President McKinley’s Statue And Revisiting The Newlands Fountain Principles

The statue-toppling mania as a part of the Left’s cultural revolution and determination to remake history in its own image—a form of thought-control–hasn’t abated; it’s just been eclipsed in the news cycle. For the record, 28 cities have removed close to a hundred statues of Confederate figures alone. Meanwhile, the statue topplers, flushed with victory, are raiding their sights to include Founders like Washington, Jefferson and Madison, politically-incorrect Presidents like Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt, and others. You can read, if you have lots of time, most of the Ethics Alarms posts on this topic here and here.

It isn’t just statues, of course. It is honors of every kind: university dining halls and dorms, Democratic party annual dinners, and much more. The Boston Red Sox have petitioned the city to retract the honor of a having a street by Fenway Park named after the man who made the team the regional institution is is today, and who was primarily responsible for the team remaining in Boston.

The latest mutation of the culturally-rotting virus has Native Americans demanding that memorials and honors to any figure whose legacy offends them must be eliminated. Five years after President William McKinley was assassinated,  George Zehnder presented the Northern California city of Arcata with an 8.5-foot-tall statue honoring him.  Arcata home to Humboldt State University, placed it in the city’s main square.

McKinley was no Confederate: he was a Union war hero at the Battle of Antietam. He was also a popular and effective President. He was elected in 1896 while the nation was in a serious depression, and was successful enough in getting the economy back on its feet that he was re-elected in 1900, the first Republican to get a second term since Grant.  He, not Teddy Roosevelt, led the U.S. into international significance, winning the Spanish-American War, and acquiring Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. He also gave his life for national service, as have all our Presidents who died in office. Ah, but President McKinley also oversaw federal policies that continued the decline of Native American tribes in the U.S., and reservation lands were reduced by as much as 90 million acres. during his administration. Now the Tribal Council of the Wiyot Tribe in Northern California senses a chance at revenge.  It is demanding that the statue of McKinley be removed.

Almost four years ago, before the din of falling statues became a faint hum, like locusts, across the land, I wrote about a controversy in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where a fountain at the center of Chevy Chase Circle honored Francis Griffith Newlands,  a U.S. Senator who also founded the Chevy Chase Land Co., which in turn created neighborhoods on the Washington and Maryland sides of the circle. Senator Newlands also was a racist, and a proactive one. He was a white supremacist who even attempted to have  the 15th Amendment, which granted voting rights to African American men, repealed.

To assist in the analysis of when and whether any honor to a historical figure should be withdrawn, I offered a series of seven guiding principles:

I. 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.

II. 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.

III. The George Washington Principle. Avoid “presentism or cultural chauvinism, and harshly judging historical figures who held 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.

IV. The Thomas Jefferson PrincipleSeparate the art, ideas and inspiration from the man. The cultural value of philosophers, artists and writers should be based on their works 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, the culture, and civilization.

V. The LBJ Principle. Motives do not matter as much as the conduct. 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 thought about black people is insignificant compared to what Johnson did for the country and the black race.

VI. 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 not 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.

VII. The Abner Doubleday Principle. A truly mistaken honor can and should be retracted. If a figure was honored by mistake, if a critical fact about him or her was not known to the public when a memorial or honor was bestowed, or if subsequent scholarship demonstrate that the honored individual actually harmed the interests of those who mistakenly honored him, that 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.

To these, I now add an eighth:

VIII. The William McKinley Principle. The fact one group views an individual’s life and career negatively and has legitimate grievances against him or her does not justify eliminating an honor bestowed by a community for other achievements.

I should mention that the Chevy Chase Fountain still honors Senator Newlands, and correctly so. Principle I applies.

(BOY, that’s a terrible statue of McKinley..)

16 thoughts on “President McKinley’s Statue And Revisiting The Newlands Fountain Principles

    • V & VI. Columbus may not have been the first, but his discovery is what opened up the New World for major exploration and, ultimately, significant settlement. Regardless of his personal opinions, it’s an accomplishment that had a huge impact.

  1. Jack, It was because of one of your previous posts that, when we were on vacation last year, I insisted on stopping at the Antietam Battlefield and hunting down the monument to McKinley who worked through the battle to make sure soldiers had food and drink. I kept meaning to thank you for the pointer. Now is as good a time as any.

    Later in the year, we were in Columbus, OH, and walked the statehouse grounds where there is a huge monument to McKinley right out in front. A smaller monument nearby honors Ohio’s other significant Civil War persons (Grant, Sherman, Stanton, Sheridan, Hayes, Garfield and Salmon Chase).

