Opinion

JEFF JACOBY

Should Faneuil Hall be renamed?

Boston’s Faneuil Hall.
Dina Rudick/Globe Staff
Boston’s Faneuil Hall.

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During the controversies over Confederate statues and flags, my position has always been for removal. Memorials to those who launched and fought a war to perpetuate slavery and dismantle the United States are, in my opinion, abominations. They honor the most repugnant cause in our nation’s history, and should have no place in the public square. That was my view more than 20 years ago, when South Carolina was debating whether to continue flying the Confederate battle flag over the statehouse in Columbia, and it was my view last spring, when the city of New Orleans took down four monuments to the Confederacy despite bitter protests from “lost cause” sympathizers.

For the same reason, I strongly support efforts to rename schools, military bases, and highways named for Confederate leaders and generals. This isn’t political correctness run amok (a real and pernicious problem). It is a matter of moral hygiene, historical truth, and national honor. One can respect and acknowledge the sincerity and valor of men and women who fought for a hideous cause, but that doesn’t make the cause any less hideous, or any more deserving of public esteem.

I bring this up in the context of two new renaming skirmishes now being fought in the Boston area. One is a call to change the name of Yawkey Way, the street that runs alongside Fenway Park, which was named for Thomas Yawkey, the storied owner of the Boston Red Sox. The other is an effort to rename the Edward Devotion School in Brookline, which is named for a prominent early resident and benefactor of the town.

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In both cases, advocates say the names should be changed because the men they honor didn’t reflect proper racial values.

Under Yawkey’s leadership, the Red Sox became a great baseball team, but are said to have dragged their feet on hiring black baseball players. The team didn’t call up a black player until 1959, making it the last major league club to integrate — 12 years after Jackie Robinson’s rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Some have claimed that Yawkey was a racist, though there is little evidence of that. But it seems fair to conclude that he was at best indifferent to racism and no proponent of civil rights.

Devotion’s sin is that he owned a slave. When he died in 1744, the assets listed in his will included “1 Negrow.” At the time, of course, slavery was legal and relatively uncontroversial in Massachusetts and every other colony. The argument of those who want the school’s name changed is that, whatever Brookline residents may have thought in Devotion’s day, it is incompatible with the town’s 21st-century standards to allow a public school to bear the name of a slaveowner.

I think the renaming calls are misguided, and not at all comparable to the disputes over Confederate monuments and other tributes. Here’s why.

When buildings, parks, and highways were named for Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, or Stonewall Jackson — and, a fortiori, when statues of those men were installed on public lands — it was precisely because of their role in the Confederacy. They are known first and foremost as leaders in the bloody struggle to tear apart the United States and to preserve black slavery under white domination. Everything else they did pales in comparison, not only by the standards of our time, but by the standards of their time. In many cases, moreover, those monuments to Confederate champions, like those Confederate flags over Southern statehouses, were raised not in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, but much later. They went up during the Jim Crow era as icons of resistance to black equality civil rights.

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But Tom Yawkey’s fame never rested on his racial views. Yawkey Way was named to honor the most influential owner in the history of the Red Sox and Fenway Park, an inductee in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and, with his wife, one of the most generous philanthropists in Boston’s history. Even if you take at face value the worst interpretation of Yawkey’s racial record, no one can seriously deny that he did far more good than ill in his lifetime, or that his net impact on Boston was decidedly positive.

Likewise Edward Devotion. He was esteemed as “a good citizen, ever alive to the interests of the town,” as the Brookline Historical Society noted in 1898, a century and a half after his death. “He loved his native town, and was much interested in the education of its youth.” In his will, Devotion left a generous bequest to his hometown — in fact, it was the largest gift made to the town of Brookline in the 18th century. It was in tribute to his generosity and public-spiritedness that the school built on his former property was given his name. The fact that he owned a slave was not a factor.

If the street near Fenway Park or the school in Brookline were being named for the first time today, would they be named after Yawkey or Devotion? Perhaps not. But that’s a far cry from saying that those names should be expunged today on the basis of failings that didn’t define either man’s life or primary legacy.

