A civic issue has entered upon a venue of my past, so the issue has a context that is not simply one of abstract opinion but resonates with actual experience. The civic issue is: What is the socially correct policy for public buildings, areas or artifacts that are named after an historic personage with an association to a behavior, belief or set of values that by today’s standards would be intolerable or illegal? It’s an issue because there isn’t a consensus on what the policy is or should be.
This isn’t a new societal issue, objecting to what something is named after has been around before and I have every expectation that it will be around again. It turns out that my high-school (Washington & Lee) is embroiled in the controversy over having a public facility named after individuals who had owned or supported slavery. This puts my high-school in the cross-hairs of the issue for both the Founding Fathers era (G. Washington) and the Confederacy (R. E. Lee); both were slave owners.
So, there is an effort to rename the school because its namesakes were slaveholders. This of course is the core of the issue given there are those who support renaming and those who do not. What makes matters quite difficult is that there really isn’t a correct answer. Neither side can prove their position, they can only present their reasoning and opinions. While I am sure their positions are known to be ‘right’ to themselves, this is not a scientific or mathematical right; it is a right set in their own viewpoints. In these circumstances the question that must be confronted is what the basis for each sides’ principles, values and judgements is? Comparing where ‘they’ versus ‘us’ are coming from may provide some insight into what might logically follows from either.
A central aspect of the issue is a consideration of what constitutes whether historic individuals should be judged or assessed by today’s standards or by the ‘Standards of Their Times’. To make this determination, we also must interject the question of who gets to decide today’s standards. While slavery is hopefully a settled societal violation, not all factors are necessarily as clearly agreed to and decided as a value, let alone as a legal imperative.
How does the Standards of Their Times versus today’s weigh in whether the individual is a person who can be respected or honored for the totality of their lives? Since in the case of my high-school there are two individuals from two different eras in which they lived, we have a three-way case to examine. This perspective may clarify if this is an ‘all or none’ issue or if there are at least several different degrees or levels to the question. This same perspective can be extended to additional time-periods if there is any sense that just within these three even one salient point is meaningfully different.
We might as well strike straight at the question: Do the Standards of someone’s own time not matter in how we judge them by our own Standards of today? As with the nature of the original issue, there is no absolute and indisputably correct answer; there is only an answer that has some compelling justification to people’s values who live today. Oddly that doesn’t mean that today’s Standards set the bar.
Let’s use a current Standard (and legal precedent) that you can’t be prosecuted for violation of a law that was legislated and enacted after the fact. Now vile and inhumane as we view slavery today, this wasn’t the case in the Standards of Their Times. There certainly were mixed attitudes and opinions on slavery in both eras; but it wasn’t settled in either, in fact it had major consequences in both. It would seem inconsistent with one of our values that people have the right to views and actions that are not illegal. We can condemn the views from our privileged position of today, but is that the same as condemning the people themselves for how society was in their time?
Now you may accept that we should not condemn, but that doesn’t mean that we should honor them?
Again, we can look at the three different eras for context and comparison. What justifies whether an individual can be honored by today’s society? The current proposition of renaming the high-school is that G. Washington and R. E. Lee are not deserving of being honor (because they were slaveholders). It seems odd to consider that George Washington wouldn’t have a decent claim for being a figure that we should remember and admire, even despite the fact that he was a slaveholder. He wasn’t alone among our Founding Fathers to be a slaveholder nor was he a diehard advocate for slavery. He struggled with slavery as an institution but only had his slaves freed after his and his wife’s death. Note: his wife freed their slaves before her death. By the Standards of his times, he failed to make it to our Standards but he moved the issue forward if ever so slightly. Washington isn’t honored because he was a slaveholder. He isn’t honored because he advocated for its preservation. He’s honored for other actions and values. We can view him as a flawed individual (by today’s Standards) and he would probably agree with that. So, if he deserves some recognition for those attributes and accomplishments then what Standard of today would we cite for denying him that honor? Do we apply the same denial to Jefferson, Franklin, and other founders who in their time acted against a Standard we set beyond their graves?
Robert E. Lee, in a different era that still permitted slavery during most of his life, represents a very different case. He inherited his slaveholder status from his wife’s father and apparently didn’t question the situation other than acting as the executor and was charged with settling the estate including the slaves. He then returned to his military career. Before the Civil War, Lee was as well-respected and promising officer. When the South seceded from the Union, he chose siding with his home state over the nation though he purportedly ‘desired’ the preservation of the nation. In his era, state/regional affiliations were much more important than that are today. And even today regional identity is salient factor in people’s attitudes. He soon took charge of the Confederacy’s main army and was quite successful in most of his battles against larger Union forces. By the time of his surrender to Grant, Lee commanded all Union forces. His surrender ended the war.
