Audubon Society decides to keep its name

March 15, 2023 • 10:00 am

My criteria for deciding whether a name should be kept, or a statue left up, are twofold: the good that the person’s life did outweighs the bad, and the name or statue is in honor of the good.

Although there have been calls for John James Audubon’s name to be taken off everything (including his Society), I’ve decided his name is worth keeping. Yes, he was a slaveholder, with nine humans as his possessions, and of course that’s immoral. (He also held white supremacist views.) But George Washington and Jefferson each had many more slaves, yet we’re not hearing calls to rename Washington, D.C. or tear down the Jefferson Memorial.

How does one balance being an enslaver against being one of the founders of ornithology, a naturalist who named many species, and an inspiration for conservation? You can’t. They’re apples and oranges. So you make a judgment call, and my own call was that Audubon still deserves to be honored. Yes, by all means call attention to the slaves he held, but I never favored (as some did) renaming the Audubon Society.

Neither did the Society itself, as the Washington Post just announced (click screenshot to read):

From the article:

The move comes even as about half-a-dozen of the organization’s regional chapters have pledged to scrub his name from their titles, part of a broader reckoning over the U.S. environmental movement’s history of entrenched racism.

The National Audubon Society’s 27-person board of directors voted to retain its current name during a Zoom meeting on Monday after more than a year of deliberating and gathering feedback from both members and outsiders. Susan Bell, chair of the board, declined to provide a breakdown of the final vote.

“The name has come to represent not one person, but a broader love of birds and nature,” Bell said in a phone interview. “And yet we must reckon with the racist legacy of John James Audubon, the man.”

Keeping the name does not of course mean that the Audubon Society endorses slavery. In fact, they reckon it correctly: as a blot on the man’s name. But the Society decided that the name represents a lot of good things, and I won’t criticize them for keeping it. Neither will I criticize those who say the name has to go, for they’ve made a judgement call the other way, though Jefferson and Washington have not (yet) been erased.

h/t: Steve

41 thoughts on “Audubon Society decides to keep its name

  1. I thought the name was toast – what a relief. The idea was taken seriously and a serious decision was made.

  2. In regard to fashion trends in name-change, the Entomological Society of America received a petition a couple of years ago about this cri de coeur: “The Entomological Society of America (ESA) released a statement this month about “Why Black Lives Matter for Entomology”, which briefly alluded to some inequities in entomology but failed to outline concrete steps for action and did not affirm that all Black lives matter. This statement received criticism on social media, as many community members commented that ESA has still not changed the racist name of the society’s student trivia competition, the Linnaean Games. ” I don’t know what action was taken about this urgent matter.

          1. I’e looked up both of you and neither are moderated. I have no idea what’s going on. Do you change your IP address with a VPN each time you log on? If you use the same name, email, and IP address, once I’ve approved the first comment, then all your comments should sail through. This apparently happens with some people but not others. I will check with my IT person.

    1. Such a long list to erase: Black-bellied Plover, Blackberry, Black Snake, black ink,
      blacklist, blackout, Blackpoll, Blackbird, Black Phoebe, Black-crowned Night Heron,
      blackboard. But has anyone noticed that those who call for name changes are absent from the environmental movement and don’t belong to any environmental or conservation groups or even make contributions to them? Anyone who has followed these movements since the 1970s can’t help but notice the absence of minorities, both individuals and their organizations. In fact these have been unremitting critics of
      any group working on environmental issues, blaming them for racism, exclusivity and
      (irony) a lack of black leadership. They never mention the fact that minorities refused to join these groups in the first place (or even work with them); so how can they attack its “white” leadership when they weren’t even members? Nor did they join these groups as volunteers, as I did for several years before I actually got a paying job there. Are these groups supposed to hire minorities whether or not they are qualified or even interested in the things the organization does? Some of these minorities blasted the WTO 1999 protest for not having black organizations present….organizations who of course had never been involved in ANYTHING pertaining to globalization or the environment. The hypocrisy and resentment is rife. Environmentalists have nothing to apologize for. They are part of the most important social change movement of the 20th century in the world, and they include people around the world of all colors and ethnic groups….except those in the USA. Disgraceful. Dont join an environmental group; just attack it for being “exclusionary” or “racist”.

  3. Good to hear that someone has a backbone.

    When it comes time for the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial to be erased, how will that be accomplished? It’ll be impossible to move the buildings to a graveyard-for-monuments-to-the-discredited, so I suppose they will have to be dismantled. Oh, wait. We can rename them after people who are more worthy. Much cheaper.

  4. If help is essential for one’s operations and only slaves are available, then there are two options: do not pay them (i.e., they are by definition slaves) or pay them (i.e., they are not slaves). The latter is equivalent to freeing them, which was not politically correct in those times. So, a solution is to not formally pay them, but to look after them well. So, we need information that might help answer the question as to how Audubon treated his “slaves.”

