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 In 1912, he attempted to have the 15th Amendment, which granted voting rights to African American men, repealed.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.