Damnatio Memoriae

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tags: Princeton, racism, Woodrow Wilson



Claire McCaffery Griffin is an independent consultant with over 40 years of experience in history and civic education.  Claire taught secondary school history and government for 28 years; served as Vice President of Education Programs for a civic education non-profit; and currently writes curricula, develops outreach initiatives, and promotes the goals of history and civic education for government agencies and non-profit organizations. 

Related Link Whose Memory? Whose Monuments? History, Commemoration, and the Struggle for an Ethical Past By James Grossman

While on a summer Fulbright for teachers in China in 2001, I visited the Beijing home of Soong Ching-Ling.  The displays included a photographic history of this influential woman married to the founder of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-Sen.  The photo narrative began with her youth, continued through 1964, and resumed in 1980.  Ooops—what happened to those intervening years?  Oh, yes, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, when the Four “Olds”--old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas--were purged from the collective Chinese consciousness.  Clearly, a fifth “old” was expunged:  old memories.  Based upon the exhibit, Soong Ching-Ling ceased to exist for over 10 years.  Madame Sun-Yat Sen’s republican past was an “inconvenient truth” for the Communist leadership, so they simply erased it.


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1967, Beijing. Artist Unknown
Destroy the Old World; Establish the New World 
Image Courtesy of The Huntington Archive 

This erasure of the past was a twentieth-century version of damnatio memoriae, the Roman tradition of destroying or defacing the coins, arches, and documents containing the names of discredited rulers so as to preserve the honor of the city.  Sadly, such attempts to deconstruct or destroy the historical record because of “inconvenient truths” have existed throughout history.

During the fifteenth century BCE, the Egyptian ruler, Amenhotep, defaced many memorials to Hatshepsut, the first female pharaoh, in an effort to obscure her accomplishments and elevate his status.  In the twenty-first century, Princeton University is considering removing the name of Woodrow Wilson from campus buildings and institutions because of his “racist legacy.”  Yes, this is the man who segregated the federal government and who chose D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as the first movie to ever be screened at the White House.  But this is also the man who wrote an insightful treatise about constitutional government, who called upon the nation to support the Allied Powers in World War I, and whose progressive views about the role of government in the lives of citizens presaged the programs of the New Deal and the Great Society.  Should Princeton not commemorate those accomplishments?  Expressing some reservations about the renaming option, Nell Painter, Professor Emerita of History at Princeton, said, “Let him damn himself.”  Exactly—except when (or if) his record shows otherwise.

A recent headline for an article about a similar controversy reads, “Schools Take On History.”  I’d much prefer a headline which reads “Schools Teach History.”  As educators, we must encourage our students to explore, understand, and commemorate all manner of individuals:  the good, the bad, and the ugly-- all in their yeasty, messy and contradictory complexity; in other words, in their complete humanity.  No human being has ever been completely perfect; none has been completely and totally deplorable.  Every individual is a creature of her time, place, and circumstance.  If we don’t help our students to understand and to acknowledge this dynamic reality, we run the risk of rewriting history to suit our contemporary sensibilities.  We fail to help them develop what James Livingston, Professor of History at Rutgers University, referred to in the December 4, 2015 Chronicle Review as the need for a “humility of retrospect.”  

Such humility when facing the past requires acknowledging all of the past.  In 1940, Joseph Stalin executed his former associate, Nikolai Yezhov, and saw to it that Yezhov’s image was erased from any photograph with Stalin.   In 2015, Georgetown University announced plans to rename two buildings commemorating Jesuit priests who organized the sale of slaves to help pay off campus debt in the 1830s.  Does changing the names of Mulledy Hall and McSherry Hall to “Freedom Hall” and “Remembrance Hall” erase the Jesuits’ complicity in the institution of slavery?  Of course it doesn’t.  Does changing the name help to erase the history (a historical truth which makes us all feel uncomfortable) of both the individuals as well as the institution?  Of course, it does.  And that is the problem.

In his dystopian novel, 1984, George Orwell created the concept of a memory hole:  a mechanism for the alteration or disappearance of inconvenient or embarrassing truths.  The University of Maryland plans to rename Byrd Stadium because the former university president, Harry C. Byrd, was an avowed segregationist.  Yet he tripled the school’s enrollment, increased the budget by 600%, and built 60 new buildings.  These accomplishments—not his embarrassing segregationist views—are his long-lasting legacy, and he might well be commemorated for them.  Instead, his name goes down the memory hole.

Current efforts in Ohio, Kansas, Massachusetts, and Virginia to rename high schools commemorating Civil War generals or to reject the Confederate battle flag as a school mascot are similar excursions down that memory hole.  Such historical deconstructionism condemns certain memories of the past, removes opportunities for conversations about that past, and privileges “feeling comfortable” above “knowing the truth.”

Our historical record is a hall of mirrors of memory and meaning; an accretion of insight, understanding, remembrance, and narrative.  We may not wish to celebrate certain individuals from the past but we can still commemorate (i.e., remember) their lives and their impact—for good or bad—on their times and on ours.  Previous generations did want to celebrate some of these people—and we do a disservice to their memory and to our historical consciousness by attempting to erase the monuments and buildings they created.  We dishonor the past twice:  first by obliterating the distant past and then by eliminating the memories of the more recent past.  And while we spend time and effort reconstructing the past, we run the risk of ignoring contemporary issues and planning for future challenges.

We must remember the past so we don’t repeat it; we must respect the past so we don’t forget it; we must commemorate the past—all of it—so we don’t repress it.  The poet Shelley provides a fitting image of decrepit despotism for our thoughtful contemplation:   “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:  Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”  Despair?  Perhaps.  Rejoice?  Maybe.  Contemplate?  Always.  Destroy?  Never.


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Feet from Statue of Ramses II
Image Courtesy of Jacob Metcalf 




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