After the war, Lee sought reconciliation of the North and South; but equality of the races was not known to be a view he ascribed to. What then is Lee being honored for that coincides with values and principles that we would consider consistent with not just our time but also his own? It certainly wasn’t upholding slavery which even in his own time was doubtful as being presented as a virtue or social value. He was a notable American military officer and subsequently a successful Confederate general. His ties, loyalty and allegiance to Virginia is perhaps understandable for the times but was it a virtue in the context of his oath to serve and protect the nation? Had he and others not been paroled by Grant at Lincoln’s instruction, it is likely that Lee would have been charged with treason. Even by the Standards of his times, it’s not clear why from an American perspective Lee would be honored as an American icon; and as an icon of the Confederacy what is being honored? He may not deserve to be reviled by the Standards of his day but defining what exceptional qualities and values he possessed that we would extoll isn’t obvious. Perhaps the most benefit that would come from preserving his name for the school would be having to explicitly explain to its current and future students that he was a major figure in the nation’s and Virginia’s history on the wrong side of the slavery issue and who deserted the Union when it might have benefited most from his talents. Lee’s significance may be that he was an exceptional man for his times, sadly a product of those times, and a tragic and flawed person who can be a lesson for the future by remembering the errors of our past.
Now our history with slavery is a big issue in American. It has affected that history from before we were a nation. I raise this point because the Standards of those times: Pre-America, Revolutionary America, Civil War American, and today are more complex than we think that hard about. As despicable as slavery is it existed in several forms. This is not intended to diminish the extent or heinous aspect of the slavery imposed upon the Afro-Americans but to provide some context for what was common in the treatment of other people at the time. Native Americans were also enslaved during these periods. America was also a location for the British to “transport” penal colonists, even though American colonies tried to have it stopped. These convicts were sentenced to seven or fourteen years of labor after which they could ‘return’ to Britain. There was also a class of people who were ‘indentured servants’. Indentured servitude was essentially a contract binding the person to service for a period of time (4 to 7 years) in return for passage, room, and board. The indentured servant worked for the individual holding the contract.
What can one learn about the attitudes of the American societies that existed during these times? One thing is clear, the treatment of other human beings was not even remotely anti-enslavement or for that matter viewed all people as even worthy of being inherently free, let alone as an equal. Judging the past from the present is an exercise in misdirection, it neither changes that history nor demonstrates that we are learning from it. Again, there is no ‘right’ answer; although there is maybe a ‘good’ question: What is the proper way to recognize the good and the bad facets of our historic personages?
If there’s truth to the idea that “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”, it would be advantageous for our society to present our history honestly and accurately. This would include not whitewashing or omitting aspects of individuals that we do not admire or accept as values and standards of our society. Realistically we should know from the start that no historic figure is or was perfect even for their own times, that our own standards are not faithfully adhered to, and that our national standards and values will evolve with society itself.
What then to do about the name: Washington-Lee High School? It’s simple. Define the rules and reasons that determine what disqualifies a person’s name from being used. This would include specifying the scope and nature of what the rules apply to. I suppose it’s not all that simple after all. Consider which of the following would be included in the defining the rules:
- · What are the Standards that establish a reason to justify a name change?
o Slavery: a slaveholder, slave trader, family member of slaveholder, member of Confederacy, person/entity employing an enslaved individual, …
o Slavery of: any person, Afro-American, Native American, Oriental American, …
o Indentured servant: contract holder, paid for use of servant, …
o Robber Baron: capitalist who used exploitive business practices
o Avowed racist
o Drug trafficker
o Other offenses
- · What items would be subject to the rules?
o public areas
o city names
o state’s name
o name of nation’s capital
o private buildings
o Art work
o other thing?
- · Who gets to decide?
o Local government
o State government
o Federal government
o A filed complaint against a specific item
o Alumni (or individual who has a relationship with the item under consideration)
- · How is the process administered?
The name of my high school isn’t particularly important to me. It’s just a place and in the scope of its import it has little weight to me. I recognize however that it is more meaningful to others. So, I find myself once again with a ‘there is no right answer’ attitude. So, if you want to change the name, I think you must make the case for the larger society and get their agreement. Define why it should change and establish a general process to be applied not just to this one case but as a universal principle. Personally, I would recommend that we agree to identify the current social value that the named individual did not possess.