The Great Renaming Craze of 2015


David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism and media studies at Rutgers, is a contributing editor to Politico Magazine. His most recent book is Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency, and he tweets at @republicofspin.

In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke at the dedication of the Jefferson Memorial at the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. Jefferson was one of Roosevelt’s heroes, and FDR took the occasion to praise his predecessor in extravagant terms. He also commented on the vicissitudes of historical reputation. “Our generation of Americans can understand much in Jefferson’s life which intervening generations could not see as well as we,” he declared. Speaking as American GIs were fighting fascism to defend the basic ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, FDR continued: “He faced the fact that men who will not fight for liberty can lose it. We, too, have faced that fact. He lived in a world in which freedom of conscience and freedom of mind were battles still to be fought through—not principles already accepted of all men. We, too, have lived in such a world.”

A lot has changed since 1943. Today, many Americans are more likely to shrug at Jefferson’s liberalism than revere it. And FDR’s worshipful invocation of it will strike some people as blinkered. What about the interned Japanese-Americans, or the Jews turned away on the passenger ship St. Louis? We, too, like to think that our generation can see Jefferson in ways that intervening generations couldn’t—but for us, it’s his slaveholding and long relationship with his slave mistress, Sally Hemings, whose importance we are able to recognize.

Changing perspectives on Jefferson—and on scores of other historical figures and events—have in the past year prompted what we might call the Nomenclature Wars: a rash of efforts to topple statues, erase historical symbols, wipe names from buildings and institutions, and otherwise cleanse our heritage sites of any traces of our troubled past. In a few short months we’ve ricocheted from an overdue reckoning with the symbols of the Confederate South, through weird diversions like expunging William McKinley’s name from the Alaskan peak it had graced for a century, to a wanton and sometimes uninformed impulse to consign great but flawed men like Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson to history’s hall of shame. We’re not yet with the French Jacobins, who remade their entire calendar in the hopes of reshaping human nature, but it can feel as if we’re moving in that direction.

Should Jackson or Alexander Hamilton be removed from the currency to make room for Harriet Tubman? Should Democratic dinners still be named for the party’s founding figures, Jefferson and Jackson? Should we rename the streets of New Orleans or the buildings of the Ivy League? The common thread in this year’s Nomenclature Wars has been a desire to highlight America’s shameful history of racial exclusion. That goal is among the worthiest that we can have in our public discourse, since we won’t be able to realize racial equality without an understanding of its deep roots in our culture, society and politics. But there’s a danger, too, that these campaigns will enshrine race as the sole criterion for judging our forbears—and will peremptorily end the conversation there. That may make sense for figures who matter mainly for upholding slavery or segregation, like Jefferson Davis or George Wallace. But with people whose achievement encompasses infinitely more, it’s short-sighted. Participants in these debates would do well to realize not only that a thorough study of history thwarts easy judgments about heroism or villainy, but also that the political passions of the current day typically prove to be a fickle guide to rendering lasting verdicts about the past. 

When we undertake changes in our shared civic culture—whose pictures are on our currency, which flags top our legislatures, whose visages look down on us from the halls of our public buildings—we should do so with an eye toward the ages. We want our decisions to stand the test of time. We want to make sure that they won’t be subject to partisan whims, to the comings and goings of a Democratic or Republican Congress, or to social media-driven enthusiasms.

That means realizing, as FDR did, how much our own views of these figures are shaped by the exigencies and even the passing fads of our own time. We’re quite good at detecting the biases and limitations of our predecessors, but we remain oblivious to our own. (In another 70 years, it probably won’t be Jefferson’s views on race that loom largest in his legacy, but something else—something we can’t see or predict.) Renaming should be done not in a burst of iconoclastic zeal but in a spirit of humility and awe. Otherwise these names will cease to carry the dignity and weight of judgment etched in marble. Instead they’ll resemble the ephemeral, tossed-off opinions of a Snapchat message, dissolving into the ether after the fervor of the moment fades. ...

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