Wilson, Root, and Historical Standards

Lafayette College is a small, elite liberal arts institution in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, well known for its robust academics and picturesque campus. One of Lafayette’s particularly breathtaking buildings is the Kirby Hall of Civil Rights—said to be one of the most expensive buildings per square foot when it was constructed in the 1920s—which boasts a stately Roman-revival exterior, a grand travertine marbled-clad entryway, and an airy, oak paneled-library.

Kirby Hall’s civil rights designation is well suited to Lafayette College, which has a robust history of supporting African Americans that began with the first-ever granting of a college degree to a freed slave. Today, Lafayette College has the distinction of holding top rankings in Journal of Blacks in Higher Education for percentage of African American faculty (5th) and percentage of black enrollment (12th).

I visited Kirby Hall years ago on my college visit to Lafayette, and I remember the portraits of its trustees, founders, and notable alumni that lined the halls of the building. I remember my tour guide pointing out the portraits as we walked up the grand staircase. As she rattled off the scripted facts about the building that all college tours are wont to include, she said—with an attitude that managed to be both haughty and causal—that “you all don’t need to pay any attention to these pictures of old, dead white men—we’re gonna get them all replaced with real, relevant people of color by the time you guys start here, assuming you can get in.”

I remember being rather put off by her statement at the time, but it was my parents who were truly affronted by the callousness of it all. Maybe it was their status as first-generation college graduates that made my parents feel a particular appreciation for Lafayette’s founders, trustees, and alumni. The notion of sending their child to an institution that cultivated such an unappreciative attitude could also have been off-putting.

In any case, Lafayette seems to have escaped the latest thought-purge being conducted by progressive young college activists. It would seem, for now at least, that Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, is safe on his pedestal, despite his status as a dead, white, rich, title-holding European. Woodrow Wilson has not been so lucky.

I watched Wilson’s fall from grace at Princeton University with a mixture of curiosity and revulsion. The ousting of John C. Calhoun from his place of honor at Yale was to be expected, given his Southern legacy. But Woodrow Wilson, the Progressive icon?

We live in strange times indeed, I thought to myself as I read about the goings on at Princeton. Is Hamilton College at risk of such Orwellian attempts at historical erasure, I wondered? “The Movement” is certainly prone to radical acts of attention seeking, but even they would be daft to go after Alexander Hamilton himself, a man fresh off of a $10 bill and enjoying a Broadway-musical-induced popularity kick.

Little did I suspect that Elihu Root, a man Hamilton students associate more with the Farmhouse than with foreign policy, would instead be the chosen victim.     

To be sure, Root was a man of his time, a Progressive from the age when Progressivism meant forcibly modernizing the world via more heavy-handed means than the Obama administration’s current policy of unrestricted cash gifts to corrupt foreign governments.

Still, Root was an original supporter of the income tax, a fighter of patronage (although a beneficiary of the revolving door), and a promoter of unskilled immigration and friendly relations with Latin American and China. Root’s crime, of course, was that he thought and acted like nearly every other member of government in America and Europe did during (and beyond) his generation, with a strong sense of paternalism towards the underdeveloped world.  

The Movement’s call to remove Root’s name from campus illustrates the crux of the problem regarding the assessment of historical figures without the use of a historical lens. It is a problem so blaringly obvious to me that I am ill equipped to explain it to those who fail to see it, akin to trying to explain to Donald Trump supporters why a hypocritical, intellectually inconsistent, and bombastic real estate heir is a poor choice for the role of leader of the free world.

Reading The Movement’s list of 83 demands, one can comprehend a dozen or so progressive standards (isms) to which historical figures could be improperly held, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, cisgenderism, elitism, and colonialism (I never fulfilled my diversity course requirement, so I’m probably missing a few). Elihu Root obviously falls flat when viewed under any number of these lenses.

But what about someone like Alexander Hamilton?  He was an ardent abolitionist and a man of the most modest of roots, but he was also the original “Wall Street insider” and an ardent nationalist. Frederick Douglass famously told Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Antony that women should wait their turn for the vote. The great Mahatma Gandhi was both anti-black and anti-semitic.  Even Martin Luther King was a homophobic man of his time, and both Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama believed in a “traditional definition of marriage” when they took their respective oaths of office.

The simple fact of the matter is this: history judges people harshly enough even when applying the social and philosophical norms of their own time. The advantage of hindsight in historical assessment is a powerful force in and of itself.

The Movement’s aims and standards are controversial and divisive even on an ultraliberal campus like Hamilton College. To hold a man like Elihu Root, who lived and died nearly a century ago, to a set of standards we cannot agree upon in the present day is folly.

I stand in ardent support of full civil rights via legal and constitutional means for all Americans regardless of race, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation, but I am utterly unwilling to strike men from the historical record for failing to live up to standards that did not then exist. It’s as simple as that.