The “Nomenclature Wars” of 2015

Wilson School

Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs, Princeton University

In case you missed it, check out Rutgers historian David Greenberg‘s essay at Politico: “The Great Renaming Craze of 2015.”  (HT: Kevin Levin on Twitter).  This is the best think I have read so far on the various controversies surrounding the removal of monuments to historical figures who were racist.  Greenberg’s take on Woodrow Wilson is on the mark.

You should read the entire article, but here is just a small taste:

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.