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What Is in a Name?

The urge to apply names to persons, things and places is one of the earliest of human impulses, dating back to the Garden of Eden, and certainly as old as Alexander the Great’s choice to apply his own name to the city he set –or nearly established –in the Nile River delta in 331 BC. Americans took to the naming process, and very ancient. Even the Massachusetts Bay colony called its college in 1636 for the benefactor, John Harvard; the Connecticut colony faculty was likewise called for Elihu Yale; New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College was named to the Earl of Dartmouth, and Virginia’s for King William and Queen Mary. Towns in Pennsylvania were known for politicians the colonists especially admired, including John Wilkes and Isaac Barré (therefore the contemporary city of Wilkes-Barre); his own hometown was appointed Paoli in honour of the Corsican freedom fighter of the 1750s, Pasquale di Paoli, who’s born in James Boswell’s life of Samuel Johnson. Even the very first permanent European settlement adopted for itself the name of King James I; hence, Jamestown.
The Jamestown colonists didn’t, significantly, consult with the regional Powhatan tribes all around them during this naming process (if there actually was a process at all) or inquire whether that dour son of Mary, Queen of Scots, was worthy of such honour –and consequently sowed the seed of controversies we are currently reaping over affixing titles to associations.
Because not all namings are linked to individuals of permanent regard. The gigantic fortification built at the suggestion of the James River peninsula was called Fortress Monroe in honour of the fifth president; a more compact fortification in mid-stream was appointed Fort Calhoun, however with the outbreak of the Civil War,” Calhoun’s name was too radioactive for Union tastes, and it was renamed Ft. Wool, for Union General John Wool.
None of the energies depended on these namings and re-namings has, however, rather matched the issue over the past year-and-a-half with various generations-worth of systemic namings, and nearly always on the basis of some form of ethnic insensitivity or political offense. On occasion the re-namings have been an exercise in simple good feeling. John Calhoun’s name was connected to some Yale residential college in 1931 with very little regard for how Calhoun provided the inspiration for the Southern secession that led to the Civil War, or for Calhoun’s undisguised white supremacist views on slavery and race, but only because Calhoun was a famous alumnus of Yale.
However, other re-naming campaigns have bordered on the risible. And Lincoln, too, has become the target of re-naming initiatives, also not as well-thought-out, too. Even the San Francisco Unified School District moved, earlier this year, to rename 44 of the schools in the district, including the one called for Abraham Lincoln, also did so because”the majority of [Lincoln’s] policies proved detrimental to Native peoples,” both with respect to encouraging settler growth of the American West, and more especially in his acceptance of the implementation of 37 Santee Sioux after the Minnesota Sioux uprising of 1862. Not even Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation escaped censure. As the chair of this District’s renaming committee announced,”Lincoln, such as the presidents before him most after, didn’t reveal through rhetoric or policy that shameful lives ever mattered to them out of human capital and as casualties of prosperity building.”
Although this campaign at least partly failed, this really is an astonishing end, so baseless that it calls into question, not Lincoln, however the re-namers. No one greater than Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist, declared in 1865 that Lincoln was”emphatically the black guy’s president” and Douglass explained Lincoln as the earliest important white political figure he had ever met that didn’t”remind me of this difference in colour.” And no wonder: it is the name of Abraham Lincoln which appears at the bottom of the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, and on the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery in the U.S….it is Lincoln who authorized the recruitment of black soldiers to the union Army and delivered them into battle to kill and conquer a white supremacist regime…it is Lincoln who was murdered by John Wilkes Booth because Booth was convinced the Lincoln was likely to propose equal citizenship to the freed slaves. At length, the District board buckled to a wave of federal derision and an alumni lawsuit, also rescinded the re-naming campaign in early April.
