District of Columbia Working Group Finds Prominent Abolitionist, James Birney, Has a "Legacy" That Does Not Merit Recognition.

DCFaces establishes five grounds for cancellation. No one will survive the purges.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

The District of Columbia authorized a working group to make recommendations about public displays. The Committee states that "[c]ommemoration on a District of Columbia asset is a high honor reserved for esteemed persons with a legacy that merits recognition." And how should that person's legacy be assessed? The working group identified five factors:

1. Participation in slavery – did research and evidence find a history of enslaving other humans, or otherwise supporting the institution of slavery?

2. Involvement in systemic racism – did research and evidence find the namesake serving as an author of policy, legislation or actions that suppressed persons of color and women?

3. Support for oppression – did research and evidence find the namesake endorsed and participated in the oppression of persons color and/or women?

4. Involvement in supremacist agenda – did research and evidence suggest that the namesake was a member of any supremacist organization?

5. Violation of District human rights laws – did research and evidence find the namesake committed a violation of the DC Human Right Act, in whole or part, including discrimination against protected traits such as age, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and natural origin?

I knew these purges would never end at eliminating confederate statutes. The third and fifth factors are so broad, as to sweep in every "namesake" who is commemorated in the District of Columbia.

From these five factors, the Working Group identified five ways to address the "namesake." Call them the five degrees of cancellation.

  1. Recommend renaming the asset
  2. Recommend removal of the asset
  3. Recommend contextualization of the asset
  4. Clear namesake from further review
  5. Recommend additional research prior to final decision point

The Working Group recommends renaming twenty-one schools. By my count five schools are named after Presidents. Perhaps the most bizarre name on this list is James Birney. They would strip his name from a public school.

James Birney

You have probably never heard of Birney. He was a prominent abolitionist. Randy and I discuss him in our new book on Slavery and the Constitution (stay tuned):

Birney had formerly been a slaveholder in Kentucky, but later moved to Cincinnati, Ohio to advocate against slavery. In 1836, he founded the abolitionist newspaper The Philanthropist. In his paper, he not only opposed slavery, he also maintained that African Americans were entitled to equal rights and opportunities with white people.

Birney was instrumental in developing the arguments against the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act. He recruited Salmon Chase, then a young lawyer, to work on Matilda's case. We explain:

Matilda's father sent slave catchers to find her and bring her back. Soon, she was located and held in custody. The slave catchers sought her removal from Ohio pursuant to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Birney recruited his fellow Cincinnatian attorney, Salmon Chase to assist in Matilda's legal defense. They sought a writ of habeas corpus for Matilda's freedom. Together, Birney and Chase developed an argument that Congress lacked the enumerated powers to enact the Fugitive Slave Act. Therefore, the slave catchers could not rely on this law to remove Matilda. And, because the Act was unconstitutional, state judges were not obligated to assist slave catchers who were attempting to return runaway slaves….

Birney later went on to be a leader of the anti-slavery Liberty party.

 In 1840 and 1844, Birney was the Liberty Party's candidate for president. The Liberty party adopted a stridently antislavery platform, which proved to largely unsuccessful.

I have little faith in the Working Group's ability to parse the five factors for cancellation. If they included Birney, their research was woefully incomplete. And if Birney's former slaveholding permanently disqualifies him, then Justice John Marshall Harlan–the legendary Plessy dissenter–is out. Of course, his views on Chinese people would violate the third and fifth principles.

The Working Group also urged the Mayor to "recommend the Federal government remove, relocate, or contextualize the following assets."

  1. Christopher Columbus – Columbus Fountain (federal)
  2. Benjamin Franklin – Benjamin Franklin Statue (federal)
  3. Andrew Jackson – Andrew Jackson Statue (federal)
  4. Thomas Jefferson – Jefferson Memorial (federal)
  5. George Mason – George Mason Memorial (federal)
  6. Francis Griffith Newlands – Newlands Memorial Fountain (federal)
  7. Albert Pike – Albert Pike Statue (federal)
  8. George Washington – Washington Monument, George Washington Statue (federal)

They missed the FDR monument. He enacted internment of Japanese Americans. I can't imagine how that prominent monument on the National Mall evaded the Working Group's careful scrutiny. And they missed the John Marshall statute outside the D.C. Circuit Courthouse. He is not safe.

The District of Columbia has even proposed renaming itself as the Douglass Commonwealth, after Frederick Douglass. Wait till residents read what Frederick Douglass wrote about racial preferences. Here is an excerpt from Justice Thomas's Grutter dissent:

Frederick Douglass, speaking to a group of abolitionists almost 140 years ago, delivered a message lost on to day's majority:

"[I]n regard to the colored people, there is always more that is benevolent, I perceive, than just, manifested towards us. What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice. The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us . . . . I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! . . . And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! . . . [Y]our interference is doing him positive injury." What the Black Man Wants: An Address Delivered in Boston, Massachusetts, on 26 January 1865, reprinted in 4 The Frederick Douglass Papers 59, 68 (J. Blassingame & J. McKivigan eds. 1991) (emphasis in original).

Like Douglass, I believe blacks can achieve in every avenue of American life without the meddling of university administrators. Because I wish to see all students succeed whatever their color, I share, in some respect, the sympathies of those who sponsor the type of discrimination advanced by the University of Michigan Law School (Law School). The Constitution does not, however, tolerate institutional devotion to the status quo in admissions policies when such devotion ripens into racial discrimination. Nor does the Constitution countenance the unprecedented deference the Court gives to the Law School, an approach inconsistent with the very concept of "strict scrutiny."

These purges will sweep in everyone.