The same goes for calls to strip from public monuments and institutions the names of American giants like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson on the grounds that they held slaves. Slaveowners they may have been, and it is an enduring stain on their reputations. But no one honors them for having been complicit in human bondage. Washington and Jefferson weren’t great men because they were slaveowners, but despite it. It is a blot on records that are otherwise admirable and significant. If they had never had any connection to slavery, they would still be American heroes. If Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee had never had any connection to the Confederacy, on the other hand, it is likely that no one today would have heard of them.

Needless to say, reasonable people can disagree about this. (Among those pressing for Yawkey Way to be renamed is John Henry, the current owner of the Red Sox and of The Boston Globe.) But if we are going to strip people’s names from the public square because of grievous failings in their careers or personal lives, we’ve got a lot of renaming to do.

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Faneuil Hall, one of Boston’s most famous edifices and a popular tourist destination, is named for a wealthy 18th-century merchant, Peter Faneuil, who donated the building to the city of Boston in 1742. Faneuil Hall, the site of the some of the greatest oratory of the American Revolution, is known as “The Cradle of Liberty.” But Faneuil was no liberator to his slaves — he owned five at the time of his death — or to the hundreds of African slaves in whose purchase and sale he was involved as a merchant active in the Triangle Trade. If the Edward Devotion School should be renamed, shouldn’t Faneuil Hall?

And shouldn’t the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate, a museum and educational facility on the campus of the University of Massachusetts Boston, be named for someone else? Kennedy made his greatest mark as a US senator, which is why the institute bears his name. But there is no denying that he behaved shamefully in the Chappaquiddick incident, or that his negligence and cowardice caused a young woman to die. With something so egregious on his record, does Kennedy’s name belong on a public building?

In Washington, Kennedy’s office for many years was in the Russell Senate Office Building. That building is named for Richard B. Russell Jr., who served for more than 40 years as a US senator from Georgia and acquired a towering reputation for legislative brilliance, subtlety, and dignity. But Russell was also an uncompromising white supremacist and enemy of racial equality who voted against every civil rights bill that came before the Senate, or maneuvered to ensure that they never came to a vote in the first place. Though he was genteel and courteous, his views on race were segregationist to the core. “Any white man who wants to take the position that he is no better than the Negro is entitled to his own opinion of himself,” Russell told the Senate, but “I do not think much of him.” Does the name of a man with such ugly views on civil rights — whatever other qualities he may have had — belong on the Senate’s stateliest office building?

Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, was one of the world’s greatest industrial pioneers. He built an iconic American business, perfected brilliant manufacturing innovations, and created an immense fortune, which became the basis of the famed Ford Foundation. But Ford was also one of the most odious anti-Semites in US history, and he used his great wealth to disseminate crude conspiracy theories about Jews, whom he called “the world’s problem.” In 1931, Adolf Hitler, explaining why he kept a portrait of Ford at his desk, told a Detroit News reporter: “I regard Henry Ford as my inspiration.” Seven years later, Germany awarded Ford the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the Nazi regime’s highest honor for foreigners. Given its namesake’s bigotry, shouldn’t the Ford Foundation change its name?

Examples could be multiplied forever. Virtually all human beings, even the greatest, have flaws, blind spots, and times when they acted indecently. If the only people for whom streets, schools, and buildings should be named are those against whom there can never be any conceivable accusation of vice or bad judgment — now or in the future — we are going to have a lot of unnamed streets, schools, and buildings.

Before deciding that someone’s name must be removed from a public space it has long occupied, I propose a two-part test: (1) Was that person honored for unworthy or indecent behavior? (2) Is that person known primarily for unworthy or indecent behavior? If the answer to both is No, leave the name as is.

Neither Devotion School nor Yawkey Way fails that test. The men they memorialize may not always have done right. That doesn’t mean the honor bestowed on them was wrong.

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‘The right of the people’

Last month, in a poll by The Economist and YouGov taken a few days after the Parkland school massacre, respondents were asked (among many other questions) whether they would favor or oppose repealing the Second Amendment. Not surprisingly, a solid majority — 60% — opposed the idea. But 21% of respondents said they were in favor, and in certain subgroups the support was higher. Among blacks, for example, 30% expressed support for doing away with the amendment. Among Democrats, 39%. Among liberals, 41%.