And other re-naming campaigns operate merrily along precisely the same track. In the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the Black Student Union and the Student Inclusion Coalition have agitated for the removal of a Lincoln statue because”it’s a single-handed symbol of white supremacy.” Or, as one student added,”Everyone thinks of Lincoln because the great, you know, lots of slaves, but let’s be true: He owned slaves, and…we need people to know he ordered the implementation of indigenous men.” This Lincoln never owned slaves is now an easily ascertainable fact. Lincoln never lived in a slave condition after leaving Kentucky at age seven, left his first public announcement on slavery at age 28 as an Illinois state legislator by denouncing slavery as”founded on both injustice and bad policy,” and in 1864 educated a state governor that”I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing isn’t right. I can’t remember when I didn’t think, and feel.”  As for ordering”the implementation of indigenous men,” Lincoln indeed authorized the implementation of this 37 Santee Sioux who had been chased on December 26, 1862, at Mankato, Minnesota. However, that followed a Sioux uprising in Minnesota in the summer and autumn in 1862 and, after the uprising’s suppression, trials which condemned 303 Sioux to the gallows. Lincoln intervened, ordering”a careful examination of the records of the trials” and issuing pardons to all 35 that had been guilty of murder and two convicted of rape.  “The rascality” on the part of authorities agents which had triggered the uprising was sensed by Lincoln”down to my boots.” When he was warned that his pardons would put him votes in Minnesota, he replied,”that I couldn’t afford to hang men for votes.”
We could deplore the anger for cancellation that’s owned the spirits of this woke without having to insist that no cancellations are legitimate.As the illustration of Calhoun College demonstrates, not all re-namings are ill-informed impulses, as some commentators have whined; the case of Calhoun College isalso to the opposite, a laudable action of attentive and mindful re-thinking. Thus, what should we take as our aids in walking a purposeful and thoughtful route between turning blind eyes to historical injustices, and just yielding to spasms of iconoclasm? Allow me to propose a decision-tree, which I developed with my former student, John M. Rudy, and we have elsewhere provided as an aid to understanding what to do concerning statues and monuments.
1. Does the naming commemorate an individual who inflicted harms on a now-living man who will be actionable in a court? If so, remove the name; if not, move to another question.
2. Did that individual direct the commission of treason, capital crimes, slavery, genocide, or offenses (according to the International Court of Justice) on his own personal authority? If so, remove the name; if not, next question.
3. Did the individual undertake certain functions that mitigated, or led to the mitigation, of the historical harms done? But just, after this question, with this caveat: Itemize these mitigations to a snow or other people setup, and take action clearly.
4. Did the individual have a particular link to the institution or a legacy (or manufacturer ) integral to this institution where it is named? If not, remove the name. If that’s the case, think about if it worth a naming, then go to the next question.
5. Does use of this name mandate or induce the institution to serve as a lively venue for promoting treason, capital crimes, slavery, genocide, or even terrorism? When there is a demonstrable pattern of these action, think about altering the name; if not, let the naming remain but with suitable excuse highlighting why such actions do not have the sanction of the named association, or shouldn’t be connected with the individual for whom it is named.
The fact will be in the details, and the details will be messy. For example, being a slaveholder wouldn’t necessarily be reasons for a”naming cancellation” but rather actively boosting enslavement. George Washington and John Marshall owned slaves, but didn’t dictate enslavement (although Washington failed chase recaption), didn’t propagandize for slavery, nor mention that slavery was a good good for which one race was uniquely satisfied. Roger Taney, on the other hand, really emancipated the slaves that he initially owned, but actively promoted enslavement; John Calhoun recognized it was a positive good. Edward Coles, that was initially a slaveholder (and Thomas Jefferson’s secretary), renounced slave-owning and emancipated his slaves once he transferred, with them, to the Illinois Territory; therefore, there should not be a call for re-naming Coles County, Illinois. 
We could deplore the anger for cancellation that’s owned the spirits of this woke without having to insist that no cancellations are legitimate. The Hungarians who uttered the nation of Stalin in Budapest, the Iraqis who pulled 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 Weren’t incorrect. Our account could limit those kinds of cancellations to people who had levied injuries on now-living persons.
This guide will not automatically address all questions or end all discussions, but it is going to enable us to talk about the real historical topics, not the psychological and political types, in a sober and led manner, in a universe where retouching yesteryear is of much less value than writing a much better gift.