On Jan. 26, the San Francisco Board of Education voted 6-1 to rename 44 schools, removing many historical names, including George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Washington’s name was removed because he was a slave holder. Lincoln’s because of his treatment of the native peoples of the United States.
Amid the outrage, cat calls, jokes and bewilderment that have greeted this decision nationally, few have really inquired whether the decision was just. It wasn’t. But the matter is not as simple as critics contend.
On the right, the action was dismissed with disdain as progressivism run amok. A good reason not to let Democrats govern anything and one more reason, along with high taxes, to leave San Francisco.
On the left, there was a hesitancy to be seen as siding with slavery and racism, so the criticisms were aimed at other matters.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed, for example, issued a statement urging the board to develop a plan to reopen the city schools before worrying about school names. Others decried the absence of historians, or noted other flaws, in the renaming process.
The closest critics have come to the merits of the decision is to point out, as Pulitzer prize-winning historian Eric Foner did, that “If you can only name schools after people who were perfect, you will have a lot of unnamed schools.”
But these historic crimes were not character flaws in particular historical figures.
The system of chattel slavery and the European, and later white, genocide of the native peoples of the Americas were atrocities on a par with anything Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia or Mao’s China ever committed. On a par, for that matter, with any of the other horrible crimes in human history.
Just as we would not honor Mao’s many accomplishments because of the blood on his hands, why should we honor Washington and Lincoln for the good they did despite their complicity in these crimes?
Actually, we should honor Washington and Lincoln. There is a difference in these examples. The school board’s error was in failing to understand the category of the moral crimes of an age.
All human beings are creatures of their times. It is the very rare genius who recognizes any of the crimes of her own culture. And no one recognizes them all. Even Jesus had to be instructed in inclusion by a Canaanite woman.
So, it did not occur to most men throughout recorded history that excluding women from public life was monstrous. That was not a character flaw. It was the lens of culture.
Our age is no exception. Its crimes are mostly invisible to us.
Future generations will find our willingness to kill sentient beings for food inconceivable. What will strike our descendants as morally damning is not just the hideous brutality of factory farming, with its massive pens of animals that can hardly move and genetically induced weight gain, but the whole notion of killing animals for food when doing so is totally unnecessary, unhealthy for us and damaging to the planet. Every meat-eater is a criminal.
And, just as was the case with earlier crimes, many of us have vague notions that what we are doing is wrong. I was a vegetarian for much of my adult life for moral reasons. Then, I just stopped. In a meat-eating culture, it is easy to make compromises.
It is hard to overcome the crimes of the age.
Washington’s slave owning and Lincoln’s policies with regard to native peoples fall into the category of crimes of their age. Washington supported gradual emancipation. But his own actions were not consistent with his more general views.
Lincoln presided over the largest mass execution in American history after attacks on white settlements. But his 264 commutations in connection with the attacks was simultaneously the largest act of executive clemency in American history.
Unquestionably, they participated and were culpable in the crimes of their age. But they did not further these crimes. They lessened them.
That is all that can be demanded of any leader.
And it distinguishes Washington and Lincoln from others who also command respect, but who did further the crimes of their age. America owes a debt to Robert E. Lee for his acceptance of peace after the Civil War. But no school should be named for him.
It is not that Washington’s legacy outweighs his ownership of slaves. How could any good he did outweigh such an evil?
It is not that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation outweighs the hanging of the soldiers of a Tribal Nation. That action was morally reprehensible and nothing takes that away.
Even talking about what actions outweigh evils like this is morally wrong.
What we must do to confront our past in an honorable way is make judgments about the evils of the age and the relationship of individuals to those evils.
Once we see that relationship, we can honor those men and women who recognized some of the evils of their age and took steps to confront them. Then, their accomplishments can be given full appreciation.
In those terms, we can honor Washington and Lincoln. Both men recognized the evils of their times and did what they felt they could to combat them.
Despite their complicity, we can acknowledge their contributions. Washington created the American tradition of the peaceful transfer of power when many would have made him President for life. Lincoln turned a war for the preservation of the union into a crusade against slavery. What we owe to them can never be repaid. Any student should be proud to attend a school named for them.
Failing to see and to fight all the evils of your age just makes you human. It does not follow that your name should be removed from the schoolhouse wall.
Opinion contributor Bruce Ledewitz teaches constitutional law at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Listen to his podcast, “Bends Toward Justice” here.