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Wilson's Legacy Reconsidered

In celebration of our 50th anniversary, the Wilson Center convened distinguished experts and prominent Center alumni to explore the relevance of President Woodrow Wilson’s international and domestic record for today.

Date & Time

Oct. 9, 2018
1:45pm – 4:30pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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In celebration of our 50th anniversary, the Wilson Center convened distinguished experts and prominent Center alumni to explore the relevance of President Woodrow Wilson’s international and domestic record for today.

To what extent is the 28th president’s vision for world order still applicable in the face of the profound shifts that the international system is undergoing at present? Are there lessons to be learned from his domestic policy accomplishments and failures?

Selected Quotes

Panel 1

Baroness Catherine Ashton

“[Democracy] is not a process that is a straight line. It is a process that is very complicated and difficult, and it’s the cherry on the icing on the cake when you finally get to the point of an election. And so one of the challenges, I think, for those of us promoting democracy as the best way of organizing society to the benefit of people, is to get people to understand what it means.”

"The purpose of elections is to throw governments out. That's what it's for. It’s not necessarily to vote them in, because often, when you vote, you’re not quite sure what you’re going to get.”

Mitchell Reiss

"There’s a crisis of confidence in the world order more than there really is any fundamental change to the world order… It reminds me of what financial analysts say about company stock valuations: there may be some underlying volatility, but the fundamentals are sound.” "We, collectively, as a nation, led by people here in Washington, decided to make an accommodation to certain countries during the Cold War. And then, after the Cold War, we decided to make an accommodation to China because we bet on their integration… Here we are, 10, 15 years further on, and the bet doesn't look like it's going to pay off for us." 

Trygve Throntveit

"Wilson was not an advocate of self-determination. He was not an advocate of everyone in the world getting their own polity. He was an advocate of deliberative structures of governance." 

"I think the United States is an extended argument against the principle of ethnic self-determination, and that was the history and the culture that informed Wilson's thinking. He was a civic nationalist." 

Panel 2

Kathryn Lavelle

“I think what we forget about the women’s suffrage movement were the contradictions in the movement... I think we forget how violent, the violent elements that were present in the women’s movement at the time, and the schisms in the movement.”  “Those contradictions and the kinds of problems that came about in the Wilson administration are the kinds of problems we see up until the last week in American politics.” 

David Wessel

“Some of the tensions in society that resulted in [Wilson’s economic] legislation are with us today. So, the whole incredible, long debate over creating the Federal Reserve… reappears in 2008 and is with us today. That notion of how important it is that society control credit, that the democracy has some constraints on the bankers, is very much a current issue.”  “If Wilson was a prejudiced person, which he was, I think particularly across the color line, [he was] not so, I think, among whites. Not only did he appoint Brandeis, the first Jew to the U.S. Supreme Court, he appointed the first Jew to the New Jersey Supreme Court. As president of Princeton University, he appointed the first Jew to the faculty. At least on this side of the color line, [Wilson] was not so bad on that.”   

Eric Yellin

“If we look at a list of accomplishments for Wilson and Wilson’s administration, they get more interesting when we think of them as also failures in certain ways – ways that present problems and tensions and conflicts for us today…[For example,] the Versailles Treaty is an affirmation of white global leadership. It ends the war, but it certainly doesn’t end imperialism or colonialism.” “What brings Wilson around to women’s suffrage is reassurance from his daughters that women will still be women even as they are voters, which gives you a sense of the limits of Wilson’s imagination for what it means to be a civic participant. He was honestly worried, I think, that politics was a dirty game and that women would be dirty... He gets convinced that women should be part of the electorate, but not on terms that would be recognized today as progressive.” 

Devin Fergus

“When the [Wilson] administration goes about segregating federal employees, federal offices, they said one of the main reasons is, ‘We don’t want black supervisors over white clerks.’ So there is a great anxiety, particularly in this window of time when you have economic concentration and a sense of class precarity, you have to address that in many ways by rolling back the access of other populations… By targeting and addressing public employment of African Americans, you’re targeting and addressing their primary vehicle for upward mobility.” “It’s not simply what happens during the Wilson administration, but what also happens at the state level, what also happens in subsequent administrations, whether it’s Harding, whether it’s Coolidge. Coolidge sees that you don’t have to address African Americans, so what does he do? He takes a silent role on the Dyer Bill [on] anti-lynching because he sees that you don’t have to appeal to or address this population.”


Agenda1:45- 3:00PM  Will the World Order Wilson Envisioned Survive? The Right Honourable Baroness Catherine Ashton, Global Europe Program, Wilson Center Mitchell Reiss, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Trygve Throntveit, University of Minnesota Moderator: Robert S. Litwak, Wilson Center3:15-4:30PM   Revisiting Wilson's Domestic Record Kathryn Lavelle, Case Western Reserve University  David Wessel, The Brookings Institution Eric Yellin, University of Richmond Devin Fergus, University of Missouri Moderator: John Milton Cooper, University of Wisconsin

Hosted By

History and Public Policy Program

The History and Public Policy Program makes public the primary source record of 20th and 21st century international history from repositories around the world, facilitates scholarship based on those records, and uses these materials to provide context for classroom, public, and policy debates on global affairs.  Read more

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