    1. Forsdyke oversimplifies the situation. If you have human beings who are not free to stop working for you, you may treat them pretty well, but they may decide they would rather run off to a part of the country where they are not forced to work for you. Will you then employ slave-catchers? Again, if you treat your slaves well, they may have children whom it is not profitable to keep. One of the vilest parts of the whole institution of keeping slaves is selling off children. Slave-owners are not just people who use the unpaid labor of others in their operations, they are people who keep a complex institution going, an institution that employs violence in a variety of ways. Even the better sort of slave-owner is deeply implicated in the system.

      1. My mother, whose ancestors on both her mother and father’s side were slave owners in the South, is a very nice, reasonable, progressive-ish older lady (now with dementia.

        But she often told her children, in their youth and adulthood, that HER family treated their slaves very well, don’t you know. She had no basis for this, except for writings that came down from her grandmother, who was born in 1868 and was indeed a very progressive person.

        My answer, once I grew old enough to realize the implications of what she was saying, was to ask, “OK, maybe so. But how would YOU feel if the bottom line was, you CANNOT LEAVE, no matter how much you’d like to, and if you try, you may be hunted down and killed, or brought back to bondage?”

        A lifelong artist in denial and gaslighting, she would mumble something, hand-wave or turn to some other distraction.

        But for me, that’s the bottom line.

    2. Help?

      If someone is being forced to work against their will it doesn’t matter if you pay them or how well you treat them. You don’t stop being a slave because your master pats you on the head. Your post just reinforces the idea that by not changing the name you’re in some way excusing Audubon.

    3. then there are two options: do not pay them (i.e., they are by definition slaves) or pay them (i.e., they are not slaves).

      I’m not sure what the law is/ was in America – in fact, I’m not even going to bet that the laws were the same even in neighbouring “slave-holding” states – but that’s not the way the definition worked in the “classical” world – from which quite a bit of American law is derived. It was perfectly possible for a slave to be a slave then and to also be paid for one’s work. We’d maybe call it “performance related pay” these days.
      It was a common way that a slave could acquire the money to buy themselves out of slavery. (Or, if it was strategically more appropriate, to buy one’s “wife” out of slavery before a child was born. Because someone who had ever been a slave couldn’t aspire to citizenship, which meant that a considerable number of public offices (civil servant jobs, effectively) were not open to the ex-slave. A child born out of slavery though – no problem.)
      Of course, the owner had to agree to the manumission, and could legally confiscate any savings of any slave at any time. Slaves could not – legally – own property of any sort, not even their own skin or reproductive choices. But that was also a good way for an owner to wake up with a knife in the guts, so pragmatically most masters were … well, pragmatic.
      The status of “slave” was certainly distinct from the question of payment, in classical times ; whether that was the case in America (or, for that matter, Assyria, Biblical Israel, or the Inca empire), I don’t know.
      (I found an amusing book in the bookshop at Wallsend/ Segedunum a few months ago. “How to Manage Your Slaves” by Marcus Sidonius Falx & Jerry Toner ISBN-13 : 978-1781252529 ; it “distills” a lot of classical references to the topic into a coherent pseudo-manual.)

      1. I’ve not read the U.S. slave ordinances, but I’ve read some ordinances from the West Indian islands. My familiarity with Roman law on the matter comes only from reading history about Rome, not the original law. My impression is that the status of a slave was very different in Rome than in the New World of the plantation era– it was much worse for slaves in the New World. Many Roman slaves were highly educated and skilled, there were opportunities for income, and manumission was not uncommon, with the freedmen forming a distinct social class that tended to become associated economically with their former masters. After one generation, the children were just “free men,” though the social and economic ties to the household of the former masters often continued.

        This is not to say that Roman law wasn’t brutal: the testimony of a slave could be accepted at trial only if the slave had been tortured– the assumption being that otherwise they would lie. But the possibility of freedom and advancement in Rome was much more real than for New World plantation slaves. The French and Danish laws I’ve read are much worse.

        I’m not sure if the American laws followed a Roman or West Indian model.


        1. Well yes, I think what you say is true, but, in the Roman world, a lot of slaves weren’t so lucky. If you weren’t educated and skilled, you were probably assigned to some back breaking manual task and your life was, to quote Thomas Hobbes, nasty brutish and short. I imagine there were few opportunities for manumission in the salt mines.

          1. Yes, you’re absolutely right. I perhaps too carefully wrote “… advancement in Rome”, because I was thinking of the sorts of positions slaves held in fairly wealthy households in cities. The salt mines, fields, and arenas would have been much worse.


    4. Except that the state of slavery has more to do with whether you are free or not. In a sense, all slaves were paid. The were fed and clothed and had accommodation. This is payment in kind, but they were not free. I don’t think giving them money but applying all the rules of slavery to them would mean they suddenly are free.

