percent, according to Time.

Though obviously not as significant as the governor’s race, the attorney general gets a head start on running for governor, since Virginia governors are limited to one term. This is especially true for an attorney general when his party does not also hold the governorship of the state, since it gives him an advantage in wrangling for the party’s gubernatorial nomination in the following election. The office can also offer an attorney general a way to gain national name recognition and experience, as Ken Cuccinelli did with his role in the states’ legal charge against ObamaCare.

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Madison’s Moment

He may not have a grand monument like Thomas Jefferson; the pop culture revival of John Adams; a name synonymous with courage and heroism like George Washington; or the institutional legacy of Alexander Hamilton. But James Madison has still managed to work his way back into the daily experience of Washington D.C.’s political conversation. Madison–constitutional framer, secretary of state, president–is being invoked furiously by both Republicans and Democrats because of his consistent advocacy for the separation of powers that produces compromise and gridlock by design.

Unfortunately for Madison (though he might not find it unfortunate at all), he is being invoked for his culpability in the recent government shutdown. From the Washington Post to National Review to the Washington Examiner to even the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, there is striking agreement that if you’re looking for someone to blame for the recent polarization in Washington, the culprit of choice is Madison.

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