Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, cities and towns are belatedly but necessarily purging public spaces of the names and images of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the soldiers who served his treasonous, pro-slavery cause.
There has been a lot going on — a pandemic, right-wing violence — much of it no doubt more immediately concerning than the latest burst of Left Coast ideological excess.
Still, it’s worth focusing for a moment on this particular absurdity, which implies moral equivalence between those who led the Confederacy and those who crushed it, and why it is so culturally pernicious.
The sheer extremism cannot be overstated. On Jan. 27, the board voted 6 to 1 to rename 44 schools that currently honor those “engaged in the subjugation and enslavement of human beings; or who oppressed women, inhibiting societal progress; or whose actions led to genocide; or who otherwise significantly diminished the opportunities of those amongst us to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Not only is Lincoln to be scoured from an 80-year-old high school because, in 1862, he presided over the hangings of 38 rebellious Native Americans in Minnesota. Also the third president, Thomas Jefferson — who articulated the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” in the first place — failed to pass muster, because of his slaveholding.
Who could pass the board’s test? Barack Obama’s evolution on gay marriage resembles Lincoln’s own two-steps forward, one-step back progress on slavery and race. Obama asserted religious reservations at one point and as late as 2012 gently rebuked his vice president, Joe Biden, for committing their ticket to the idea earlier than Obama deemed politically wise.
Did that “significantly diminish opportunities”? In 2019, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) hailed “the bold and visionary leadership of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” and promised to model a Sanders presidency on FDR’s. According to the panel advising the school board, though, Sanders’s hero is unworthy of a school naming, in part because of his wartime internment of U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent.
“Change is a good thing,” board member Matt Alexander breezily observed, apropos his vote for the board’s plan — and, indeed, there’s a case for some updating of San Francisco’s school names to account for new norms and new heroes. As the board proposed, James Lick Middle School could go, especially since the private Lick-Wilmerding High School still honors this 19th-century business tycoon and philanthropist.
Nor should students be taught to honor Jefferson and FDR without also comprehending the dark sides of their legacies.
But Lincoln? Far from pursuing Native Americans in the Minnesota uprising, he took huge political risks to prevent federal troops from hanging many more of them (as my colleague David Von Drehle has shown). Yes, he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation as a war-winning measure as much as a liberationist one; he harbored anti-Black sentiments, which is why Frederick Douglass regarded him with mixed feelings.
Even Douglass, however, ultimately reached a positive verdict on Lincoln’s public acts and private attitudes, calling him “one of the very few Americans, who could entertain a negro and converse with him without in anywise reminding him of the unpopularity of his color.”
The mayor of San Francisco, London Breed, has criticized the purge as a waste of effort and money, at a time when the city’s schools are still closed due to the pandemic.
Yet neither Breed nor any of California’s other top Democratic officials has challenged the board’s vilification of Lincoln on the merits, much less the broader implications of the board’s moralizing about this country’s complex history. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who represents San Francisco, could be a particularly important voice on this issue, but has so far declined to weigh in.
Lincoln’s greatest contribution to American political culture was his oratory, including his temperate plea to rebuild after the Civil War “with malice toward none; with charity for all.”
Lincoln spoke from a deep sense that all Americans, himself included, bore responsibility for the national sins that had led to war, because evil and error, alas, are humanity’s common lot.
The spirit behind the San Francisco decree is different — less humble, more Jacobin. It lacks self-awareness, too. By stigmatizing the nation’s greatest president, the school board would vindicate its worst: In 2017, Donald Trump predicted that taking down Confederate monuments would lead to similar moves against George Washington, and sure enough, the board in San Francisco has voted his name off a school, too.
Future generations may judge them harshly for that.