What’s in a name
The urge to name people, places and things is one of the oldest human impulses that goes back to the Garden of Eden and is certainly as old as Alexander the great’s decision to give the city he founded his own name – or rather almost founded – in the Nile Delta in 331 BC The Americans also got into the naming process very early on. The Massachusetts Bay Colony named their college in 1636 after their benefactor John Harvard. Connecticut Colony College was also named after Elihu Yale. Dartmouth College in New Hampshire was named after the Earl of Dartmouth and Virginia’s after King William and Queen Mary. Cities in Pennsylvania were named after politicians who particularly admired the colonists, such as John Wilkes and Isaac Barré (hence the modern city of Wilkes-Barre); My hometown was named Paoli in honor of the Corsican freedom fighter of the 1750s, Pasquale di Paoli, who is immortalized in James Boswell’s life by Samuel Johnson. The first permanent European settlement took the name of King James I; hence Jamestown.
The Jamestown colonists did not consult materially (if any) with the local Powhatan tribes in their area during this naming process, or inquire whether this sullen son of Mary, Queen of Scots, was exceedingly worthy of such an honor – and thus laid the seed for controversy that we now reap when we put names on institutions.
Because not all names are associated with persons of constant admiration. The American Revolution forced the renaming of King’s College in New York City to Columbia. The massive fortress at the tip of the James River Peninsula was named Fortress Monroe in honor of the fifth president. A smaller fortress in the middle of the river was called Fort Calhoun, but with the outbreak of Civil War, Calhoun’s name was too radioactive for the Union’s taste and was renamed Ft. Wool, for Union General John Wool. As early as the First World War, attempts were made to rename sauerkraut as “Liberty Cabbage” and a hamburger as “Liberty Steak”. (The same was attempted recently during the Iraq war when France refused to join the “Coalition of the Willing” and some agitators called for French fries to be renamed “Freedom Fries”).
However, none of the energies bestowed on these names and renaming has reconciled concern for the past year and a half with multi-generational institutional names, and almost always due to some form of cultural insensitivity or political offense. Sometimes the renaming was an exercise in a good sense. John Calhoun’s name was appended to a residential college at Yale in 1931, regardless of how Calhoun was the inspiration for the southern secession that sparked the Civil War, or for Calhoun’s blatant views of white supremacists on race and slavery, but only because Calhoun is famous was a Yale alumnus. The name was changed in 2017 to honor Grace Murray Hopper, a pioneering computer scientist, and Yale is the better one for that.
But other renaming campaigns have bordered on the risk. Nobody seems to stand above a renaming campaign than Abraham Lincoln, the “Great Emancipator” and “Savior of the Union”. Yet Lincoln was also the target of renaming initiatives and much less well thought out. The San Francisco Unified School District moved earlier this year to rename 44 of the schools in the district, including those named after Abraham Lincoln, because “the majority of [Lincoln’s] The policy proved to be detrimental to the Native Americans, “both in terms of encouraging settler development in the American West and, in particular, in terms of approving the execution of 37 Santee Sioux after the Minnesota Sioux uprising in 1862. Not even Lincoln’s Declaration of Emancipation escaped criticism. As the district renaming committee chairman announced, “like the presidents before and after him, Lincoln showed, through neither politics nor rhetoric, that black lives ever mattered to them outside of human capital and as victims of wealth creation.”
While this campaign has failed, at least in part, the conclusion is astounding, and so unfounded that it is not Lincoln but the renames that are being questioned. None less than Frederick Douglass, the famous black abolitionist, declared in 1865 that Lincoln was “emphatically the black man’s president,” and Douglass described Lincoln as the first important white political figure he had ever met who did not “tell me of the difference.” remembered “in color.” And no wonder: It is the name of Abraham Lincoln that appears at the end of the Declaration of Emancipation of January 1, 1863 and the 13th Amendment to the Abolition of Slavery in the US It is Lincoln who is recruiting black Authorized soldiers for the union army and sent them into battle to kill and conquer a white supremacist regime … it is Lincoln who was murdered by John Wilkes Booth because Booth believed Lincoln was the freed slave would propose equal citizenship. Finally caught in a wave of national ridicule and an alumni lawsuit, the district authority overturned the renaming campaign in early April.
