George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. No less a figure than Abraham Lincoln said: “I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together on the footing of perfect equality.” Woodrow Wilson was a staunch segregationist. All of them held the highest office in a nation that denied women the right to vote until 1920 and denied gays and lesbians the right to marry until 2015. Should we, as a country, still be honoring these men today?
That’s the question that we’ve grappled with, anew, since Saturday’s tragic events in Charlottesville and President Trump’s subsequent response, but it’s not a new one. Two years ago, students at Princeton University, where I teach, occupied the college president’s office to demand that the name of Wilson — our most famous alumnus and a former Princeton president — be removed from our school of public policy and international relations and an undergraduate housing complex. This year, Yale University announced that it would rename a residential college named for Vice President John C. Calhoun, a fervent defender of slavery.
It is easy to take the position that Trump did, effectively, on Wednesday, when he tweeted, “Can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson — who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!” After all, the argument goes, weren’t these iconic figures simply men of their time? Weren’t their opinions and practices entirely ordinary for their social and political milieus? By the same logic, Trump implies, we should still respect the memory of figures like Gen. Robert E. Lee, the statue of whom the Charlottesville City Council recently voted to remove. Indeed, in an NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll released Wednesday, 62 percent of respondents said statues honoring leaders of the Confederacy should remain as historical symbols.