      To me, the core concept of slavery is that you are effectively the property of somebody else.

  5. While most of us have never owned slaves, during these kerfuffles I always like to remember the likelihood that all the howling moralists calling for Person X’s name to be erased from Thing Y are all but certain to have some embarrassing, even ugly, skeletons in their own closets — just as, I assume, virtually all of us do.

    True, one need not be a moral exemplar to point out the flaws in another. But in the end, I know I’d rather be treated with mercy, forbearance and understanding than harsh judgment. Kind of a glass-houses argument, I suppose you could say.

    But from the tenor of their outraged rhetoric, you’d certainly get the impression that the various erasers think they’ve got nothing to atone for, themselves.

  6. America has nothing to apologize or atone for about slavery. You demean yourselves in the eyes of the world by obsessing about it. Please stop before you get manipulated into the folly of giving trillions of dollars to people who were never slaves just because they are black.

    1. Might it be valuable for Americans to continue to “obsess” about our complex history with slavery and Jim Crow? Maybe the word “obsess” prejudges the question. For careful and valuable thought, see Wendell Berry’s book The Hidden Wound.

  7. See Moncure Conway, Testimonies Concerning Slavery, which includes an account of how his father allowed one of his slaves to travel to visit his wife who was in an insane asylum, and paid the expenses of the travel. So his father treated his slaves well, and they appreciated this, —- but when the opportunity arrived when they could escape to the Union-controlled area, they went for freedom. So slaves obviously could care about decent treatment and at the same time care deeply about deprivation of liberty.

    1. I read stories of Southern slave owners being surprised that their slaves ran away during the Civil War. They viewed themselves as benevolent owners and thought a measure of gratitude (for all the good things they had done for their slaves) was in order.

  8. A hypothetical I have addressed to myself: It is the 1840’s or thereabouts. I have just inherited a plantation and 100 slaves. I hate slavery. Do I emancipate my slaves? Well, I have a wife and children, plus a couple of unmarried sisters I look after. If I emancipate my slaves, my economic status drops five or six rungs on a scale of ten. My social status even more. I will likely be told I better leave town if I want to live. Do I disrupt and worsen the lives of my family [and end my life of ease] in order to free the slaves? To be honest, I have to say “probably not”. Would you say “yes”?
    [I believe I have read that both Washington and Jefferson worried about the effect freeing their slaves would have on their families. It seems slave owners felt a kind of fiduciary duty to their families, something they would have to breach if they freed their slaves. Of course, that was a good excuse to continue their life of ease, but still…]

    1. Thomas Sowell makes this excellent point in his essay, “The Real History of Slavery” in Black Rednecks and White Liberals. Many plantations weren’t well managed and were often in debt by the time they had been passed through two or three heirs. The slave economy and the louche habits of white southern landowners — too many mint juleps — did not encourage thrift and investment in productivity. Without the asset value of the slaves they would have been under water financially. And if my neighbour won’t free his slaves and go broke, why should I free mine?

      When it abolished slavery in the Empire, the British government floated a bond issue to compensate slave owners for the loss of their fairly purchased property which took two centuries, to 2015, to pay off, otherwise many Britons would have been ruined. As it was, these slaves were turned loose in faraway places. American slave owners would have had to contend with the sudden appearance in their midst of thousands of unskilled labourers turned out of their homes roaming the countryside with no means to earn their keep, which is what actually happened after the Civil War. The sudden destruction of great wealth is not to be contemplated lightly just because it seems immoral today not to have done it at once.

      1. That argument makes very little sense to me.

        You say that: American slave owners would have had to contend with the sudden appearance in their midst of thousands of unskilled labourers turned out of their homes roaming the countryside with no means to earn their keep, which is what actually happened after the Civil War.

        However, if this is true, then it would have happened whenever they were emancipated, irrespective of when that happened. Slave holding grew massively between the mid 1700’s and the 1860s. Therefore, emancipating slaves earlier would not only have reduced those acute stressors on society and the economy, it would have prevented millions of people from having to live and suffer as slaves.

        in 1790 there were 655,000 slaves in the southern US, in 1860 there were 3,950,000. If you account for slaves born between those generations, there could easily be 12-15 million people who lived in servitude and squalor. You don’t have to be a statistician to realise that getting rid of slavery in 1790 would have helped save an awful lot of people from an awful lot of suffering. Also, 655,000 unemployed slaves are a lot less of a burden than 3,950,000, even when you account for 70 years of societal development.

        Just as weak are the suggestions that, for financial reasons, one is almost forced to keep one’s own slaves if your neighbour does too. That doesn’t wash with me either; yes it was a very different time, but by the late 1700s all enlightened people knew just how egregious a practice slavery was. All but the most uneducated people knew it was cruel and immoral, but they chose to turn a blind, uncaring eye. To continue to do so for one’s own financial benefit is repugnant and, to me, it’s indefensible.

