UPDATE: Here are Princeton’s standards for “honorific namings,” which I assume apply to statues as well:
- Honorific namings for people should recognize rare or exceptional levels of achievement, contributions to the University, and/or commitments to advance core University values. Those so honored should have to their credit achievements or virtues that the University hopes its students would seek to emulate.
- Honorific namings may also recognize or memorialize historical events or milestones in the University’s history.
- As the University expands the portfolio of honorific namings on campus, it should take into account the University’s aspiration to be diverse and inclusive. While not every honorific naming need increase the diversity of campus names, the overall trajectory of such namings should do so.
When a conservative columnist says something I agree with on the whole, I have no reservations about highlighting it regardless of the person’s politics. And George Will has been getting more liberal these days.
Will’s latest Washington Post column, written more passionately than is his usual wont, deals with Princeton University’s discussions about removing a statue of John Witherspoon (1723-1794), considered one of the founding fathers of America, and was also the only clergyman who signed the Declaration of Independence (so much for America being founded as a Christian Nation!). This is from his Wikipedia biography:
John Witherspoon (February 5, 1723 – November 15, 1794) was a Scottish-American Presbyterian minister, educator, farmer, slaveholder, and a Founding Father of the United States. Witherspoon embraced the concepts of Scottish common sense realism, and while president of the College of New Jersey (1768–1794; now Princeton University) became an influential figure in the development of the United States’ national character. Politically active, Witherspoon was a delegate from New Jersey to the Second Continental Congress and a signatory to the July 4, 1776, Declaration of Independence. He was the only active clergyman and the only college president to sign the Declaration. Later, he signed the Articles of Confederation and supported ratification of the Constitution of the United States.
Reading on, you’ll see part of what he accomplished for Princeton during his 26-year Presidency:
At the age of 45, [Witherspoon] became the sixth president of the college, later known as Princeton University. Upon his arrival, Witherspoon found the school in debt, with weak instruction, and a library collection which clearly failed to meet student needs. He immediately began fund-raising—locally and back home in Scotland—added three hundred of his own books to the library, and began purchasing scientific equipment including the Rittenhouse orrery, many maps, and a terrestrial globe. Witherspoon instituted numerous reforms, including modeling the syllabus and university structure after that used at the University of Edinburgh and other Scottish universities. He also firmed up entrance requirements, which helped the school compete with Harvard and Yale for scholars.
He also taught belles lettres, chronology (history), and divinity, and his speciality, moral philosophy. Witherspoon was said to be very popular with faculty and students alike. But you can see what’s “problematic” in the second paragraph, and why Princeton is considering removing his statue.
Click to read Will’s column.
Yes, Witherspoon had slaves—two of them. But before you say that such an act damns him for eternity, mandating the removal of his name from everything as well as prompting us to remove his statues, note what Will says about him:
As Princeton’s president, this “animated son of liberty” (John Adams’s description of the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence) ensured the precarious institution’s survival. His students included future congressmen, senators, Supreme Court justices and a president — James Madison stayed an extra year to study with Witherspoon.
Kevin DeYoung, now serving as a Presbyterian pastor in North Carolina, wrote his 2019 doctoral dissertation on Witherspoon. DeYoung’s judgment is that Witherspoon believed three things about slavery, two of them true: Slavery was wrong, immediate emancipation was impossible, but America’s moral evolution would extinguish it within two generations.
DeYoung explains, without drawing conclusions from, three facts: In Scotland, Witherspoon baptized a runaway slave claimed by a member of Witherspoon’s church. At Princeton, Witherspoon tutored free Blacks. And Witherspoon’s will listed two slaves “until they are 28.” He had proposed a New Jersey law to free slaves at that age who were born after the law’s passage.
A university site on Princeton and Slavery says this:
John Knox Witherspoon (1723-1794) served as Princeton’s sixth president from 1768 to 1794. He personally owned slaves and publicly lectured and voted against the abolition of slavery in New Jersey, yet he also tutored several African and African American students. His actions and writings illustrate his sometimes contradictory positions on slavery. Likewise, his children and their families wrestled with the complexities and moral dilemmas of slavery.
Will is exercised by this as an example of authoritarian wokeness, which he sees in those who force people to “adhere to orthodoxy”.
But Will doesn’t get into that orthodoxy. To use the language of the woke, his column lacks “nuance”, and so he just rails against wokeness. This doesn’t mean his column is worthless, but he does miss the main point of why removing Witherspoon’s statue is a perfectly debatable issue. He goes on:
Princeton’s current contretemps, however, fascinatingly illustrates how wokeness, which lacks limiting principles, limits opposition to itself.
. . .Today’s disparagement of Witherspoon is more than just another example of “presentism” — judging the past through the lens of the present. It illustrates how the woke become a suffocating, controlling minority
Princeton’s Committee on Naming has been holding “listening sessions” to ascertain what Princetonians think about the statue. But who is speaking? Princetonians for Free Speech (PFS), an alumni organization much more devoted than the university’s administration and trustees are to viewpoint diversity, notes that “the atmosphere on campus greatly inhibits students, faculty, and others from stating their true views” on “highly politicized issues,” which nowadays most issues become.
