Interring the Good
The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.- Wm. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
We are all human and recognize in others strengths and weaknesses. Generally we choose to amplify those: those whose accomplishments seem notable are heroes, those whose failings seem pronounced become villains. What has become more common in the past few decades is to revise evaluations using present standards of conduct. So, for instance, you might think of Columbus, who was lauded for centuries for opening the New World to the Old, but in recent years that accomplishment has come to be viewed as a mixed blessing or an outright calamity, leading to fewer places recognizing this as a holiday.
But Columbus’s loss of stature is in large part a change in our view of the accomplishment and less a revision of how we view Columbus the man (though he has taken hits there, too). A more pertinent example might be Thomas Jefferson, whose accomplishments as a statesman and president retain their luster, but whose personal behavior (most notably being a slave owner) has caused many to deride him. Is Thomas Jefferson now more villain than hero?
Let us move to a more obscure former hero. Joseph LeConte was a scientist and professor at the University of California, but it is not for his geologic musings that he had long been lauded. LeConte was a key player in the creation of the Sierra Club. He died in Yosemite Valley, and the club helped build a small memorial building in his memory. In 2015, the club acted to remove his name from the building upon being confronted with LeConte’s writings on racial superiority that are repugnant today. The club justified removing LeConte’s name both as promoting inclusivity in the national park and better naming the building for its current purpose as an educational facility.
You might think LeConte’s demotion to be similar to the removal of John Calhoun’s name at Yale. But Calhoun’s most notable accomplishments were to fracture the United States, attempt to legitimize secession, and incite the Civil War; the more appropriate response might be amazement that a building in the 1930s could be named for a person arguably better defined as a traitor than a patriot. LeConte’s racial musings were nearly unknown even at the time of his death (and are not discussed in the 67 page National Academy Memorial); his name seemed unlikely to insult modern sensibilities the way Calhoun’s does (or Jefferson Davis’s, or other prominent Southerners).
LeConte’s memorial was built largely with funds from friends and family of LeConte. It is certainly likely that these people could well tell of deficiencies in Joseph’s behavior but felt his contributions outweighed those deficiencies. It was not a memorial to his racist views, which were not mentioned in obituaries at the time (views, by the ways, that are echoed in some writings of remaining heroes like John Muir and Abraham Lincoln); it was a memorial to the good he had done. Removing his name from such a structure is closer to defacing a tombstone than renaming a university building. By scraping LeConte’s name from the building, the Sierra Club has arguably sought to whitewash the dark side of the environmental organization itself more than correct a festering wrong. It is worth recognizing that the club has at times been prominently anti-immigrant, it battled Native Americans in the Grand Canyon and many other places where club-sponsored parks abrogated Native access to traditional lands, and it was virtually irrelevant if not occasionally antagonistic to peoples of color through most of its history. Keeping LeConte’s name would have encouraged people to ask “Who was LeConte, and why name this for him?”–a question that would have allowed exploration of the good LeConte did as well as both expose the myopia that was widespread in the early conservation movement and discuss the tensions between its focus on nature and other societal issues. It would be better for us to come to grips with the checkered characters of those who came before us than to simply erase them from memory; it is probably easier to objectively examine LeConte, a name most Yosemite visitors would not recognize, than to try to challenge people’s perceptions of better known figures like Muir.
Finally, a word of warning: judge not, least ye be judged. Many activities we do today may well come to be viewed as barbaric and repugnant in the future. Consider, for instance, consumption of meat. The view of some today might be the cultural norm 100 years from now. Might the achievements of, say, Martin Luther King become devalued because he ate a steak or chicken? We’ve seen an appearance by the Dali Lama protested by anti-meat advocates. Or maybe society will come to view abortion as many opponents today view it; will the Harry Potter books be banned because of the views on abortion of their author? None of us are perfect, and so there will always be blemishes. Are we all doomed to have those blemishes overwhelm whatever good we do?
LeConte was on the wrong side of slavery as the son of a plantation owner, and he shared a misguided view of the nature of race in two publications, views quite on the periphery of his scientific output and views that echoed others that could be found in serious scientific publications even years later (to the discredit of those who wrote and published them). These are certainly blots on his memory, and were these his main claims to fame, dishonor should certainly sully his name. But they were not the reasons he was in the National Academy, they were unrelated to his geological endeavors, they were irrelevant to his role in the Sierra Club, they were not responsible for his role in building the University of California. His memorial was built not to celebrate any ideas on racial superiority but was made to share his love of nature as found in Yosemite Valley, a love expressed in helping to found the Sierra Club. Is extinguishing his name truly the best response to that history?