It's hard not to chuckle when I’m in downtown Manhattan and stroll past City Hall, behind which is a building named after one of New York City’s most notorious citizens: William Marcy Tweed.
Boss Tweed – whose name is synonymous with theft, who was jailed for his crimes only to escape – is still honored with his name on a building. A building that houses the city’s Department of Education, no less!
This all came to mind when I read that protesters at Princeton University are blasting the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, a former U.S. president who also served as president of Princeton.
“The protesters’ top goal – convincing the university to rename the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the residential complex known as Wilson College – has drawn heavy fire from traditionalists,” a New York Times editorial noted, before adding: “But the fact that racist policies enacted during Wilson’s presidency are still felt in the country today makes it imperative that the university’s board of trustees not be bound by the forces of the status quo.”
This whole business of viewing 20th century people with 21st century eyes is a tough one. But if Wilson is under attack, then Irish Americans may also want to pile on – especially with the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising next year.
Indeed, Wilson’s years in the White House bear striking parallels to many of the issues we are debating today. It was a time of global war. It was also a time when native born Americans wanted to slam the door shut.
Why? Because it was also a time when immigrants were accused of disloyalty because their sympathies often lay with America’s enemies.
The Irish were at the center of this debate. Much to the chagrin of Woodrow Wilson.
By 1916, hopes for Irish freedom from Britain were running high. The bloody world war the Brits were waging with Germany was seen as an opportunity by Irish Nationalists in America such as John Devoy. They were not shy about reminding folks that the enemy (Germany) of their enemy (Britain) could be a friend, indeed.
Wilson, though, was not only thoroughly pro-British, he also had a deep disdain for what he derisively called “hyphenated Americans.” The Irish, as well as German-Americans, were particularly favorite targets of Wilson.
A “hyphenated American is not an American at all,” Wilson told a Catholic Knights of Columbus audience in 1915. “The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin…would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities…There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.”
Well, that’s roughly what Wilson thought about Irish Nationalists plotting the Easter Rebellion from America.
Federal agents under Wilson spied on Irish groups and regularly raided offices and interrogated high profile Nationalists.
Wilson’s “Secret Service agents…informed reporters that they had uncovered a secret Irish-German plot against the U.S.,” Terry Golway writes in his excellent biography of John Devoy.
“Numerous Irish American newspapers were shuttered and banned from the U.S. mail by the Wilson administration. Other Irish Nationalists were arrested or questioned about their ties to Germany or other so-called radical organizations.”
All the while, guns and explosives were indeed flowing from Germany to Dublin, in preparation for the Rising, all thanks, in part, to Irish American coordination from New York.
Radical immigrants. War. Traitors, terrorism and treachery.
It all makes you wonder: When Donald Trump promises to make America “great again,” do you think this is the peaceful and harmonious past he has in mind?
Probably not. The fact is, we survived that harrowing time as a great nation. And we will survive all of the forthcoming fear-mongering of the 2016 presidential race.
But if you’re planning to raise a pint to celebrate the Easter Rising next year, you may also want to raise a fist in solidarity with the students at Princeton who want to expose the ugly legacy of Woodrow Wilson.* Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.