George Will excoriates the proposed removal of a statue at Princeton

January 7, 2023 • 11:30 am

UPDATE: Here are Princeton’s standards for “honorific namings,” which I assume apply to statues as well:

  1. 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.
  2. Honorific namings may also recognize or memorialize historical events or milestones in the University’s history.
  3. 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):


30 thoughts on “George Will excoriates the proposed removal of a statue at Princeton

  1. “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
    George Orwell, 1984

    1. The Orwell quote is inaccurate. The woke movement is about unmasking the past, revealing its true fruits. It is rightists and Republicans who want to rename, revise, erase the unfortunate past, and glorify a mythical past.

      1. Not really. The woke are just as partisan as the unreformed right, usually asserting “X is 100% bad” where the traditional right might have assumed “X is 100% good”.

        The truth will nearly always be neither of these.

          1. I see your point about the exaggeration on both sides, but using the term “woke” for right-wing excesses doesn’t seem like a sensible move. Also, your remark about male nipples proving that women are the basic humans is biologically wrong. It’s more complicated than you make it sound. I recommend Stephen Jay Gould’s essay “Male Nipples and Clitoral Ripples” (that’s the name of it after he changed it from the original “Tits and clits”).

      2. When you say, “The Orwell quote is inaccurate” do you mean that it has been misquoted or that it is inapplicable in this case?

        More importantly, how do you judge Witherspoon against our host’s two criteria?

        1. Okay, Orwell quote was inapplicable. I was referring to the woke movement, not my own views. I agree with Dr. Coyne.

  2. Distinguishing cases is crux to what a decent progressive society should do. That’s why the reasonable criteria noted make sense. Chilling discussion is particularly inappropriate in a university setting, especially at the edges.

    There’s a difference between Witherspoon and Robert E. Lee, or between Al Franken and Trump. If we can’t see, or understand, this in our community at large, it would seem that we will be particularly susceptible to authoritarianism.

  3. Statue removal is just the sports sideline, as it were, of a much more comprehensive program to inculcate rightthink throughout the groves of academe. The most important parts of the program are the Diversity Statements required for employment, and the DEI training sessions imposed on everyone. Unsurprisingly, a Russian counterpart to this program has now been instituted in Putinland. According to a recent report in Prospect: “Each Monday morning, pupils must take part in a session called “conversations about what is important”, the purpose of which is “strengthening traditional Russian spiritual-moral values and inculcating patriotism.””

  4. The Princeton site referenced in the post goes into some detail about Witherspoon’s relationship to slavery. It indicates that Witherspoon once compared slaves to horses, opposed New Jersey’s abolition of slavery as it was being discussed in that state (there is no issue of “presentism” here), and in 1779 purchased two slaves. The fact that he purchased two slaves, rather than inheriting them, is telling. As much as he might feel uncomfortable about slavery in the abstract, he did not let principles get in the way of increasing his material comfort. As with Jefferson for many, for George Will, Witherspoon’s gross hypocrisy doesn’t count for much in evaluating the man’s life.

    1. There are lots of people right now who are at a minimum conflicted about the use of petroleum, but continue to heat and light their houses with electricity generated by coal and natural gas, fly in airplanes, and even wear clothing made from petrochemicals.
      Even those who truly believe that use of petroleum products will turn the planet into a lifeless ruin in a few years if not stopped, are mostly able to see that for now, viable alternatives are mostly theoretical. Even a humanity-wide effort to produce clean alternatives would still require a great deal of conventionally produced steel and glass and plastic, as well as the mining of a vast amount of copper and other materials.

      The founders of our country had to balance their ideas about liberty and natural rights with the reality that they depended on large-scale 18th century agriculture.
      There are basic realities farmers had to face, then as now. A family could manually farm a small acreage of wheat. Adding a team or horses multiplies the amount of land that can be farmed, which yields a larger volume of wheat per year. Adding slaves or hired labor is also a force multiplier.
      We do the same today with tractors and improved implements. They come at a high cost, but increase yields. The margins are not very high, so such investments need to be carefully considered.

      Most people have pretty firm ideas about what sort of decisions they would have made, if they had lived in the 18th or 19th centuries. My experience with that is that the strength of their opinions on that subject are inverse to the actual knowledge they possess about it.

