Chevy Chase Circle is the official border separating the District of Columbia and Chevy Chase, Maryland. The inscription on the fountain at the center of Chevy Chase Circle honors Francis Griffith Newlands, saying, “His statesmanship held true regard for the interests of all men.” He was a three-term senator from Nevada, serving from 1903 until his death in 1917, but more important to this controversy, founded the Chevy Chase Land Co., which created neighborhoods on the Washington and Maryland sides of the circle. Yes, the founder of Chevy Chase is honored with a fountain in Chevy Chase Circle. What could possibly be wrong with that?
The problem is that Senator Newlands was a racist, and a proactive one. He was a white supremacist who described blacks as “a race of children” too intellectually handicapped for democracy. In 1912, he attempted to have the 15th Amendment, which granted voting rights to African American men, repealed. Not surprisingly, his vision of Chevy Chase did not include black residents, or Jewish ones for that matter.
The Advisory Neighborhood Commission that represents the D.C. section of Chevy Chase wants to remove Newlands’ name from the fountain, and has introduced a resolution calling on the D.C. Historic Preservation Office to rename the landmark “Chevy Chase Fountain.” The reason is his advocacy of anti-black policies.
This is a classic ethics conflict, a problem in which valid ethics principles oppose each other. There are so many conflicting ethical principles and objectives at work here:
1. If a figure is honored for a particular achievement of note, should other aspects of his life and character matter? This is the J.Edgar Hoover problem: no question about it, he created the Federal Bureau of Investigation. How can one say that the agency’s home shouldn’t bear his name?
2. Yet surely we can’t hold that nothing in a figure’s life is so reprehensible that it shouldn’t preclude pubic honors—but what? Who decides?
3. Are there beliefs and kinds of conduct that are absolute bars to continuing honor?
4. Is it fair to penalize major historical figures for holding beliefs that are regarded as harmful, unjust and wrong today? Should people who lived a century earlier be held to the same standards of virtue as those who have had the benefit of an extra hundred years of accumulated thought, wisdom and experience?
5. Should not present generations honor past generations’ choices of heroes, at least to the extent of allowing their intentions of carving out some small immortality for those they chose to honor staying in place? Should the public square have a constantly changing landscape of memorials, rising and falling according to the trends and sentiments of the times?
6. One the other hand, surely future generations should not have to suffer in perpetuity because a man or woman who deserves infamy rather than immorality was inflicted on posterity by short-sighted ancestors.
There is no set of absolute standards that can be applied across the board to all such situations when they arise. Such controversies as the Chevy Chase Fountain should be decided on a case by case basis, with a few principles in mind:
The J. Edgar Hoover Principle. Don’t whitewash history. An achievement is an achievement, and a builder, inventor, discoverer, author or founder should be accorded appropriate credit. We can honor a worthy achievement without honoring the entire life of the achiever.
The John Paul Jones Principle. Some accomplishments of major value and significance outweigh even serious personal character flaws. The nation owes a debt to Jones, though he appears to have been a child molester.
The George Washington Principle. Avoid “presentism or cultural chauvenism”—harshly judging historical figures who held the views and engaged in practices that were not regarded as wrong in their times and culture. Recognize a figure for evolving in his beliefs over time, and not blocking reform. Washington was a slaveholder in a culture that lived by slavery, yet he came to believe the practice was wrong, and acted on that belief.
The Thomas Jefferson Principle. The cultural value of philosophers, artists and writers should be based on their ideas and their beneficial effects on society, culture and civilization. Their personal flaws and conduct, including hypocrisy, should not be used to diminish their contributions to the nation and civilization.
The LBJ Principle. Motives do not matter as much as the conduct. The current film “Selma” has come under attack from historians and colleagues of Lyndon Johnson for representing Johnson as a racist who only grudgingly supported the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The critical civil rights laws that passed under Johnson would not have been possible without his full commitment and political skills, as the tapes of Johnson’s phone conversations with reluctant legislators proves beyond the shadow of a doubt. What he may have called black people is insignificant compared to what Johnson did for the country and the black race.
