Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Madison Memorial - Or Not?

Excavation and restoration of slave quarters at
James Madison's estate, Montpelier
Recently, a student at James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, Wisconsin (how's that for a lot of Madison references?!) started a petition to remove Madison's name from the school because Madison was a slave owner, and slave owners should not be honored in such a way.  You can read and see the original story here.

As a big fan of James Madison, you can imagine I'm less than supportive of this effort, to say the least (I wish the students would learn more about Madison instead of trying to banish him), but in keeping with the intent of this blog, let's look carefully and fairly (as fairly as I can when someone is trying to get rid of James Madison!) at both sides of the issue.

First of all, let's stipulate something right up front.  Slavery is bad.  So bad that "bad" doesn't even begin to cover it.  I'd classify slavery along with rape and murder as the Unholy Trinity of bad things one human can do to another.  So, there will be no defending slavery as such in any arguments here.  There are those who argue that Madison was a "good master", and as far as that goes, he was - he was remembered by some of his former slaves as never striking a slave and reprimanding those who did.  Madison was remembered with great respect by his former slave and valet Paul Jennings in Jennings' book "A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison" - the first White House "memoir" ever published.  But the "good master" and "happy slave" arguments are little more than excuse-making for the very institution of slavery, so we won't go down that road in Madison's defense.

Let's begin with the affirmative side, seeking to change the name of Madison Memorial to something else (whatever the something else is hasn't been discussed yet, so we'll not worry about what other name may be proposed for the school).  The student and supporters of the petition say that anyone who owned slaves should not be honored with a building in their name.  I'd say that, on the surface, makes some sense - why honor those who have owned another human being?  The student also relates that she's been called racial epithets and even been threatened with lynching at the school, and changing the name would help discourage that behavior.  To be honest, I can't see how the mere name of the school leads to those things, but let's give her the benefit of the doubt on that, as well.  The mere fact that their school is named after a slaveholder adds to the sense of racial injustice in her eyes and the eyes of others.

Clearly, most people have never been the target of racial bigotry or threats (I say "most of us" because America is still majority white), so we (white people) would have a more difficult time understanding the ramifications of such behavior than those who've been subject to it.  With all that in mind, let us acknowledge that racial issues are by no means a thing of the past, and something we have to deal with continuously (sadly).  And given that, let us also give the students in question the benefit of the doubt that the name of their school might in some small way be a factor in it.

Shifting to the negative side of the argument, let's point out a few flaws in the Affirmative's reasoning.  One flaw is the common mistake of "presentism" - that is, applying our modern (and presumably, more enlightened) thinking to an older issue.  We understand that slavery is wrong, and frankly, so did they, way back then, though they did little to stop it.  On the other hand, slavery has been a part of human history since Biblical times, at least, so it doesn't exactly make the Founders like Madison (and Jefferson and Washington, as well) especially unique.  For all their high-minded rhetoric (Jefferson's especially), they themselves didn't free any slaves, but they did do something in order to allow it to happen over time.  And that leads us to the next flaw in the Affirmative argument, which is a lack of context.

In 1787, there was a convention called in Philadelphia in order to amend the Articles of Confederation, the contract that loosely bound the colonies together.  The Articles were not working, and the country was not really a country, but a confederation of thirteen sovereign states with little central authority binding them together.  Madison arrived early, and to make a long story short, changed the direction of the convention from amending the Articles to drawing up an entirely new Constitution, effectively creating the United States of America, with a stronger central government, but with much power still reserved to the states.  The Constitution was a series of compromises (too many to list here and stay on topic), and one compromise was that they effectively punted on the question of slavery in order to get all the states to accept the new Constitution.  So why, with this in mind, am I still defending Madison as regards the slavery issue?

If the Articles of Confederation had stayed in effect, it's likely a nationwide ban on slavery would never have come about.  Each state may have, in turn, banned slavery, but it would not have been a national policy - a supreme law of the land.  By authoring the Constitution, and in particular, the amendment process of Article V, it cleared the way for the eventual passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and the nationwide banning of slavery, something unlikely to happen without a national document of fundamental and supreme law.

So, while Madison did not personally free any slaves, he set up a system by which it could be done on a national scale.  He was the original and ultimate political operator in the United States - he knew how to lobby people and convince them and compromise with them and get things done.  The Three-Fifths Compromise (speaking of slavery) was one such effort.  In the debate over representation in Congress, southern slave-holding states wanted to count slaves as part of the population in order to get more Congressional seats, while the northern free states opposed the idea.  Madison brokered a compromise, which allowed the southern states to count three-fifths of their slave population toward their representation total.  In contrast to what many people believe, it was not a compromise that had the southern states looking to further marginalize slaves as less than a full person - they wanted all the slaves counted (though of course the extra representation in Congress was not going to be filled by slaves - or free blacks, for that matter).  In the long run, the Three-Fifths Compromise was actually better for the slaves by keeping the southern states from being disproportionately powerful compared to the free states.  As I said earlier - context.

Madison and the other Founders also, while owning slaves themselves, did not argue strenuously that slavery was a "positive good", as did former US Representative, Senator and VP John Calhoun (whose name was recently removed from Yale University, the school named after him being renamed for Admiral Grace Hopper).

To sum up, I understand the idea of not wanting to honor slave owners, but on the other hand, we need to look at the entirety of someone's life's work, not just focus on one (admittedly large) flaw.  In consulting my own rather extensive library of books by and about Madison, there's a lot more there than simply "he owned slaves".  But is that enough to take his name off the building?  Or off the name of Wisconsin's capitol city?  Where does it end?  Do we rename Washington, DC?  Jefferson City, Missouri?  Universities named after George Washington, George Mason, James Madison and Robert Morris?

Sadly, while the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery, it did not end racial tensions in America.  Now discuss - is this (renaming a school) a way to lessen the tension or does it endanger our understanding of history?

1 comment:

  1. Changing the name of the school is not going to change American history... This article would be a great teaching tool for the student wanting to remove Madison's name. 👍

    ReplyDelete