    None of us would want our entire lives to be defined by the worst decisions we ever made. It’s my opinion that, with relatively few exceptions (Hitler, Charlie Manson, et al), most don’t deserve to be defined that way or held accountable for the ignorance of the Age in which they lived.

  2. I am going to the Virginia International Tattoo end of this month in Norfolk. I think I may stop off in Richmond on the way home to photograph the statuary, I don’t know if I’ll get another chance.

  3. In partial rebuttal, let me suggest The Ozymandias Principle: Eventually, it’s time to take down the statues. There are only so many mountains we can name after Presidents. There are only so many streets and campus auditoriums we can name after famous people. Just because people once thought it was a good idea to name things after the great men of their day doesn’t mean we have to honor their wishes forever afterwards. Eventually, as those people recede into history, it becomes time to remove the old names to make room for the new names. This need not be all-or-nothing. So maybe we no longer need 1000 monuments to famous figures of the Confederacy. Maybe we can get rid of a few hundred of the least popular ones to make room for something else.

      • That’s the big if, eh? I can see changing names when a national identity changes, but not just because a few people with big mouths say they are offended.

    • The title doesn’t fit, for starters. Ozymandias is a poem about a statue that didn’t necessarily get taken down, but came down due to the ravages of time, into which the ruler who put it up has also receded. Presumably he has receded because he didn’t do anything of lasting influence or significance, and none of his adherents remain to keep the statue maintained. If he was in fact just a tyrant of the ancient world who is not now well-regarded and never was, then let him lie there. Hammurabi, not so much. Alexander, not so much, and so on.

      The idea of allowing significant achievers or influential individuals to just “recede into history” is dangerously close to hostility to history and also dangerously close to giving the present generation a monopoly on honor and distorting historical significance. Gutenberg invented the printing press over five centuries ago, and we’re all able to ready pretty much whatever we want because of him. Columbus landed in 1492, does that mean we get to shove him into the background now? More importantly, 4 in 10 millennials can’t tell the significance of the Holocaust and don’t understand its origins, meaning that lesson of history is in danger of being lost. Yanking down statues from 50 years ago is just going to hasten the process of forgetting history and its lessons, and forward the idea that the past has very little to teach the living. I refuse to tolerate the sneer at history of a man-bun-wearing, scruffy blogger who thinks he is somehow significant for spewing profane insults at the president. I refuse to accept the uninformed opinion that history means nothing from some 21yo in yoga pants who posted 5 selfies on Instagram before breakfast this morning.

      Now riddle me this: somewhere in the Western PA/Eastern Ohio region stands a solitary mountain, of some hard rock that remained after wind and weather wore away the surrounding material. The Indians in the area called it Kayonkwere, literally “the arrow” due to its sharp peak and position relative to the stars. The French later built Fort St. Denis in the area and called it Mont Gris, “Mount Gray” due to its color. Eventually the French and Indian War happened and the British laid siege to the fort, which eventually fell, and they renamed the mountain Mount Wenlock, after one of their commanders who fell during the siege. Finally the American Revolution came, and the Americans took the fort and renamed the mountain Mount Willis, after a local militia commander, instrumental in the taking of the fort, who later went to Congress, both to honor him and to get rid of the British name. It’s been known as Mount Willis ever since. Tourists frequently ascend it for the view, there is a bronze of Colonel Willis and colonial infantry and a smallish welcome center explaining the history. Which name should we use?

  4. Ozymandias (a.k.a. Ramesses II) probably had that statue built himself, and the poem is about the pride of men being lost to the dust of history. But Ramesses built a lot of things, and the remnants of several of them still stand today. He was arguably the greatest Egyption pharaoh. Thus the poem is also inadvertently about Shelley’s presentism as a member of the British empire. That said, the Egyptians did eventually either let most of his statues fall (he built a lot of them), or tear them down to make way for new things.

    As for your mountain, I think it kind of makes my point. It’s had four names in a few hundred years of recorded history. Whatever its name should be, there’s no good reason to believe that the way things are now is they way they should always be. That too is a kind of presentism.

    • Your principle is that eventually everything has to come down, and that nothing endures. Certain historical figures and events were important enough that their influence will always endure: Christ, Mohammed, Columbus, Gutenberg, Hastings, Yorktown, Britain are all people and events that can’t and shouldn’t be erased.

  5. From principle 7:

    “…If a figure was honored by mistake, if a critical fact about him or her was not known to the public when a memorial or honor was bestowed…”

    I think that should read:

    “If a figure was honored by mistake, if a critical fact about him or her relating to the reason they are being honored that would undermine the honor was not known to the public when a memorial or honor was bestowed”

    As originally worded, the principle could potentially conflict with 2, 3 & 4.

    Unless I’m misreading something.

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