Essay
07.21.2020

We've honored a slave-trading tyrant for far too long.

This following is an excerpt from an essay in the forthcoming summer 2020 issue of the Claremont Review of Books. For the full essay, visit claremontreviewofbooks.com; to subscribe, click here.—Eds.

The Left’s cultural revolution is in one of its periodic Jacobin phases: statues defaced, beheaded, burned, and torn down; streets and schools and other things renamed; public spaces occupied by gun-wielding thugs. The iconoclasm has spread from attacks on Confederate monuments to statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Christopher Columbus, Ulysses S. Grant, Catholic saints, and even white abolitionists. New York’s American Museum of Natural History is taking down its famous Teddy Roosevelt statue.

New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio—a man (born Warren Wilhelm, Jr.) who knows something about name changes—is reviewing the racist and/or slave connections of street names. He has already mentioned the avenue named for Robert E. Lee, and is looking for others. Columbus Avenue, Columbia University, the Washington Bridge, maybe even Madison Avenue and Washington Square are not long for this world. Meanwhile, Princeton University intends to rename its Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs because of Wilson’s notorious racism, and several elementary and high schools named for Jefferson are contemplating a re-branding because of his racism and slave ownership. Activists make similar attacks on Washington. There is talk of renaming James Madison College at Michigan State University. Consistency demands that Yale University, named after the slave trader who endowed the institution, also change its name. Perhaps the University of Pennsylvania and Brown University will be renamed, too, since William Penn also owned slaves, and, although the Brown for whom the school is named was an abolitionist, his family had been involved with the slave trade.

If we really wish to remove names associated with slavery, one obvious candidate, and I am hardly the first to mention this, is New York City itself. It was named for James, Duke of York, brother of King Charles II of England. Together, they attacked the Dutch outpost of New Netherland and, after its capture, rechristened it “New York.” Like his brother, James was a would-be tyrant, particularly where the colonies were concerned. After having seen Parliament execute his father, he and his brother had little taste for the growing representative assemblies in the colonies, and tried their best to do away with them. More important for contemporary debates, as the Daily Caller’s Thomas Phippen has noted in his discussion of New York’s name, James masterminded the newly created “Royal African Company” that set out to take the African slave trade from the Dutch.

Ignoring the Possibilities

History is, of course, more complicated than partisans would like it to be. And those complexities have much to teach about today’s “1619 riots,” as Charles R. Kesler called them recently in the New York Post. He notes that the New York Times seized upon 1619 as the year for their rewrite of U.S. history because that’s the year the first slaves arrived in Virginia. Racism is, in the words of Nikole Hannah-Jones, the reporter the Times put in charge of the 1619 Project, “in the very DNA of this country.” But DNA, Kesler notes, is something that cannot be changed. Hence the rhetoric of the 1619 Project is rhetoric of futility. Like bringing democracy to Iraq or a sense of humor to Presbyterians, ending racism in the U.S., from this point of view, is impossible.

…read the rest at claremontreviewofbooks.com.

is associate professor of history at California State University, San Bernardino.

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