It isn’t going to happen, of course. The Bill of Rights is sacrosanct, even if much of the American public couldn’t tell you what’s in it. The only constitutional amendment ever repealed was one that deprived Americans of a measure of freedom: the Eighteenth Amendment prohibiting liquor. By contrast, the Second Amendment — “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed” — protects an aspect of liberty. It is virtually impossible to imagine any circumstance under which a majority of Americans or their state legislatures would agree to relinquish that liberty.

Still, thoughtful if quixotic essays have appear from time to time, in spaces as varied as the Jesuit magazine America, Rolling Stone, and Bret Stephens’s op-ed column, advocating repeal of the Second Amendment.

For those who think civilian gun ownership should be firmly discouraged if not repressed altogether, the most galling aspects of the Second Amendment is that it protects an individual right to own firearms. Until 2008, that view was debated among legal scholars. But that year, in the landmark case of District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court settled the issue. It ruled, in a 5-4 split, that the Second Amendment does indeed protect the rights of individual Americans to keep and bear arms.

Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion probably didn’t change many minds that were already committed to the opposite interpretation. But at least one scholar has acknowledged that his understanding of the Second Amendment did change.

Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at UCLA, used to believe that the constitutional language only protected state militias, not individual citizens. But “the more research I did, the more I came to realize that my initial view was mistaken,” he said. “The Founders were, in fact, securing an individual right [and] the five justices who voted to affirm the right to own a gun . . . had, indeed, made the correct decision.”

In a commentary for PragerU, an online video site, Volokh pointed out that the phrase “the right of the people” is the key. The Second Amendment uses the same wording used in the First Amendment (“the right of the people peaceably to assemble”) and in the Fourth Amendment (“the right of the people to be secure … against unreasonable searches and seizures”). Those amendments plainly safeguard the liberties of individual Americans. The Second Amendment must therefore do so as well.

So why that confusing preliminary clause about a “well-regulated militia” and “the security of a free state”? The explanation, says Volokh, lies in the meaning of “militia” when the amendment was written.

The Militia Act of 1792 defined “militia” to mean all white males 18 to 45. Today, of course, “militia” would include women and people of all races, but it was clearly not a reference to a small, National Guard-type group.

“Militia,” in other words, was another way of saying “armed citizenry.” The Framers regarded an armed citizenry as “being necessary to the security of a free state” — that is, to a free country, a country not menaced by despotism. More Volokh:

A “free State” is what the Framers wanted America to be. They saw an armed citizenry as, in part, a hedge against tyranny. Citizens who own weapons can protect themselves, prevent tyrants from seizing power, and protect the nation from foreign enemies.

No constitutional right is wholly unregulated, and that is as true of gun ownership as it is of freedom of speech and assembly. But just as the First, Fourth, and Fifth amendments, at bottom, are constitutional bedrock that cannot be pierced, so too is the Second. Calls for semiautomatic rifles to be banned, or age limits imposed on handgun sales, or background checks required for private transactions at gun shows are calls for limiting a core liberty of America’s people. Those limits cannot go too far without being stopped by the Constitution, no matter how strong the emotional tailwind propelling them.

In the wake of atrocities like the Parkland massacre, there are always demands to do “whatever it takes” to get guns off the streets and out of the hands of people who might misuse them. But as long as the Second Amendment is in force, doing “whatever it takes” — severe gun control on the European or Japanese model — is not an option. For 227 years, Americans have had the right to keep and bear arms. It’s a right most of them have no intention of giving up.

Bad weather? Blame Jews

Trayon White, a District of Columbia city council member, was apparently so disconcerted by the appearance of snow flurries as he drove through downtown Washington on Friday morning that he did what anyone would do: He recorded a video of the weather while spouting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, then posted it to his official Facebook page.

“Man, it just started snowing out of nowhere this morning, man. Y’all better pay attention to this climate control, man, this climate manipulation,” White said. “D.C. keep talking about, ‘We a resilient city.’ And that’s a model based off the Rothschilds controlling the climate to create natural disasters they can pay for to own the cities, man. Be careful.”

Hmm, so now “Rothschilds” control the weather? They’re an even more talented tribe than I had realized.

