This morning someone found out I am a historian and it took about 2 minutes for the conversation to go off the rails. I was informed that Woodrow Wilson was a “man of his time” and can’t be judged by today’s standards. I was also informed that people agitating to rename buildings are “erasing history.”
I didn’t bring up any of this, I promise! Who knew that people are so invested in the memory of Woodrow Wilson?
I can hold my tongue. It wasn’t the time or place to try to add nuance to this person’s views. It obviously didn’t occur to him that I, as a historian, might have some considered thoughts about these matters. But I’ll speak up here. Before you say, “He was a man of his time” (and it’s almost always a he, isn’t it?) here are some questions to ask yourself:
How well do I know the “time” of which I speak? How do I know what it was actually like?
Who disagreed with this “man of his time”? Why did they disagree?
What was the range of views on the subject at the time?
What ideas and choices were available to this individual that he chose to reject?
Why did other similarly situated people make different choices at the time?
It is ahistorical, and arguably unjust, to judge people of the past by standards they could not possibly conceive of. But when we actually become acquainted with past eras, we tend to find that people were well aware of alternatives, but chose to reject them.
Woodrow Wilson didn’t segregate the federal government because he was a man of his time. He did it because he didn’t agree with those who thought black people should be on an equal footing in the American polity. His actions were criticized. He rejected the criticism. It’s perverse to honor the people who were on the wrong side of a consequential debate at the time. When we put a new name on the building we’re not getting up on a high horse claiming to be better than people in the past. We’re honoring the people who got it right at the time.
The “man of his time” argument is most often used in the context of debates about monuments and memorialization. This is odd because it’s in this context that the argument so obviously falls flat. The idea is that these guys were normal human beings, with faults like we all have, so we shouldn’t judge them too harshly. Ok, fine, let’s treat them like other normal people! Am I going to get my name on a building for being a replacement level human? Or should we reserve those places of honor for people who actually did really courageous and commendable things?
It is not hard to understand the difference between honoring and remembering. When you get a street named after you, it’s an honor. When you’re in a museum, you’re being remembered, but it might not be an honor. Sorry folks, Wilson is better museum material than street material.