The J.D. Watson Principle. When a historical figure’s major contribution is in one field and the black mark on his legacy is in another, one need no diminish the other. Watson changed the world for the better with his discovery of the double helix. His later controversial comments in race does not diminish our obligation to honor him for that.
The Abner Doubleday Principle. If a figure was honored by mistake, or if a critical fact about him or her was not known to the public when a memorial or honor was bestowed, the honor can be fairly and justly retracted. Plaques giving General Doubleday credit for inventing baseball were based on rumor and faulty research. Posterity has no obligation to bolster a lie.
And Francis Griffith Newlands? The verdict here is that the J. Edgar Hoover Principle applies. The fountain should keep its name.
Facts: Washington Post, Bethesda Now
25 thoughts on “The Ethics Conflict Of Chevy Chase’s Newlands Fountain and How To Resolve It”
When we attempt to edit history we end up erasing and replacing it with a more desirable version. As a result, that which actually occurred is lost forever in favor of pleasing propaganda.
It didn’t though, did it? This was a bald-faced lie at the time, and is still one. It has no place on a memorial.
By all means keep the name. But replace the plaque so that it tells the truth, that the Chevy Chase that he founded was a segregated,covenanted community, no blacks or jews allowed.
By all means state any good things he did too.
The plaque does remind me of the Jacques Brel song “The Statue” in which a statue is mortified by the lies on his statue’s inscription. I see no requirement other than to note the man’s dates and his accomplishment warranting the honor. There’s no need to note that he beat his dog, was flatulent and cheated at cards,nor any of the other bad stuff.
No, leave the plaque intact; it censors history and an important primary source to remove or modify the monument. Newlands likely thought he was acting in the best interest of the “black” race, however despicable the results.
However, a discreet exhibit placed outside the moment, explaining the context of the plaque and monument would be appropriate. Racism is a very complicated topic that very few today show sufficient understanding of. Giving a little bit of insight into what these men were thinking, explaining how they could both contribute positively to society, while also holding and promoting repugnant views, could go a long way to helping today’s public better understand what is and is not racism.
Senator Newlands was hardly the only public figure to leave a mixed legacy; either by the standards of his own time or by ours. Frankly Jack, I find some of your analyses of certain people a little appalling!
1. “He’s not the only one”= “Everybody does it.” Come on. You know better than that!
2. Bill Cosby…now THERE’s a mixed legacy.
3. Well, yes, that’s why the post isn’t just about Newland but the general problem.
4. “Certain people?’ Like who? Surely not Hoover,Washington, Jefferson, Jones, Watson, Johnson or Doubleday! All 100% factual.
You can’t blame the community for not being keen on honoring a Senator who tried to take away black suffrage in 1912 after 38 years!
The George Washington principle really doesn’t apply here. Certainly, there was no shortage of racists a century ago, but activism at the level you described would still be considered extreme.
I don’t think the GW principle applies to Newlands, and I didn’t write that, or intend to convey it. You are right: he’s a reverse George…while everyone else was coming along and figuring it out, he went in the other direction.
I never said that their pasts should be ignored, Jack. I just meant that they should be viewed in their full perspective. Sometimes, that’s condemning rather than ameliorating. Lyndon Johnson, for example, is on my personal list as not only the most destructive president of the 20th Century, but likely the biggest criminal besides. What he did to black Americans in terms of culture and morality has become a greater detriment to them than the physical liabilities of slavery. The plantation owners didn’t try to crush their souls. Lyndon did… and has largely succeeded.
That’s hindsight bias at best, though, SMP. Without LBJ’s efforts, the civil rights movement would have become bloody and perhaps revolutionary. I think Johnson’s an under-rated President because of Vietnam, and along with Nixon one of the very few we’ve had that had total mastery of the office from the start of their first term.
Vietnam or the Great Society. Either one should have been sufficient by itself to put Johnson in the running for worst president of the century. Both together sealed it.