And other renaming campaigns are happily running along the same path. At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the Black Student Union and the Student Inclusion Coalition campaigned for a Lincoln statue to be removed because “it is a one-handed symbol of white supremacy.” Or, as one student added, “Everyone thinks of Lincoln as the great, you know, freer of slaves, but let’s face it, he owned slaves and … we want people to know that he ordered the execution of local men Has.” That Lincoln never had slaves is an easily ascertainable fact. Lincoln never lived in a slave state after leaving Kentucky at the age of seven. He made his first public statement on slavery at the age of 28 as the Illinois state legislature, denouncing slavery as “founded on injustice and bad politics” and reminding the state governor in 1864: “I am inherently against them Slavery. If slavery isn’t wrong, nothing is wrong. I can’t remember when I didn’t think and feel like this. In relation to the “Execution of Local Men” order, Lincoln actually approved the execution of the 37 Santee Sioux who were hanged on December 26, 1862 in Mankato, Minnesota. However, this followed a Sioux uprising in Minnesota in the summer and fall of 1862, and after the rebellion was suppressed, trials that sentenced 303 Sioux to the gallows. Lincoln intervened, ordered “a careful review of the records of the trials,” and apologized to all but 35 guilty of outright murder and two convicted of rape. The “villainy” of the government agents that sparked the uprising was felt “to the boot” by Lincoln. When warned that his pardons would cost him votes in Minnesota, he replied, “I couldn’t afford to hang men for votes.”
We can regret the anger at the rejection that the spirits of the awakened have possessed without having to insist that rejections are not legitimate.
As the Calhoun College example shows, not all renaming are ill-informed impulses, as some commentators have criticized. On the contrary, the case of Calhoun College is a laudable act of careful and deliberate rethinking. So what should we take as our guides when we take a conscious and thoughtful path to turn a blind eye to historical injustices and simply give in to the convulsions of iconoclasm? Let me suggest a decision tree that I developed with my former student John M. Rudy and that we have offered elsewhere to help understand what to do with statues and monuments.
1. Does the designation remind you of a person who caused harm to a person who is now alive who would be suable in federal court? If so, remove the name. If not, move on to the next question.
2. Has that person directed the commission of treason, capital crimes, slavery, genocide, or terrorism (as defined by the International Court of Justice) to their personal authority? If so, remove the name. if not, next question.
3. Has the individual taken certain actions that have alleviated or reduced the historical damage? But only after asking this question with this caveat: write these attenuations on a plaque or other public installation and make it clear.
4. Did the person have a specific association or legacy (or brand) built into the institution they are named after? If not, remove the name. If so, carefully consider whether it deserves a label and move on to the next question.
5. Does the use of the name induce or induce the institution to serve as an active place in promoting treason, capital crimes, slavery, genocide or terrorism? If there is a demonstrable pattern for such an action, consider changing the name. If not, leave the designation as it is, but with an appropriate explanation explaining why such acts were not approved by the designated institution or should not be associated with the person for whom it is named.
The truth is in the details, and the details will be chaotic. For example, a slave owner would not necessarily be a reason for a “renunciation”, but an active promotion of enslavement. George Washington and John Marshall owned slaves but did not order enslavement (although Washington pursued the reconquest), did not advocate slavery, nor did they proclaim that slavery was a positive good for which a race was uniquely suited. Roger Taney, on the other hand, actually emancipated the slaves he originally owned, but actively promoted enslavement; John Calhoun announced that it was a positive good. Edward Coles, who was originally a slave owner (and Thomas Jefferson’s secretary), renounced slave ownership and emancipated his slaves when he moved with them to the Illinois Territory; Therefore, there should be no call to rename Coles County, Illinois.
We can regret the anger at the rejection that the spirits of the awakened have possessed without having to insist that rejections are not legitimate. The Hungarians who overthrew the Stalin state in Budapest, the Iraqis who tore down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, and even the New Yorkers who destroyed the statue of George III on Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan in 1776 were not wrong. Our account would limit these types of cancellations to those who have harmed people now living.
We stand on the shoulders of great Americans, but also on the bones of forgotten Americans of all races and nationalities. This guide will not automatically solve all questions or end all debates, but it will allow us to discuss the real historical questions, not the emotional and political ones, in a sober and focused manner in a world where the retouching of the past is much less common is more important than writing a better gift.