Will makes a big deal about the self-censoring of Princeton students, surely because it’s the woke political climate that demands erasure of Witherspoon, but I’m not sure how a discussion of self-censorship, with the data now well known, advances his argument. Nevertheless, Will does point out the fact that debate about Witherspoon should be allowed on campus without being chilled, and adds, which one can’t mention too often, that no, a University is not like your parent’s home where you weren’t allowed to talk back. Your school is not your home and the administration is not your parents, nor are you guaranteed four years’ of mental comfort at Princeton—although the school is doing its best to ensure that!
The data, in case you wanted it:
In the Free Speech Ranking survey by the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), only 55 percent of Princeton students said it was never acceptable to block other students from attending a campus speech, only 25 percent said it was never acceptable to shout down a speaker, only 23 percent said they were very comfortable expressing their views during classroom discussions of political topics. There is no reason to think Princeton significantly differs from FIRE’s finding that only 14 percent of students nationwide would be very comfortable speaking freely in public settings, such as “listening sessions.”
PFS notes that the anti-Witherspoon cohort says Princeton is a “home,” therefore everyone should be protected from feeling “less at home” because of, say, unhappy thoughts occasioned by a statue. But a university is not a “home.” A university’s raison d’être, unlike a family’s, is civil but robust and unsettling questionings and disagreements. (Although a family without controversies sounds unlikely and unappealing.)
But importantly, Will does point out the seeming hypocrisy of “erasing” one Founding Father who had two slaves whom he would free, while leaving on the pedestals other Founders who not only had more slaves, but weren’t as conflicted about it as was Witherspoon—founding fathers like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, who of course are still honored. That’s a good point, and should spark discussion about not only “presentism,” but also about where the line is that separates the damned from the honored. Why does a semi-abolitionist who had two slaves but was also a popular and accomplished President of Princeton, as well as a Founding Father, and a tutor of black people, receive more opprobrium than does Jefferson and Washington, who owned dozens of slaves and treated them poorly?
Unfortunately, although I do bring in wokeness at times, I prefer to show how it damages society rather than just rail about it. In contrast, Will seems to use the statue mainly as an excuse to harp about this new religion. I don’t disagree with him, but he’s leaving out the issues that he says are being ignored by Princeton. This is only a small bit of his jeremiad:
The fires of wokeness will soon be starved of fuel by the sterile monotony of wokeness’s achievement: enforced orthodoxy. Campuses are becoming burned-over places, sullen about the scarcity of things to deplore and cancel within their gates. Beyond those gates, society increasingly regards academia with, at best, bemusement.
Nevertheless, in their leafy quarantine, the woke will have the consolation of vanity. Wokeness has many flavors but one purpose: self-flattery. Wokeness tells its disciples how morally superior they are to almost everyone, ever. The woke have revised the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s maxim about the moral universe to: “The arc of the moral universe is long and bends toward me.”
Bent by such people, a university becomes, as PFS says, “a place where orthodoxy is imposed and only a narrow version of history and knowledge is accepted.” So, not a university.
But the thing is, Will doesn’t menton what kind of argument could be had about this deplatforming. I’ve outlined it a bit above, but will expand a tad more.
If you asked a woke Princeton student who still had a brain (these are very rare), “Why do we keep Washington and Jefferson statues up but want to pull down Witherspoon’s?”, the student would probably say this. “Well, all these Founders owned slaves, but Witherspoon didn’t do enough to compensate for his enslaving two people.”
And that produces the debate we need: “Resolved: Were two slaves enough to erase a man who was not only ambiguous about slavery but did so much good for others?”
My answer to this question would be that we shouldn’t pull down Witherspoon’s statue because he adheres to Coyne’s Criteria for removing honors. Here are the criteria I use:
1.) Was the statue or honor put in place to celebrate something good that a person did rather than the bad?
2.) Did the good achieved by the person’s life outweigh the bad?
If the answer to both is “yes”, then you leave the person’s statue up, or keep his name on an award. If you wish to qualify the person’s life with a placard or other virtuous signal saying that NOW WE KNOW SOME OF THE STUFF WAS BAD, that’s ok; it’s just history.
In Witherspoon’s case, the answer to the first question is clearly “yes”.
Further, given what the man did at Princeton, given that he tutored free blacks, baptized a slave, and let his two slaves go free at the age of 28, and given his services in founding the country and revamping Princeton, the answer to the second question, in my view, is “yes”. If he had slaves in a time when that was universally disparaged and very rare, the answer might be different. But now we have a more enlightened view of using other people as chattel than did Witherspoon’s peers. We simply can’t ignore “presentism.” If we did, we would erase the entire history of men who lived before two centuries ago because they all held sexist views. In sum, although Jefferson infused the founding of America with more of his ideas, and founded the University of Virginia as opposed to being its president, he also had more slaves than did Witherspoon, and therefore hurt more people.
I would say that if Witherspoon hadn’t existed at all, the world would have been a worse place (remember that the slaves he kept would have been the property of someone else, but probably not treated as well).
It is of course a debatable issue, but the hegemony of “presentism” is so strong that we forget that we ourselves will be looked upon in a few centuries as an unenlightened people. One reason, I think, is because we not only eat meat, which itself isn’t a sin, but treat our meat animals very badly and make their lives miserable. And there are other bad things we do, like executing prisoners, keeping them in horrible prison conditions, and usually don’t allow terminally ill people to end their lives with dignity when they want to. As Dr. Pinker constantly reminds us, morality improves, and that should remind us not to demonize everyone in the past who doesn’t adhere strictly to the curent form of morality espoused by the woke.
Here’s the statue that may be removed (image from flickr):