What’s in a Title?

The impulse to employ names to persons, things and places is among the earliest of human instincts, dating back into the Garden of Eden, and certainly as old as Alexander the Great’s choice to employ his own name into the city he founded–or nearly founded–from the Nile River delta in 331 BC. Americans took to the naming process, and very ancient. Towns in Pennsylvania were named for politicians the colonists especially admired, for example John Wilkes and Isaac Barré (hence the modern city of Wilkes-Barre); my own hometown was appointed Paoli in honour of their Corsican independence fighter of the 1750s, Pasquale di Paoli, who is immortalized in James Boswell’s life of Samuel Johnson. Even the first permanent European settlement adopted for itself the name of King James I; therefore, Jamestown.
The Jamestown colonists didn’t, substantially, consult with the native Powhatan tribes all around them in this naming process (if there actually was a process at all) or ask whether that dour son of Mary, Queen of Scots, has been eminently worthy of such honour –and thus sowed the seed of controversies we’re currently reaping over affixing titles to associations.
Because not all namings are linked to individuals of permanent respect. The American Revolution pushed the re-naming of King’s College in New York City as Columbia. The large fortification built at the tip of the James River peninsula was called Fortress Monroe in honour of their fifth president; a more compact fortification in mid-stream was called Fort Calhoun, but with the outbreak of the Civil War, Calhoun’s name was too ironic for Union preferences, and it was renamed Ft. Wool, for Union General John Wool. In the First World War, there has been an effort to re-name sauerkraut as”Liberty Cabbage,” along with also a hamburger as a”Liberty Steak.”
None of the energies depended on these namings and re-namings has, nevertheless, rather matched the issue during the past year-and-a-half with several generations-worth of institutional namings, and nearly always on the basis of some kind of ethnic insensitivity or political crime. On occasion the re-namings have been an exercise in straightforward good sense. John Calhoun’s name has been connected to a Yale residential school in 1931 with little regard for how Calhoun provided the inspiration for the Southern secession that led to the Civil War, or for Calhoun’s undisguised white supremacist perspectives on race and slavery, but only because Calhoun turned into a famous alumnus of Yale.
But other re-naming efforts have bordered to the risible. Nobody would appear to stand higher over a effort for re-naming than Abraham Lincoln, the”Great Emancipator” and”Savior of the Union.” And yet Lincoln, also, has been the goal of re-naming initiatives, also much less well-thought-out, also. Even the San Francisco Unified School District moved, before this season , to rename 44 of those schools in the district, including the one called for Abraham Lincoln, also did so because”the majority of [Lincoln’s] policies proved destructive to Native peoples,” both with respect to encouraging settler growth of the American West, and more especially in his approval of the execution of 37 Santee Sioux following the Minnesota Sioux uprising of 1862. As the seat of the District’s renaming poll declared,”Lincoln, like the presidents before him and most after, did not show through rhetoric or policy that black lives mattered to them outside of individual capital and as casualties of prosperity construction.”
While this effort at least partly collapsed, this is an astonishing conclusion, and so baseless that it calls to consideration, not Lincoln, but the re-namers. No one less than Frederick Douglass, the famed black abolitionist, announced in 1865 which Lincoln was”emphatically the black guy’s president,” and Douglass explained Lincoln as the initial important white political figure he had ever met that didn’t”remind me about the difference in colour.” And no wonder: it’s the name of Abraham Lincoln which appears in the base of the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, and on the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery in the U.S….it is Lincoln who authorized the recruitment of black soldiers for the union Army and delivered them to battle to kill and conquer a white supremacist regime…it’s Lincoln who was killed by John Wilkes Booth because Booth was convinced the Lincoln was likely to suggest equal citizenship for the freed slaves. At length, the District board slipped into a wave of nationwide derision and also an alumni suit, also rescinded the re-naming effort in early April.