      1. Southerners had a very different idea from Northerners of how it was fitting for a gentleman and his family to live. You don’t need a plantation the size of Jefferson’s if you lived like a gentleman of Massachusetts. They had farms there too and managed without slaves, but didn’t live high.

        1. My reference is not to “living high”, but about economic independence. If Massachusetts had relied on sugar and tobacco plantations instead of a maritime economy, large scale slavery would have been the norm there as well.

          In 1790, the richest man in the US was John Hancock, a Massachusetts merchant and shipping tycoon.
          In 1795, the richest man in the US was Elias Hasket Derby, a Massachusetts merchant and shipping tycoon.

          Independence without a viable independent economy would be a short-lived experiment indeed. It would have been a noble gesture to prohibit slavery in the colonies as part of the bill of rights. But the economy would likely have collapsed, and the American revolution would be a footnote, like the 1830 June rebellion in France.

          1. Also, without the slave trade, the English Industrial Revolution might not have happened, bereft of imported cotton harvested by slaves, of imported sugar harvested by slaves, of profit from the slave trade itself which helped build a shipping industry that “ruled the waves.”

            1. Again, so what?
              I don’t think you’ll have much luck convincing the present-day residents of the left-behind mill towns of northern England that their prosperity needs to be garnished for reparations to Black Americans.

              But if you think the Industrial Revolution might never have happened but for the slave trade, well, thank God for the slave trade.

              The Royal Navy (assisted by the nascent United States Navy) set itself to stopping the trans-Atlantic slave trade after 1807.

              Obsession with American slavery serves no purpose today except to fuel demands for cash and to demonstrate one’s power to compel others to their way of thinking for fear of opprobrium.

    2. It is inaccurate to say he compared slaves to horses, he just advertised about a slave that was good in taking care of horses. Something pretty different.
      As said, I think that we are too easily looking at slavery from our own perspective. Although at the time there were abolitionists, slavery was not considered as bad as it is nowadays. An important question is, did he treat his slaves right? That was, even at the time, considered ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
      His attitude towards slavery was quite complex, he helped a slave (‘Jamie’) escape. And promised to free his 2 slaves at 28. But when he died his 2 slaves were ‘inherited’ by his family.
      I know too little about Witherspoon to have a good judgement on him, but it looks indeed that the good he did far, far outweighs the bad.
      Note (trivia) that Princeton was the University where Einstein taught.

      1. The advertisement you refer to was NOT placed by Witherspoon. It was placed by his son-in-law, Samuel Stanhope Smith. This is the context in which Witherspoon compared slaves to horses per the Princeton site.
        In the Articles of Confederation, leaders of the new country codified slavery as a national institution and delineated the nature of human property. In debates over Article XI, Witherspoon sided with Southern states and adamantly opposed the taxation of slaves, foreshadowing the conflict that would lead to the “Three-Fifths Compromise” at the Constitutional Convention ten years later. In his oral argument (a rare move for the otherwise quiet minister), Witherspoon reasoned that the value of land and houses, not slaves, was the best measure of the wealth of the country for taxation purposes. As he stated:

        “It has been objected that negroes eat the food of freemen & therefore should be taxed. Horses also eat the food of freemen; therefore they also should be taxed.”

        By comparing slaves to horses, Witherspoon denied enslaved people their humanity and defined them simply as another form of property. Yet this argument highlights a disconnect between Witherspoon’s stated ideology and his lived reality.
        And there were many at Witherspoon’s time that considered slavery as bad as today. But, at the time of the founding of the Republic, many of those that considered slavery very bad did very little to act on their convictions.

  5. I’m struck by the irony of an institution that teaches and in all probability grants diplomas in history, canceling rather than contextualizing a modest honor to a figure historically important to the institution and the country. I picture a Monty Python skit in which a ceremony honoring graduating history students is going on in the foreground while the Witherspoon statue is being moved or covered in the background. While between the two scenes, off to the side, a tabby cat sits tall, commenting on the scene by calmly grooming himself. 😼

  6. I see less evidence for slavery every day as these reminders vanish. Soon it won’t have existed at all.

  7. Whether Princeton’s Eisgruber is more or less spineless and incompetent than Yale’s Salovey is hardly an easy matter to determine, not that the other leaders of the Ivies are much better.

