J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, December 05, 2015

Removing Symbols of the Old Ways

On 18 July 1776, the Massachusetts Council oversaw the reading of the Declaration of Independence at the State House. Afterwards, the public pulled down the royal emblems of the lion and unicorn from that building and burned them in a big bonfire.

In the following years, the town of Boston renamed King Street and Queen Street to the more republican State Street and Court Street. King’s Chapel (shown here) was called the Stone Chapel for a while. The town’s main road, which had four names for different stretches in 1776, eventually became Washington Street to honor the new country’s new leader.

Hutchinson Street bore the name of the reviled Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, so it was renamed Pearl Street. In 1776 the town of Hutchinson petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to change its name as well; it became Barre, after Isaac Barré, a British Whig in Parliament who had advocated for American colonists for a decade. A few years later, the town of Foxborough was named for Charles James Fox, another sympathetic M.P.

Similar changes happened all across the new nation. New Yorkers pulled down the gilt statue of King George III on the Bowling Green. Tavern owners altered their signs, as Washington Irving’s story “Rip Van Winkle” later played on for comic effect.

This history is useful to recall when we consider current campaigns like those to change the name of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, remove the statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Missouri, or create a new seal for Harvard Law School that doesn’t honor Isaac Royall.

Throughout history, societies have used names, public art, and other symbols to honor individuals they admire, and societies have removed or changed those symbols when they no longer reflect widespread values. That’s something societies do. It’s nothing new, so claiming that there’s an unprecedented wave of “political correctness” reveals historical blindness, not historical consciousness.

Furthermore, removing symbols of honor doesn’t erase the history behind them. The Bostonians who destroyed the lion and unicorn still knew full well that they had been part of the British Empire. They still acknowledged that Thomas Hutchinson had been the royal governor of Massachusetts from 1770 to 1774. They weren’t rewriting history. They just no longer felt those people and institutions deserved so much public respect.

Many people accuse those who now want to remove symbols they associate with slavery and racism of wishing to eradicate or hide troubling aspects of our history. That’s ridiculous. The people driving those campaigns will remain quick to highlight an institution’s historical connections to slavery and racism, and to argue that those connections remain significant. They’re really interested in preserving and broadening the memory of that history. They just disagree with previous generations about which historical figures deserve so much honor.

Accusing those campaigners of the opposite of their stated aims and usual behavior suggests their critics are parroting talking points they’ve never really examined. That seems to show a lack of knowledge and a disrespect. And I suspect there’s a significant overlap between people who say we should retain symbols despite their roots in slavery and racism and people who say they’re tired of hearing about the effects of slavery and racism.

People can respond to those symbol-changing campaigns in multiple ways, depending on circumstances and philosophy. We may support the goal but not the methods. We may differ on whether removing such symbols really helps efforts to eradicate the underlying wrongs, or might even hurt. I’m going to share some thoughts on those issues over the next couple of days. But mistaken claims that such behavior is new or that it’s an attempt to “erase history” add nothing to the discussion.


John L. Smith said...

"Nothing in history is new" and your article successfully positions contemporary claims against those of earlier claims. Great stuff, J.L.

G. Lovely said...

A complex and slippery subject fraught with contradictions. Relegate the Stars and Bars to museums? Fine. Drop the title "master"? Debatable. Blowing up ancient Buddhas? Cultural crime. Merely feeling justified or correct does not mean you are, it all just depends on where you sit.