The Princeton trustees’ decision to emphasize sensitivity to diversity while retaining the name of Woodrow Wilson 1879 on both the School of Public and International Affairs and one of the University’s residential colleges strikes some as a Solomonic decision, and others as an incomprehensible contradiction. Perhaps Wilson’s treatment of another contemporary American minority provides telling comparisons and contrasts with his general mistreatment of African Americans during his presidential administrations.  

While Wilson is well known for his progressive appointment of the first Jewish justice to the Supreme Court, in the words of PAW columnist Gregg Lange ’70 about the “not chosen people” at Princeton, Wilson “as president of Princeton [was] firmly on both sides of the discriminatory fence.” “Profoundly racist toward blacks,” Lange held, Wilson’s “desire for a for more intellectually rigorous University involved ... hiring Princeton’s first Jewish professor, Howard Meyer Kallen, in English in 1903” (Lange, 2016).  

Horace M. Kallen

Princeton President Wilson’s appointment of the first Jewish faculty member occurred shortly after Princeton became a University. As Deborah Yaffe wrote in PAW (Feb. 3, 2016), “The University enrolled many Southerners, and although Wilson appointed Princeton’s first Catholic and Jewish faculty members, he showed no interest in challenging entrenched racial prejudices." Wilson appointed a Harvard-educated philosopher, Horace M. Kallen (1882-1974), to the faculty in 1903 for a two-year term. Kallen’s was not a happy sojourn, ending just before the first “preceptor guys” arrived at Princeton. He soon returned to Harvard for a Ph.D., and later went on to the New School for a distinguished career. 

Wilson biographer A. Scott Berg ’71 briefly portrays the highs and lows of Kallen trajectory: “In 1903, Wilson had hired the first Jew to teach at Princeton, Harvard graduate Horace Meyer Kallen, an instructor in English. His two-year contract was not renewed, leaving him to embark upon a stellar career in philosophy and social reform elsewhere” (Berg, 158). To what extent Wilson was involved in either hiring or letting go of Kallen, as well as whether any other Jewish faculty were hired in his administration, are unknowns. 

Milton Konvitz fills out some of the subtleties of the story in The Legacy of Horace M. Kallen. “After graduating from Harvard, Kallen took a position at Princeton as an instructor in English. He remained there for two years (1903-05); his contract was not renewed. It is intimated that had the administration known he was a Jew, he would not have been appointed in the first place. It was also suggested that he was undesirable because he taught atheism. When he discussed this incident in his old age, Kallen rhetorically asked how one could teach Shelley without talking about atheism.” His family felt his appointment was not extended because of his religion. 

The New York Times’ obituary for the philosopher in February 1974 sums up succinctly his passages: “A former assistant to George Santayana, picked disciple of William James, colleague of Charles A. Beard,” Kallen “was dismissed from the Princeton faculty in 1905, for being an avowed unbeliever.” He later had to resign from the University of Wisconsin as an “advocate of rights of pacifists” during World War II, and “found shelter in the broad tolerance of the New School at it's founding in 1919.”

Kallen is best known for the theory of “cultural pluralism,” a precursor approach to diversity and multiculturalism that the trustees now advocate enriching. He went beyond the melting-pot theory of American assimilation by praising the part each unique ethnicity played in developing American society.  

His most widely recognized work, Culture and Democracy in the United States, became a classic in the field. There the philosopher expressed his political vision of America as a “democracy of nationalities, cooperating voluntarily and autonomously through common institutions in the enterprise of self-realization through the perfection of men according to their kind (Kallen 1924, 123).” 

Kallen concluded that America continually revitalized itself not by forcing everyone to emulate Anglo-Saxon norms, but by allowing each person to draw on the familiarity with his ethnic group while respecting the tenets of democratic politics. He called this evolving relationship between American democracy and ethnic identity “cultural pluralism” (Toll, 1997). This approach to diversity is an appropriate precursor to a source for the modern debates about Wilson’s legacy.

Louis D. Brandeis

Better known is U.S. President Wilson’s appointment of Louis D. Brandeis as the first Jewish Supreme Court justice in 1916, a case of Wilson's persistence in support of a valued colleague. Coming from a notable family in antebellum Louisville, Ky., Brandeis (1882-1974) gained initial note for his famous co-authored article on “The Right to Privacy,” introducing “the right to be let alone” in the Harvard Law Review in 1890. That pioneering work prefigured his famous dissent in the 1928 Olmstead wiretapping case about privacy as the “right most valued by civilized men.” As Justice Brandeis reminded us, government large and small can “secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness,” in people's “spiritual nature ... feelings, and ... intellect.” “Only a part of the ... pleasure and satisfactions of life,” he averred, “are to be found in material things.” As both secular Jews, Brandeis and Kallen  would later work together as  supporters of American Zionist organizations. Unlike his cursory treatment of Kallen’s sojourn, Wilson persisted in helping Brandeis succeed. 