  8. The new thought that occurred to me, to see this from a pro-removal student viewpoint (or perhaps a student’s parent’s ) viewpoint :

    If statues were viewed as not memorials of people, but of superheroes – that’d make some sense. As in a superhero movie “reboot”.

    The superhero movies are one thing, but otherwise bright leaders can be observed to promote the notion of “superpowers” in students, and presumably former students who now as parents pay the bills for their student children.

    Myth is fine and all to inspire, but it appears to me something like that is clashing with reality in the form of statues.

  9. Keep in mind that Geo Will broke ranks with Orange Julius early on, when he started his May 3, 2017 column with “It is urgent for Americans to think and speak clearly about President Trump’s inability to do either.”

    If Wm F Buckley was still around I think he’d be writing similarly, so it may be that rather than Geo becoming more liberal, it’s more a sign that what constitutes conservatism has gone so far off the rails.

  10. We can compare also the situation with George Mason University. Mason owned far more people than Witherspoon, and was outspoken in his hatred for the institution. The University has been grappling with the issue, and now it’s even more prominent as an issue, since the University now has its first Black President. Central in the University response has been the establishing of the identity of the individual slaves owned by Mason. The new President has addressed the issues, and brought out its continuing significance for understanding America’s fraught history.

  11. What would be wrong with simply saying “No” when someone demands you remove a statue from your property? Why all the energy devoted to parsing out the # slaves owned : other social good ratio? Even if Person A says, OK, 2 slaves isn’t so bad against the founding of Princeton U, Person B is likely to screech that not being an abolitionist from birth taints him forever no matter what else he did. Person A is trying to be reasonable and listening to the other side but it doesn’t make any impression on Person B. Neither Person A nor Person B ought to have any impact on what Person C, who actually owns the statue, thinks on the issue. If Person C listens to any of them, it just increases the number of people who will feel betrayed by whatever he ends up doing.

    In Canada people vandalize and burn things down of actual value if they don’t like the local statuary but I haven’t seen people doing this in America, over statues, anyway, so why not just say No? Who cares what Twitter thinks? Are the donors turning woke all of a sudden? Our first Prime Minister has been pretty much erased for largely imaginary crimes, to no discernable improvement in, well, anything really.

    (I do understand the history of why some of those statues of insurrectionist generals were put up in the South, so that may be a different argument.)

    By the way, the CBC tells us that Mount Rushmore is going to be one of the two American hot spots for the “Take the land back” movement this year so brace yourselves for more than wealthy liberal arts majors waving signs.

  12. Washington freed all his slaves in his will. Under the law at the time, he couldn’t free the slaves he inherited from his wife, Martha.

  13. 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.”

    I think the student would probably say this: “Well, the Washington and Jefferson statues should come down, too.”

    And, the way things are going, in less than 5 years time, they probably will.

  14. Of course the larger picture here is that it is really no about what Mr. Witherspoon did or did not do in his life. Most of the responses here and elsewhere presume that this is a good faith discussion about that history, and that the people wanting the statues toppled believe that they are actually harmed in some way by them. I have not seen evidence that this is the case.

    I think it much more likely that this is more of a “Down with the Four Olds!” situation. The leaders behind the movement have one set of goals, while the mob with the pitchforks and torches are motivated more by their own narcissism. They seem to be the sort of people who can be easily persuaded to rage against statues and memorials because they cannot stand the idea that anyone would be honored in such a way. Where a normal person would see such monuments as aspirational, these people can only generate a toxic and childish sort of envy.

  15. A general thought occurred to me with regard to Coyne’s Criteria (which I agree with 100% in letter and spirit) – not sure how to concisely put it, so an attempt follows :

    Are there any _sacrifices_, or tests of _endurance_, with no real guarantee of success the individual was faced with?

    When there is statue or building with a name on them, the immediate thought is that there are numerous “things” the person benefitted from – “privileges”, or other “possessions” of sorts.

    However, much of what we can look at and see – a statue, a name on a building – has to account for what we cannot look at and see – the sacrifices, things of value or convenience that had to be done away with, in service of objectives greater than oneself.


Leave a Reply