What’s in a Name?

The desire to use names to individuals, places and things is among the earliest of human instincts, dating back to the Garden of Eden, and certainly as old as Alexander the Great’s decision to employ his own name to the city he set –or almost founded–in the Nile River delta in 331 BC. Americans took into the pruning process, and quite early. Towns in Pennsylvania were appointed for politicians that the colonists specially admired, such as John Wilkes and Isaac Barré (thus the modern town of Wilkes-Barre); his very own 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 of Samuel Johnson. The very first permanent European settlement adopted for itself the name of King James I; therefore, Jamestown.

The Jamestown colonists did not, substantially, consult with the native Powhatan tribes around them within this naming process (if there really was a process at all) or inquire whether this dour son of Mary, Queen of Scots, has been eminently worthy of such honor–and consequently sowed the seed of controversies we’re currently reaping over affixing names to institutions.

Because not all of namings are linked to people of permanent regard. The huge fortification constructed at the suggestion of the James River peninsula was named Fortress Monroe in honor of their fifth president; a more compact fortification in mid-stream was termed Fort Calhoun, however with the outbreak of the Civil War, Calhoun’s name was too ironic for Union preferences, and it was renamed Ft. Wool, for Union General John Wool. Even in the First World War, there has been an effort to re-name sauerkraut as”Liberty Cabbage,” along with also a hamburger as a”Liberty Steak.”

None of the energies bestowed on these namings and re-namings has, however, quite matched the concern during the past year-and-a-half with different generations-worth of systemic namings, and almost always on the grounds of some type of cultural insensitivity or political crime. On occasion the re-namings have been an exercise in plain good sense. John Calhoun’s name has been attached to some Yale residential school in 1931 with very little regard for how Calhoun provided the inspiration for its Southern secession that caused the Civil War, or even for Calhoun’s undisguised white supremacist perspectives on slavery and race, but only because Calhoun was a famous alumnus of Yale. The name has been altered in 2017 to honor Grace Murray Hopper, a pioneering computer scientist, rather, and Yale is the better for it.

But other re-naming campaigns have bordered to the risible. Nobody would seem to stand greater over a campaign for re-naming compared to Abraham Lincoln, the”Great Emancipator” and”Savior of the Union.” And yet Lincoln, too, has become the goal of re-naming initiatives, and much less well-thought-out, too. The San Francisco Unified School District proceeded, before this year, to rename 44 of the schools in the district, including the one named for Abraham Lincoln, and did so because”the majority of [Lincoln’s] policies demonstrated detrimental to Native peoples,” both in terms of encouraging settler development of the American West, and more specifically in his acceptance of the implementation of 37 Santee Sioux after the Minnesota Sioux uprising of 1862. As the seat of this District’s renaming committee declared,”Lincoln, like the presidents before him and most after, failed to show through policy or rhetoric that black lives mattered to them outside of individual capital and as casualties of wealth building.”

While this campaign at least partly collapsed, this really is an astonishing end, and so baseless that it calls to consideration, not Lincoln, however the re-namers. No one greater than Frederick Douglass, the most famed black abolitionist, announced in 1865 which Lincoln was”emphatically the black guy’s president” and Douglass described Lincoln as the primary significant white political figure he had ever met who did not”remind me about this difference in color.” At period, the District board slipped to a wave of federal derision and also an alumni suit, and rescinded the re-naming campaign in early April.

And yet other re-naming campaigns run merrily along exactly the identical track. At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the Black Student Union and the Student Inclusion Coalition have agitated for the elimination of a Lincoln statue because”it is a single-handed sign of white supremacy.” Or, as one student added,”Everybody thinks of Lincoln as 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 native men.” That Lincoln never owned slaves is also an easily ascertainable fact. Lincoln never lived in a slave nation after departing Kentucky at the age of 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 country governor that”I’m naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not recall when I did not so think, and believe .”  In terms of ordering”the implementation of native men,” Lincoln indeed authorized the implementation of their 37 Santee Sioux who had been chased on December 26, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota. But this followed a Sioux uprising in Minnesota during the summer and fall in 1862 and, after the uprising’s suppression, trials which condemned 303 Sioux to the gallows. Lincoln intervened, ordering”a careful evaluation of the records of the trials” and issuing pardons to all but 35 who had been guilty of blatant murder along with two convicted of rape.  “The rascality” to the part of authorities agents which had triggered the uprising was sensed by Lincoln”down for my boots.” When he was warned that his pardons would cost him votes in Minnesota, he replied,”I could not afford to hang men for votes.”

We could deplore the anger for cancellation which has possessed the spirits of this woke without needing to insist that no cancellations are legitimate.As the example of Calhoun College shows, not all of re-namings are ill-informed instincts, as some commentators have whined; the event of Calhoun College isalso to the contrary, a laudable act of cautious and mindful re-thinking. So, what if we choose as our aids in walking a purposeful and thoughtful route between turning blind eyes to historic injustices, and just yielding to spasms of iconoclasm? Allow me to suggest a decision-tree, which I developed with my former pupil, John M. Rudy, and that we have elsewhere provided as a help to knowing what to do concerning statues and monuments.

1. Does the naming commemorate an individual who inflicted harms on a now-living man that could be actionable in a national court? If this is so, remove the name; if not, then proceed to the next query.

2. Did that individual steer the commission of treason, funding crimes, slavery, genocide, or even terrorism (as defined by the International Court of Justice) on his own personal authority? If this is so, remove the name; if not, next question.

3. Can the individual undertake certain actions that mitigated, or led to the mitigation, of the historic harms done? But just, after this query, with this caveat: Itemize those mitigations to a plaque or other people setup, and do it obviously.

4. Did the individual have a specific connection to the establishment or a heritage (or manufacturer ) integral to this establishment where it is named? Otherwise, remove the name. If this is the case, think hard about if it merits a naming, then go to the next query.

5. Use this name mandate or induce the establishment to serve as an active place for encouraging treason, capital crimes, slavery, genocide, or terrorism? When there is a demonstrable pattern of these action, consider changing the name; should not, let the naming stay but with suitable explanation highlighting why these activities don’t have the sanction of the named institution, or shouldn’t be associated with the individual for whom it is named.

The fact will be in the details, and the details are going to be cluttered. For instance, being a slaveholder wouldn’t necessarily be reasons for a”naming cancellation” but rather actively promoting enslavement. George Washington and John Marshall possessed slaves, but did not order enslavement (although Washington did pursue recaption), did not propagandize for slavery, nor mention that slavery was a positive good for which race has been uniquely suited. Roger Taney, on the flip side, actually emancipated the slaves that he initially possessed, but actively promoted enslavement; John Calhoun proclaimed it was a positive good. Edward Coles, who was initially a slaveholder (along with Thomas Jefferson’s secretary), renounced slave-owning and emancipated his brothers once he moved, together , to the Illinois Territory; hence, there shouldn’t be any call for re-naming Coles County, Illinois. 

We could deplore the anger for cancellation that’s possessed the spirits of this woke without needing to insist that no cancellations are valid. Our accounts could limit those sorts of cancellations to those who had levied injuries on now-living individuals.

We stand on the shoulders of great Americans, but also in the bones of forgotten ones, and of all races and nationalities. This manual will not automatically address all questions or finish all debates, but it will permit us to go over the genuine historic issues, not the emotional and political ones, in a sober and directed fashion, in a universe where retouching the past is of less value than writing a better gift.