For the uninitiated, the Rothschilds were a renowned European banking dynasty descended from the 18th-century German Jewish financier Mayer Amschel Rothschild. As The Washington Post notes in a story today, “the family has repeatedly been subject over the years to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories alleging that they and other Jews clandestinely manipulate world events for their advantage.”

The Rothschilds were said to have orchestrated assassinations and caused wars, to have funded the Holocaust and bankrolled Israel, to have taken over the Bank of England and to control most of the world’s wealth. Writing in the “Encyclopedia of the World’s Minorities,” David Norman Smith described the Rothschilds as the embodiment of Jew-hating irrationality:

The great banking barons of the Rothschild family became, in anti-Semitic fantasy, living emblems of Jews everywhere. Everything negative about capitalism is blamed on Jewish bankers; and everything positive is said to be threatened by the Jews. . . . Critics often muse over the apparent illogic of the anti-Semitic claim that Jews are the architects of both proletarian socialism and predatory capitalism. But for anti-Semites, socialism and bank capitalism are just two sides of the Jewish conspiracy against order and tradition.... The “Jewish conspiracy” grips the world like a vise, from both sides.

All this, and they control the weather, too.

After White’s dopey Jew-baiting set off a backlash, the city councilor tried to walk it back. “I work hard every day to combat racism and prejudices of all kinds. . . . I did not intend to be anti-Semitic, and I see I should not have said that after learning from my colleagues.”

The lesson for the rest of us is that the antisemitic derangement never evaporates completely — and that elected officials are no more immune to idiocy and bigotry than the voters who put them in office.

Site to see

Amid the internet’s vast ocean of drivel, some websites are charming islands of knowledge and discovery. Each week, in “Site to See,” I call attention to one of these online treasures.

This week’s site, “Jazz” [URL: http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/jazz/home/], was created by PBS as a digital companion to the Ken Burns documentary of the same name. It is a great online introduction to what many would call the quintessential American art form. There are sketches of the four essential cities in the rise of jazz — New Orleans, Chicago, New York, and Kansas City — and miniature Music 101 tutorials on harmony, rhythm, and other key musical concepts. Best of all, of course, are the documentary’s 10 episodes. (To watch them requires WGBH membership, which costs $5 per month.)

Here’s an excerpt from the description of Kansas City:

Kansas City, Missouri, was an economic oasis in the heart of the country, a mecca for migrants from the South and musicians in search of work. The man who ran it was the Democratic Boss of Jackson County, Tom Pendergast, an abstemious, church-going family man who was in bed every night by nine. His political power and immense fortune were built upon three things: total control of his party’s political machine; ownership of the Ready-Mixed Concrete Company, which poured forth every cubic inch of material needed for the massive public works program he relentlessly sponsored for his city and country; and intimate links with organized crime that had helped to make the city he had been running since 1926 the wildest place in America — filled with bars, brothels, and gambling dens . . . . “If you want to see some sin, forget about Paris,” said an editorialist for the Omaha Herald. “Go to Kansas City.”

Want to recommend a website for this feature? Send me the link (jeff.jacoby@globe.com) , and put “Site to See” in the subject line.

ICYMI

My Sunday column dug into Hillary Clinton’s recent comments that most married white women voted against her because they were pressured to do so by the men in their lives. Her words were condescending, cringe-inducing, and incorrect. In US presidential elections, most married voters and most white voters have long leaned Republican. That was true in 2016, just as it was true in 2012, 2008, 2004, and 2000. The “marriage gap” is a well-established phenomenon in American politics, and it has nothing to do with men bad-mouthing female candidates.

My column last Wednesday was about former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who has said that a 2020 presidential bid is “on [his] radar screen.” It sometimes seems as though anyone elected to statewide office in the Bay State sooner or later gets Potomac Fever. But Patrick might actually be a good choice for the Democratic Party. As governor he was steady and focused. His style is gracious and courteous. He proved to be a political natural, winning high office on his first try. Above all, I wrote, “he doesn’t degrade the quality of public discourse every time he appears before TV cameras.” In the era of Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren, that’s not a bad thing.

The last line

“But the European Jews were not Americans and they were not English. It was their particular misfortune not only to be foreigners but also to be Jews.” — David S. Wyman, “The Abandonment of the Jews” (1984)

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.