Brandeis also was known as the famed “people’s lawyer” of the “Brandeis brief,” a legal document supported more by social-science analysis and statistical data than legal citations. His first such brief (O’Brien, 2005, 72) in Muller v. Oregon (208 US 412) in 1908 help persuade the Supreme Court to sidestep the infamous 1905 Lockner “liberty of contract” decision permitting unlimited hours for bakery workers. Because Brandeis’ brief showed the reasonableness of the legislation across a range of countries in protecting against the detrimental effects of overlong workdays, the court approved limiting the number of hours for women workers in the pre-suffrage United States. 

Less well known is that the Supreme Court was Wilson’s third choice for a position for Brandeis. He chose the financier – described by Berg as “the chief architect” of the “New Freedom” industrial policy protecting “the less favored 99 percent of his countrymen” – to be his secretary of Commerce. But that choice was scuttled by fierce and anti-Semitic opposition to Brandeis as a “radical” and “meddler” in the investment climate from his antitrust strategy of developing competition to prevent the monopoly scourge of “trusts,” along with opposition from some Jewish financiers.

Befitting his legal talents, Brandeis was also Wilson’s choice for attorney general. But recognizing that even great opposition would block that position for Brandeis, the president looked elsewhere.  

Finally, Wilson nominated Brandeis as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. Becoming a justice was no easy task. Brandeis was the first nominee to request a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, a practice until recently observed ritually, and unlikely to be seen again during the Obama administration.  The hearings were contentious, as many figures from the losing side of cases that Brandeis had prosecuted opposed his nomination.  

Harvard President Charles Elliott, Harvard Law professor and future Justice  Felix Frankfurter, and journalist Walter Lippmann supported Brandeis’ nomination.  Prefiguring the comments more recently heard about another famed litigator  John Roberts, now turned Supreme Court jurist, former Chief Justice Melville Fuller called Brandeis “the ablest man who ever appeared before the Supreme Court” (Berg, 2013, 401). The four-month confirmation process “was as brutal as any the court … had ever seen – a ‘low-tech lynching,’ ” Berg wrote, though Brandeis was ultimately confirmed 47-22.   

Yet his brilliant Supreme Court tenure was often marred by the anti-Semitism of Wilson’s first high court appointee, James C. McReynolds, who refused to listen to Brandeis in conference or appear in the court photo with him (402). When Brandeis retired in 1939, he was replaced by Benjamin Cardozo, in a sense the first Hispanic justice as a Sephardic Jew. Wilson’s persistence in elevating Brandeis to the highest court demonstrated bias in favor of a prominent minority leader of their day.

Currently, three Jewish justices (with a fourth nominated) and four Catholic justices (with one member recently lost) sit on the Supreme Court. Perhaps this represents earlier cultural pluralism, with wider diversity still a work in progress.   

Varied Contradictions

Also little known is the positive side of a contradiction in Wilson’s public actions: In the face of rampant popular prejudice and congressional refusal to pass an anti-lynching law, Southerner Woodrow Wilson spoke out vigorously against lynching during World War I in the summer of 1918. Not only did the Democratic president “issue a strong [public] statement condemning lynching ... the first time a president had gone on record doing as much” Berg wrote. But Wilson also “intervened in two Democratic primaries for the U.S. Senate” in Mississippi and South Carolina against two candidates for their overt support of lynching, which helped to defeat both, Ethan Michaeli wrote. The “legendary Black newspaper,” The Chicago Defender, “asserted that the once-reviled president now deserves African-Americans’ support,” Michaeli recounted. 

Wilson’s treatment of Kallen was poor, of Brandeis exemplary. As another “WW,” Walt Whitman, famously observed, “Do I contradict myself, Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” All four manifestations – Wilson’s indifference to Kallen, his consistent support of Brandeis, his outspoken opposition to lynching, and the Princeton trustees’ decision for diversity and tradition – embody the partial resolving of complicated contradictions in ways consonant and dissonant with the nature of universities and public affairs.   

Richard Sobel ’71 is a visiting scholar at the Buffett Institute at Northwestern and an associate of the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard.  His forthcoming book, Citizenship as Foundation of Rights (Cambridge, 2016) was a basis for serving on a Reunion's panel on "Immigration Policy: What is Driving Decisions?." His genealogical research indicates that Horace Kallen may be a distant relative. 


A. Scott Berg, Wilson, 2013, 158, 400

Horace Kallen, Culture and Democracy in the United States: Studies in the Group Psychology of the American Peoples, 1924 

Morton Konvitz, "Horace Meyer Kallen: In Praise of Orchestration and Hyphenation," in The Legacy of Horace Kallen, Associated University Presses, 1987, 17

Gregg Lange ’70, “Rally ’Round the Cannon: The Not Chosen People, Part I,” PAW Online, March 29, 2016

Ethan Michaeli, The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, Houghton Mifflin, 2016

David O’Brien, Constitutional Law and Politics, Norton, 2005. 72, 97

YDS: The Claire Spark Blog, “Assimilation and Citizenship in a Democratic Republic,” Nov. 14, 2010.

William Toll, “Horace M. Kallen: Pluralism and American Jewish Identity,” American Jewish History, Volume 85, Number 1, March 1997
pp. 57-74 | 10.1353/ajh.1997.0007