The recent protests at Princeton University regarding Woodrow Wilson have been of particular interest to many of us in Staunton and beyond. At the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, we share the full story of Woodrow Wilson with visitors.

We discuss his many domestic achievements and his support of global democracy. We talk about his leadership during World War I and his plan for world peace after the war through his Fourteen Points and the League of Nations, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize. He was also the first President to nominate a Jewish member to the Supreme Court. As we address his achievements, we also discuss his failures and flaws, including Wilson’s views on race and his role in segregating federal government offices during his presidency.

The mission of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library is to educate on the life and times of Woodrow Wilson. To study history, one must understand the time in which the subject, in this case Woodrow Wilson, lived.  It is unwise, even wrong to judge an historical figure based on today’s standards. A true study of history requires us to consider the culture, attitudes and conditions during the time in which the subject lived.

Wilson’s views on race are deplorable but very common in his day. Wilson was a child of the South during the Civil War, and he saw first hand the devastation and carnage. During the war, his father, a Presbyterian minister in Augusta Georgia, had the pews removed from his church to convert the space into a Confederate hospital. Wilson resided in four southern states by the time he was seventeen, and he experienced the reconstruction of the South after the war was over. Does this make his racism okay? Absolutely not, but by understanding his background, we learn a little more about his later actions and attitudes.

Woodrow Wilson was not the first president to hold racist beliefs and he certainly was not the last. Our founding fathers who owned slaves and held racist beliefs built our nation. It is a slippery slope when we begin renaming buildings and institutions. What comes next? Must we hide the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and refuse to discuss them? After all, we cannot truly understand these documents without studying the beliefs and motivations of the authors and the signers.

History is not always pretty because our ancestors were human beings with flaws — just like each one of us. We cannot remove someone from our history simply because we have judged parts of their legacy as unworthy by current standards. If we were to eliminate every historic figure deemed offensive in some way, we would have no one left — and nothing to learn from their lives.

As uncomfortable as it can be, we cannot hide our history and pretend it did not happen. Rewriting history is not the answer. As a gentleman recently asked my colleague “How will my children learn history if that history is taken away?” We must study our past, warts and all, to understand and appreciate who we are, where we have been and what we can learn from it.

By studying our shared history, we learn how we have evolved as a society. We learn about human nature and how a hero can also be a villain. Good people can be capable of horrible things and horrible people can do great things. We also learn from our failures to avoid repeating the past. History teaches us, it inspires us, and hopefully, helps us become better people.

Robin von Seldeneck, CEO Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum


did you know?

Wilson was president throughout World War I. He sought a neutral position for the United States and even won reelection with the slogan “He kept us out of war.” Nonetheless, actions by the Central Powers (notably Germany) threatened this neutrality. Following years of attacks on American shipping and citizens on the high seas, particularly the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, public opinion began to turn. The final straw came with the release of the Zimmerman Telegram, forcing the United States to declare war on the Central Powers in April of 1917, joining the war on the side of the UK, Russia, and France.

Woodrow Wilson was President when the 19th amendment was ratified in 1920 giving women the right to vote.

Wilson piloted the ship that brought America onto the world stage. He made the first steps of leading us out of isolationism, violating Washington's tenet of avoiding foreign entanglements.

He led America during World War I. His fervent hope was for the US to join a League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations.

A Woodrow Wilson Quote: "Life does not consist in thinking, it consists in acting."

A Woodrow Wilson Quote: "The Constitution was not made to fit us like a straitjacket. In its elasticity lies its chief greatness."

A Woodrow Wilson Quote: "I believe in democracy because it releases the energies of every human being."

The Seventeenth Amendment was formally adopted on May 31, 1913. Wilson had been president for almost three months at the time. The amendment provided for the direct election of senators. Prior to its adoption, Senators were chosen by state legislatures.

Wilson was the first president to receive a PhD which he got in Political Science from Johns Hopkins University. He had received his undergraduate degree from the College of New Jersey, renamed Princeton University in 1896.

Woodrow Wilson could not read during the first decade of his life. Though undiagnosed, he may have suffered from a learning disability

Woodrow Wilson was known as "Tommy" until his college years.

Woodrow Wilson during his boyhood, helped establish the "Lightfoot Baseball Club" with his friends. Wilson played second base and was an avid sport fan throughout his adult life.

Woodrow Wilson was the first president to attend the Major League Baseball Fall Classic. He saw the debut of a young 20 year old pitcher by the name of George Herman "Babe" Ruth.

Woodrow Wilson was a graduate of Princeton University and Johns Hopkins University and the only president to hold an earned doctoral degree.

Woodrow Wilson image is on the $100,000 bill although it is no longer in circulation