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Renaming and Retroactive Shaming

By Mark H. Alcott
Mark H. Alcott ’61 graduated from Harvard Law School in 1964.

The question of whether and how to honor flawed historical figures deserves rational and temperate debate. It should not be decided by the insistence of the loudest voices.

Bravo to those who advocate removal of Confederate statues and repellent symbols of racism from the public square. But once we go beyond this, the issue is often more nuanced.

For some figures of old, the matter is easy to resolve. Joseph Stalin was a monster; Jefferson Davis, slavery’s great enabler, has no redeeming value; Joseph McCarthy was a vile demagogue who destroyed reputations and lives.

Likewise, Mussolini “made the trains run on time” (supposedly), but he was a fascist tyrant and war criminal. Philippe Pétain saved France with his great defense of Verdun in World War I but betrayed and dishonored France by embracing the occupying Nazis and abetting the Holocaust in World War II.

Statues honoring any of them are an abomination.

But how should we deal with those whose legacy is mixed? Thomas Jefferson’s support for slavery is unforgivable, but doesn’t he deserve to be honored because he is a seminal figure in the formation of democracy in America and worldwide? Richard Wagner was an outspoken anti-Semite (and a great inspiration to Adolf Hitler), but the Israel Philharmonic has resumed performing his masterpieces. Woodrow Wilson was a racist, but he appointed the first Jewish faculty member to Princeton University, and later the first Jewish member to the Supreme Court.

Other complex historical issues present equally complicated challenges. Lyndon Johnson’s monumental achievements in civil rights and healthcare reverberate to this day, but so does his catastrophic war policy in Vietnam. Should we boycott his important museum in Austin? “God Bless America” is a patriotic triumph that many think should become our national anthem. Should it be banned from public performances, as some have successfully advocated, because Kate Smith, whose recording popularized the song, also made racially offensive recordings?

And what of those whose names have taken on secondary meanings? Cecil Rhodes was a strong force for British imperialism that subjugated millions in the third world. Should we therefore force the proud and distinguished recipients of Rhodes Scholarships to renounce their awards? Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, widely used by the military; it was the first weapon of mass destruction. Should we abolish the Nobel Prizes that he created from the profits of that invention? The Ford Foundation was funded through the fortune of notorious anti-Semite Henry Ford, but it does extraordinary work that benefits humanity. Should we force it to change its name and thereby eradicate its worldwide reputation and relationships?

This is the context in which we must examine Harvard’s current brouhaha about Mather House. Researchers have recently focused on Increase Mather, a 17th century Harvard president, member of the Class of 1656, namesake of Mather House, and a slaveholder. Because of the latter fact, students have launched an effort to divest the House of the Mather name.

Yet while Harvard’s residential Houses are among the jewels of the College and an important part of the undergraduate experience, few people care about their namesakes, former Harvard presidents and benefactors whose lives are shrouded in the mists of time. When I attended Harvard — admittedly ages ago — we were completely oblivious of Increase Mather, much less of his life story. The same was true 25 years later when my daughter attended Harvard and was a resident of Mather House. I suspect the same was true until relatively recently. It is difficult to imagine that anyone was really pained by Mather’s 350-year-old transgressions before they were recently discovered. The contrast with the deeply offensive mall of statues honoring Confederate generals in Richmond, Va. could not be more stark.

The Mather House controversy, then, raises the question of whether it really makes sense to engage in prodigious historical research looking for the sins of those who are so obscure that no one previously knew or cared about them.

Let’s not trivialize what should be a sober case-by-case review of important issues. Let’s not establish retroactive purity tests that few can withstand. Let’s not replicate, for historic figures, the blacklists of 1952 or the witch hunts of 1692.

Princeton got it right when it recently decided to divest the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs of its name. I’m not sure I agree with the decision, but the process — a careful review by a balanced group over a long period of time — was spot on.

We — especially the most educated among us — must examine our past with a clear eye and an open mind, and not engage in pandering or succumb to hysteria.

Mark H. Alcott ’61 graduated from Harvard Law School in 1964.

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