Cape Cod Times column, December 18, 2015
By Brian R. Merrick
During the Cold War Americans mocked the Soviet Union’s creation of “non-persons”- prominent political or military persons who disappeared, not just from the Kremlin wall at the May Day Parade, but also from the newspapers and even the next edition of the history books.
We seem to be treading that path as some academics and journalists seek to erase references honoring major historical figures because their views on race did not conform to our much more evolved modern understanding.
John C. Calhoun, Yale class of 1804, ardent nationalist at the beginning of the War of 1812, U.S. Senator from South Carolina, Vice President and participant in the great Senate debates on states rights, but a southerner and defender of slavery, is one of 8 distinguished Yale alumni for whom its residential colleges are named. A move is afoot at Yale to change the name of Calhoun College because of his pro-slavery views.
Woodrow Wilson, faculty member and President of Princeton University, went on to become Governor of New Jersey, President of the United States during World War I and a founder of American internationalism by his advocacy of the League of Nations. Princeton honored him in 1930 by creating the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Wilson was born in ante-bellum Virginia, raised in the Confederacy and had decidedly segregationist views all his life, as did nearly all southern politicians through most of the 20th Century. Some students and faculty at Princeton want the Wilson name removed from the school because of his racial views.
On the local level some people in Boston want to rename “Yawkey Way” adjacent to Fenway Park, named for the South Carolina plantation owner, Thomas A. Yawkey, former owner of the Red Sox, because his reported racist views made the Boston Red Sox the last team in the major leagues to integrate its players. Yawkey was honored for his philanthropy supporting the Jimmy Fund and funding the Yawkey Foundation.
Even the fictional Atticus Finch, hero to generations of lawyers in “To Kill A Mockingbird,” has been excoriated when revealed in a “Go Set A Watchman,” written earlier but describing the same man 20 years older, to be a racist, facing a mortal threat from the Supreme Court and the NAACP to his well ordered segregationist world.
Some biblical heroes practiced polygamy. St. Thomas More burned heretics at the stake. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave owners. Abraham Lincoln was prepared to countenance slavery to save the Union. Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans for no reason but their race during World War II.
Historical figures must be judged as men in their own time and place. It is a loss to history to hold them to the values and standards of the 21st century. They should not be Photoshopped out of our knowledge of history or their achievements diminished by their views on race, however benighted and shameful we now know them to be.
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Can Al Sharpton be far behind?
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In his case it seems the revisionist have applied the “white out” only to his past indiscretions.
You have demonstrated well a principle understood and believed by every historian ever. As civilizations and societies advance and mores change, courage and intelligence can be judged only as they were exhibited under the circumstances and ethos of their time. (It occurs to me that the analogy works well also with sports. Are we to dismiss the effort and achievements of past olympians and sorts heros as their records are surpassed with modern scientific advances in nutrition and training. Now that wealthy amateurs climb Everest with organized tours, are we to diminish the achievements of Hillary?)
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. stated well, “It is required of a man that he share the action and passion of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived”. That fundamental principle was explained and espoused by every history teacher I ever had beginning with the nuns in grammar school through the serous scholars in college. It would seem that caveat is no longer given in our schools.
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By “Hillary” I assume you mean the man after whom Mrs. Clinton used to claim to be named, until it was pointed out that the feat which would have brought him to her parents’ attention did not occur until some years after his birth.
I agree with your conclusion. Political correctness is driving this issue and it is time for us all to stand, be heard, and condemn this foolishness. However, Thomas Paine hit it right on when he said “To argue with a person who had renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead” . These politically correct people fit his description .
Bravo, Brian. I’ve been waiting for someone to express this point of view. I am a citizen who believes our history, warts and all, should be protected and preserved, told truthfully, and told in the context of the its day. I don’t want our men and women to disappear nor do I want symbols, like flags, to be destroyed. Our history is rich with people, text, and visual symbols, which must be preserved in order to maintain our unique identity.
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Thanks, Lucy. I couldn’t agree more.
I must apologize for only just reading this. It’s a home run! Is it also published elsewhere?
Yes, Laurie. The piece includes a link to the Cape Cod Times published version. Thanks for reading.