Today, for insight into the ongoing controversy over all things Confederate, we turn to two of our favorite philosophers — Thomas Jefferson and Paul Simon.
Jefferson once wrote “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion” — a colorful way of saying that public dissent is a good thing because it keeps governments in check.
Paul Simon, on his landmark “Graceland” album, sang “every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.” (The song was “The Boy in the Bubble.”)
What happens if we combine those two thoughts? Well, we might get Jefferson listening through earbuds to the latest Billie Ellish. Or we might get this: Why do we expect names — or even statues — to last forever?
Obviously we mean this facetiously — or maybe it’s not so obvious to some. But think of this as a thought experiment: What if every time we named something after someone famous, or put up a statue in their honor, it came with a sunset clause?
If one generation wants to honor someone, have at it. But the next generation should have the opportunity to renew that name — or discard it.
A previous generation didn’t just throw heroes up the pop charts, it put them up in granite, marble and bronze. That generation’s pop stars are gone— one of the top songs in 1890, the year that the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond was erected, was “Down Upon The Suwannee River” by Professor Baton’s Brass and String Military Band. Professor Baton hasn’t had many hits lately. Why must that generation’s other cultural choices still endure unless they are re-affirmed by people today?
Jefferson himself might even endorse that view. In 1789 he wrote to James Madison: “The question [of] whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water. Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government.” Jefferson eventually came down on the side that no, one generation can’t bind another: “I set out on this ground, which I suppose to be self-evident, ‘that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living’ that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.” Those were his italics by the way, not ours. “Usufruct” is a legal term that means the right to use somebody else’s property — the idea here being that the earth really isn’t ours, we’re just passing through this world, and while we can do what we want, we can’t require those who follow to do as we have done. (This is a lesson every parent eventually learns). So why must we be bound today by decisions made by the generation of 1890? Or 1903 in the case of the Confederate statue in front of the Tazewell County courthouse or 1904 in the case of Floyd County and so forth? Granted, some decisions are irreversible. Nobody’s undoing the Louisiana Purchase or the result of the Battle of Gettysburg. Names, though, are easily changed (just look at how often sports stadiums change their names as sponsors change) and statues can be moved (as we’re seeing now). Yes, the whole idea of naming something after someone important is to make sure their legacy endures, but does it really?
Here’s a case in point: How many people in Bedford County today really take time to think about the historical figure their county was named after — John Russell, the Fourth Duke of Bedford? None, we bet. But here are some things about Russell that you may find interesting: Russell was politically important for the Whigs in Great Britain in the 1700s, but he also got fired from the cabinet because he was considered a lazy dodger who spent too much time at his country estate playing cricket and shooting pheasants. A historical account published by the Royal Irish Academy says that Bedford was considered “haughty, imperious and insolent in his general demeanor, hasty in forming his resolutions and generally injudicious in the execution of them. He possessed very exalted ideas of his rank and no very humble ones of his abilities. The great object of his life was popularity; and he never obtained it for an hour.”
Russell’s most enduring legacy is the name of a county he once indirectly oversaw when he was in charge of colonial affairs. Not to put too fine a point on things, but Bedford was named after a politically-connected layabout. Russell was inspirational in one way — he inspired a riot in 1765. London weavers wanted a tariff on the importation of Italian silks; Russell did not and historian Marjorie Bloy says he spoke with such “uncommon harshness” about them that the weavers pelted him with stones and later attacked his home. Bedford County, this is your namesake.
See what we mean about names? Just because somebody in the 1700s thought it would be a good idea to stick Bedford’s name on a patch of wilderness across the ocean, why must modern-day Bedford County have to put up with such an insulting name? If people in Bedford today don’t consider the name insulting — because they have no idea who the Fourth Duke of Bedford actually was — then that simply underscores our point. An 18th-century attempt to make sure we forever honor the Fourth Duke of Bedford has failed because nobody today knows who he even was. So why shouldn’t the people of that county today be free to pick a new, more appropriate name? In theory, they are, we just don’t think about such things very much. What if we did? Suppose, say, every 20 years (to borrow Jefferson’s timeline), communities had to vote on whether to keep up certain statues, or retain the name of public buildings, or anything else named after historical figures. Rather than “erase history,” as some might think, that might actually force people to learn more history. Who was William Fleming? Or James Breckinridge? Or Lord Botetourt? Are they still worthy of having schools name after them? Just because those were considered the most worthy names at the time, are there others now that we’d consider even more worthy?
It’s a fine thing to name buildings after famous people or even put up statues in their honor. Over the years, we’ve proposed quite a few historical figures who should be honored that way — from former Rep. Caldwell Butler to the 19th-century Virginia abolitionist and social reformer John Underwood. And we’d like to think that a hundred years from now, people will still want to honor them. But shouldn’t the people then be able to make that choice on their own?
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