And yet other re-naming campaigns run merrily along exactly the identical track. Or, as one student added,”Everybody thinks of Lincoln as the good, you know, lots of slaves, but let’s be true: He owned slaves, and…we want people to know he ordered the execution of native men.” This Lincoln never owned slaves is still now an easily ascertainable fact. If slavery isn’t wrong, nothing isn’t right. I can’t recall when I didn’t so think, and believe .”  As for ordering”the execution of native men,” Lincoln indeed authorized the execution of the 37 Santee Sioux who had been chased on December 26, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota. But that followed a Sioux uprising in Minnesota in the summer and fall of 1862 and, following the uprising’s suppression, trials which condemned 303 Sioux into the gallows. Lincoln intervened, ordering”a careful examination of the documents of these trials” and issuing pardons to all 35 that had been guilty of murder along with 2 convicted of rape.  “The rascality” to the part of authorities representatives which had triggered the uprising was felt by Lincoln”down to my boots.” When he was warned that his pardons would put him votes in Minnesota, he responded,”I could not afford to hang men for votes.”
We can deplore the anger for cancellation that has owned the spirits of the woke without needing to insist that no cancellations are legitimate.As the example of Calhoun College demonstrates, not all re-namings are ill-informed instincts, as many commentators have whined; the case of Calhoun College is, to the contrary, a laudable act of careful and conscious re-thinking. So, what if we take as our aids in walking a purposeful and thoughtful path between turning blind eyes to historical injustices, and just yielding to spasms of iconoclasm? Let me suggest a decision-tree, which I developed with my former pupil, John M. Rudy, and which we have elsewhere offered as a help to understanding what to do about statues and monuments.
1. Does the naming commemorate an person who inflicted harms on a now-living person that could be actionable in a federal court? If so, remove the name; if not, then move into another query.
2. Did that person steer the commission of treason, funds offenses, slavery, genocide, or terrorism (according to the International Court of Justice) on his personal authority? If so, remove the name; or even, next query.
3. Can the person undertake certain functions that totaled, or contributed to the reduction, of these historical harms done? But only, after this query, with this caveat: Itemize those mitigations on a plaque or other public installation, and do it clearly.
4. Did the person have a particular connection to the institution or a legacy (or manufacturer ) integral to the institution where it’s named? If not, remove the name. If this is that’s the case, think about if it worth a naming, then go to the next query.
5. Does use of the name mandate or cause the institution to serve as an active place for encouraging treason, capital offenses, slavery, genocide, or terrorism? When there’s a demonstrable pattern of the actions, consider changing the name; should not, let the naming remain but with appropriate explanation emphasizing why such activities don’t have the sanction of the named association, or shouldn’t be associated with the person for whom it’s named.
The fact is in the details, and the facts will be messy. For instance, being a slaveholder wouldn’t necessarily be reasons for a”naming cancellation” but rather actively promoting enslavement. George Washington and John Marshall owned slaves, but didn’t dictate enslavement (though Washington did chase recaption), didn’t propagandize for slavery, nor mention that slavery was a good good for which one race has been uniquely satisfied. Roger Taney, on the flip side, really emancipated the slaves he originally owned, but actively promoted enslavement; John Calhoun proclaimed it was a positive good. Edward Coles, that was originally a slaveholder (along with Thomas Jefferson’s secretary), renounced slave-owning and emancipated his slaves once he transferred, together , to the Illinois Territory; hence, there should be no demand for re-naming Coles County, Illinois. 
We can deplore the anger for cancellation that has owned the spirits of the woke without needing to insist that no cancellations are valid. The Hungarians who toppled the nation of Stalin in Budapest, the Iraqis who pulled down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, and even the New Yorkers who destroyed the statue of George III on Bowling Green in lower Manhattan in 1776 were not incorrect. Our accounts could limit those kinds of cancellations to those who had inflicted harms on now-living persons.
This guide won’t automatically fix all questions or finish all debates, but it will allow us to talk about the real historical topics, not the emotional and political ones, in a sober and led manner, in a universe where retouching yesteryear is of much less value than composing a better present.