        1. Undoubtedly colonial British America and the West Indies would have been better off in the long run if the colonists had just decided to pick their own damn cotton and sugar, as one commenter on a YouTube video put it, and left all those black people in Africa to be enslaved by their own kind and sold to the Arabs, or to Brazil, where most of them went anyway. Then you could have excluded alien cultures through immigration law as Canada did and European countries try to do today instead of having them inextricably lodged in modern America as a problem of your own making. But that is every much a “what-if?” question as heaping moral criticism on people who are long dead. Pointless.

          But whatever and looking to the future, is what you have been doing since 1964 making the coming “reckoning” likely to be less bloody or more? To create wealth among black people or cripple them? Edit: terrible ideas like critical race theory and race-preferenced hiring are infecting other countries, hardly the definition of a successful race policy.

          My original point was that the United States and the British Empire separately abolished slavery everywhere their state power could reach. It persisted in other jurisdictions long after that and still goes on today connived at in failed states. There is therefore nothing for either institution to atone for.

          1. Hey, I can’t argue with your last point there, Leslie. No one should have to apologise or atone for what their country or ancestors did in the past. What the hell has it got to do with me if my Grandad was a total bastard? I had no say in it. The very concept of atoning for the actions of one’s ancestors is ludicrous and completely nonsensical. As is the ‘trauma’ that people claim due to the sufferings that their ancestors – who they never met – experienced in the distant past. The fact that Western societies are being asked to do this sort of thing is a great example of just how far wokeness has come. ALL OF US descend from people who were held in servitude at some point, and all of us descend from slave owners too. To claim otherwise is to ignore what history tells us. I certainly do think that slave owners should have emancipated their slaves much earlier than they Did. They should also have committed to living more truthful and empathetic lives in general. However, the fact they behaved like that has frig-all to do with me, and I will never apologise or atone for ideas and actions with which I never and could never have been involved.

            1. “I certainly do think that slave owners should have emancipated their slaves much earlier than they Did.”

              Except for a tiny few, slave owners did not emancipate their slaves. Lincoln and the Union army did. The South seceded because they feared that outside forces would end slavery, something they were willing to commit treason to avoid.

              1. I agree with you. The strongest reason any slave owners had to manumit their slaves would have been economic. A slave that is too old and sick to work is not worth keeping in bondage if you have to feed him. Better to dump him on the county and the churches as a public charge and alms-seeker. A failing plantation would also have the incentive to manumit even healthy slaves. Like horses, slaves can go from essential profit-making workers to unaffordable luxuries in the blink of an eye. You go bankrupt gradually, then suddenly. A chattel that eats and that no one will buy has a negative asset value. You just walk away, or in the case of a slave, you send him away.

                High-minded sentiments about liberty and equality written for public consumption in manumission registers should be taken with a grain of salt. An economy less backward than the South’s would have been able to create paid employment for these manumitted slaves and the South would have prospered more the more slaves were manumitted into productive labour. Instead, the South got the Civil War.

  9. Harrync sets the reader a hypothetical question about possibly freeing the slaves he has just inherited. Of course this was for many men not a hypothetical question. There were periods during which freeing your slaves was not legally possible, but when it was possible, a good number of slave-owners did free slaves, and often they were required to register the reasons at the county court house at the same time they registered the emancipation. So despite the fact that freeing slaves would disrupt their lives, they did it. Often they cited a version of the golden rule. Political ideas like those in the Declaration of Independence were also cited, by men who evidently took those ideas more seriously than Jefferson himself did. So even though harrync says he probably wouldn’t have disrupted his life by freeing his slaves, many men did disrupt their lives, and some disrupted their lives even more by breaking with their families or their churches or their friends.

    1. You make a good point, Cransdale. But, as the 19th century unfolded, the willingness of enslavers to free their slaves diminished. From arguing slavery was an unfortunate necessity that would someday disappear, enslavers began to argue that the institution was a positive good.

    2. Communicating one’s thoughts is hard. I’ll try again.
      Slave owners felt a type of fiduciary responsibility to their family. They would breach this responsibility if they were to free their slaves unilaterally. But they should check themselves that they are not using the responsibility to the family as an excuse to protect their own life of privilege. And remember I was talking about what I would have done if I lived in the South of the1840’s. I would have been indoctrinated in a much stronger sense of family responsibility than what I actually have today.

  10. Thank the gods that some common sense broke out at the National Audubon Society! Actually, “one of the founders of the first Audubon Society, George Bird Grinnell, decided to use the name Audubon based on his time being tutored by Lucy Audubon, John James Audubon’s widow.” So, this whole kerfuffle was based on a misconception.

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