LBJ killed Jim Crow, and whatever unforseen consequences—the welfare state, budget deficits, you pick em—that came as well were worth it. , which AS for Vietnam, his only mistake was not winning it before public opinion turned on him.
LBJ deliberately turned the entire black race in America into virtual wards of the state with the intent of thus making them dependent on big government- and thus the Democrat Party- into the forseeable future. That he thereby destroyed their families, faith and future meant nothing to him. As for Vietnam, it was Johnson’s idea to introduce a large conscript army into the war with a political, no-win goal. The Army has been dealing with that legacy ever since.
There was no middle ground between apartheid and a transitional period of government assistance to help African Americans get past the triple obstacles of slavery, Jim Crow and acculturated prejudice. It wasn’t up to LBJ to stop the race hustlers who wanted to make the necessary aid a permanent crutch. Sure getting votes was part of the impetus—that’s the system. I think you are dead wrong about The Great Society—an ethical grand plan that overreached, was mismanaged, and didn’t work.
And socialistically unconstitutional from the onset. The eventual goal was to place all Americans in governmental bondage with the black population as the vanguards of the effort. Johnson was building on the progressive agendas of Roosevelt and Wilson before him and upon which Obama has attempted to wrap up the process. Johnson was the first great race hustler himself. BTW: I just read over Michael Ejercito’s remarks on this same subject. He’s got it right.
No, he’s overheated too. I would not disagree with this, however: “Johnson was building on the progressive agendas of Roosevelt and Wilson before him and upon which Obama has attempted to wrap up the process.”
The big difference is that Wilson, FDR and Johnson were skilled leaders, and Obama isn’t.
They were skilled, all right. But to what end? It’s only pure dumb luck for America that Obama has proved largely unskillful. However, by standing on the shoulders of those others, he’s still managed to bring America to the brink of socialist tyranny. Nor is there any assurance that he may not yet succeed in finishing what those others began.
“[T[he plantation owners didn’t try to crush their souls.”
1. Public auctions where it was common to be stripped naked.
2. Deliberate separation of families — for profit or as a means of punishment.
3. Forbidding education
4. Rampant rape by plantation owners and overseers in their employ.
5. Whippings and/or brandings
6. Working in hellish conditions from sunrise to sunset.
7. Food/medical attention at the pleasure of your owner
8. Being “owned” by someone and not being permitted to leave that person’s property without a written note (that you couldn’t read anyway).
9. Having no control over your own destiny.
Which of these do you NOT think is soul crushing?
And yet, I still find the argument that LBJ’s finally putting a stake through Jim Crow’s heart was worse than all of these combined the most head-blasting aspect of SMP’s comment. Mama mia.
It was the Great Society that did this.
that is the legacy of the Great Society.
It may have been responsible or partially responsible, but no one can argue seriously that this was its intent, or that anyone predicted this result at the time…or even that this had to be the result, absent some cynical and manipulative bad actors. Consequentialism.
Even if EVERYTHING in that article is true, it doesn’t mention LBJ or the Civil Rights Act.
I would also add that stats during slavery are pretty ridiculous — even if they are accurate. If your biological parents are not allowed to leave the plantation, chances are that you will live a long time with your parents.
As for two parent households, I would argue that should be the goal regardless of race. But I’ll also add that being a single parent does not always equal poverty or bad parenting — I certainly know some great ones. But that’s a different topic.
I’m a little shocked and disturbed that Steven’s comment about plantation owners’ not crushing slaves’ souls hasn’t received a loud and immediate chorus of, “That’s absurd!”
I thought you delivered a pretty definitive rebuttal on that one, Beth. I couldn’t improve on it.
You’ve been reading “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” again, Bethie. Even the most abusive of slave owners had nothing on what the Great Society did to black Americans. Consider the caliber of black people of prominence who came up from slavery and match them against the Al Sharptons and Sheila Jackson-Lees of today- the true children of a racist demagogue called Lyndon Baines Johnson.