Although the COVID-19 pandemic intensified racial divides in America, it did have one tempering effect. As students moved off campus and learned from home, the battles that had raged over building names statues, and memorials of figures associated with slavery, segregation, and eugenics cooled. Now, with campus life having returned to some version of normal, debates over landscape fairness are back.
The highest profile controversy is at Princeton University, over a prominent statue of John Witherspoon, the school’s sixth president. Witherspoon is a critical figure in Princeton’s history, often credited with saving the then-College of New Jersey from financial ruin. He is also important in American history, as the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, which he did at great personal risk. However, Witherspoon owned two slaves. And he didn’t believe in immediate abolition, chairing a committee that recommended that the state of New Jersey take no action on freeing slaves in 1790.
For nearly 300 graduate students, undergrads, faculty, and staff, Witherspoon’s statue had to come down. They signed a petition last spring arguing that the monument should be replaced a plaque explaining both the positive and negative aspects of Witherspoon’s legacy.
“It’s something that’s bothered me ever since I’ve been at Princeton,” said Sam Bisno, a junior and history major who signed the petition. “[The statue] obviously represents the ideals that we’re supposed to carry on as students and as citizens. So, the fact that there’s no mention whatsoever of the fact that this man’s ideals were deeply racist bothers me.”
But some students and alumni defend Witherspoon and the statue. They argue that Witherspoon’s contributions to Princeton and to America outweigh his ownership of slaves. And they say that his perspective on slavery was more complex than the statue’s opponents allow. Witherspoon tutored free Blacks while at Princeton. And some of his writings decry slavery—or at least enslaving new people. The statue’s supporters emphasize that Witherspoon believed that immediate abolition with no preparation for free society would bring the enslaved to ruin and that he thought that abolition was unnecessary because slavery would die out in a matter of years. And while many would agree to adding a plaque discussing Witherspoon’s relationship with slavery to the monument, they feel strongly that the statue must continue to stand.
“Witherspoon was a great man who deserves to be honored,” said Stuart Taylor Jr., a Princeton alum from the class of 1970 and the director of Princetonians for Free Speech, a pro-statue group. “[He has] a very mixed and not altogether bad record on slavery and a very noble and admirable record in every other way.”
The petitioners disagree and believe that adding a plaque to the statue about Witherspoon’s relationship to slavery is insufficient because the statue itself, bronze and towering, holds up Witherspoon as a subject for reverence.
“The tacit honorific message of the statue will tend to overwhelm any critical reminders of Witherspoon’s failings, so long as these reminders are kept at a reasonable size,” the petition says.
Taylor believes that taking Witherspoon down both ignores historical context and could lead to a slippery slope.
“His relationship to slavery was far more benign than a substantial majority of the signers of the Declaration of Independence,” Taylor Jr. said. “If Witherspoon is to be lowered, James Madison, I think, would be next. George Washington would certainly be on the list.”
And Taylor thinks that using today’s moral reasoning to judge people who lived centuries ago is absurd.
“If you’re not going to honor anybody who ever did anything that doesn’t pass today’s standards of social justice, then you’re not going to be honoring many people anywhere, ever,” he said.
Bisno, however, is unpersuaded.
“We’re not talking about Witherspoon in the late 18th century,” he said. “We’re talking about Witherspoon in 2023, and in 2023, I don’t want to have as my model someone who owned other human beings.”
So far, the debate has remained mostly contained to Princeton, through editorials in the student newspaper and posts on the Princetonians for Free Speech website. The one bit of national attention came in an editorial from conservative commentator George Will (a member of Princeton’s class of 1968), criticizing the “wokeness, in all its moral vanity” of the statue’s opponents.
Princeton’s Committee on Naming, a group of faculty, students, staff, administrators, and alumni that was formed in the wake of an earlier controversy about the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, is currently considering the petition and holding listening sessions, and will eventually make a recommendation to the board of trustees. There have been no protests or demonstrations around the statue, and none are planned.
It's a stark contrast to how these kinds of disputes were handled between 2015 and 2020, according to Dr. Ainsley Carry, Vice President of Students, at the University of British Columbia, and the author of Washington Next?, a study of campus monument disputes.
“In the 2015-2020 period, it was largely based in protest,” Carry said. “Students and activists would take to the president’s office, would protest around the statue, might wrap a rope around the statue and attempt to pull it down.”
Now, after a national awakening around issues like Confederate monuments and offensive team names, universities are more responsive and have systems set up to deal with questions like these.
“This moderate debate that you’re seeing now is evidence of this country maturing in this conversation,” said Carry. “It’s a much more deliberative, thoughtful response to the question.”
Bisno is happy with how Princeton has handled things so far.
“I think it’s good to have an institutional pathway for change like this,” he said.
But Bisno said that things could become more heated depending on the trustees’ decision.
“If the university comes back and says, ‘Actually, we’re comfortable with Witherspoon’s legacy and we’re not going to do anything about the statue,’ then you might see protests, of which I will be a part,” he said.
Contested monuments and building names are a contentious, complex issue that universities are likely to have need to address, although perhaps not at the same rate as prior to the pandemic.
“We’re in the drip-drip mode, rather than the mad rush we saw between 2015 and 2020,” said Carry. “I think every semester, there’ll be a university or two that’s struggling with this.”
Jon Edelman can be reached at JEdelman@DiverseEducation.com.