NEXT: Right of Publicity Lawsuit by Alleged "Pantless Couponer" Dismissed

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. For once I would like to see these Progressive Fascists, which you are one Josh, apply these principles to something that would require themselves to make a real, material sacrifice.

    1. Are you going to let Sam label you a progressive, Prof. Blackman, without a response that demonstrates the converse beyond contravention?

  2. One wrong step and you’re damned forever, unless it’s the 1994 Crime Bill. Putting lots of Blacks in jail for victimless crimes apparently gets a pass.

    1. I think you’ll find plenty of overlap between those who support these name changes and those who think opposing crime and criminals is indeed unforgivable racism.

    2. Seriously? You think Clinton is getting a pass for the 1994 Crime Bill? Presumably that’s why he had a prominent speaking spot at the Convention the other day…

  3. “No one will survive the purges.”


  4. Frederick Douglass, speaking to a group of abolitionists almost 140 years ago, delivered a message lost on to day’s majority:

    “[I]n regard to the colored people, there is always more that is benevolent, I perceive, than just, manifested towards us. What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice. The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us . . . . I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! . . . And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone!

    I’ve been saying this for several years now about the cancel culture, especially LGBT. For centuries, millenia, all people wanted was freedom. To merely be tolerated and not actively be harmed legally.

    And the shoe is on the other foot now, and they are activating all the social ostraciam wielded against them (to say nothing of laws.)

    Was it that long ago Ellen came out, because Hollywood was fearful of loss of advertiaing support once TV and other loudmoutbs opened their yappers?

    I can’t blame the rollover or its intensity. I can only lament the lesson of live and let live was not learned.

    And now the memory hole fight begins. People are removed from photos of the past. Stalin is added to stand next to Lenin.

    And all of it cheered on loudly. Which was the problem in dictatorships.

    1. TV preachers

      You need a 5 minute edit button. Or a preview button. Or something invented the last 40 years.

    2. This is what happens when mentally ill people have political power.

      1. The desire for political power is a mental illness.

        1. That is no way to talk about the professors who provide this opportunity for entertainment and enlightenment.

  5. “When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

    ’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

    ’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

    ― Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

  6. I applaud all these moving goal posts. Soon everyone will be canceled, and we will all be equal again.

  7. Andrew Sullivan was recently fired as an editor of New York Magazine for the apostasy of publishing, 26 years ago, an except from “The Bell Curve” in the New Republic.

    The Maoists are out in force. No one is safe. And by “no one,” I mean NO ONE.

    1. If one party supports everything I believe in but doesn’t believe in maintaining law and order all the time and everywhere, I’ll back a party that does. In that sense, I’m a one-issue voter, because without order, there is no room for any other issue. Disorder always and everywhere begets more disorder; the minute the authorities appear to permit such violence, it is destined to grow. And if liberals do not defend order, fascists will.
      -Andrew Sullivan, like 4 days ago.

      Some of this cancellation is silly as hell, but I’m fine with some private orgs choosing not to associate with that guy.

      1. You quote that as of there is some moral flaw in his reasoning.

        Can you explain what you find objectionable?

        1. Don’t vote for fascists.

          1. I don’t see where Andrew is calling for voting for fascists. To me he is saying his top priority is voting for the party that will protect his property and person, which ain’t the Democrats.

            1. “voting for fascists”

              I dunno how I would vote for a fascist if I wanted to. Hunt one down and do a write-in?

              I lived in Seattle, where it was common enough to have a dozen names on the ballot, some of which listed a party name that contained the word ‘communist’, but I have yet to see ‘fascist’. Wrong locale, perhaps? Is there somewhere where actual fascists make it onto the ballot?

              1. Are you doubting the existential threat of the bogeyman?

            2. He’s saying he’d vote for fascists.

              Lots of reasons why his reasoning is very bad, but I’ll stick to the fact that historically, that’s not a great way to protect your property.

              1. Actually, he’s not saying he’d vote for fascists, he’s warning the Democrats to turn back before that becomes a rational choice.

                Mind, the idea that you can find actual fascists in any numbers on the right is just the left projecting, as their bully boys riot and act like real communists, which is to say, not materially differently from the way real fascists would.

          2. You have to live in order to enjoy your rights. A party that theoretically agrees with you on a bunch of stuff, but won’t stop a mob from burning down your house, is a party which operationally doesn’t care about your rights at all, because they don’t care if you’re alive to enjoy them.

            Here’s his whole essay.

            Sure, he hits all the mandatory over the top Trump hate points, but he’s still facing the reality: The party he’d like to be allied with doesn’t value maintaining civilization anymore. He has to pretend the opposing party actively wants to destroy civilization, to rationalize not abandoning it.

            1. You think Sarcastr0 will learn this? You think Sarcast0 will learn it before houses in his neighborhood are on fire?

              1. I’m not sure Sarcastro would learn it after houses in his neighborhood were on fire.

                1. I hope none of us personally experience peace that intensifies that way.

          3. So, historically, do you believe fascists supported law and order all the time and everywhere (Mr. Sullivan’s criterion)?

            It was my understanding that fascist parties had paramilitary forces which attacked people and property while the cops looked the other way.

            1. They did indeed do that.

              Sullivan is attempting to keep is blue check liberal status, while warning his party that they’re treading on dangerous ground.

              This requires him to characterize the right as “fascists”. This doesn’t mean he’s unaware that they aren’t fascists. I’m sure he is aware of that, on some level, and probably quite close to the surface.

              If it helps, take his argument, and replace “fascist” with “conservative”, globally. He’s really just warning the left that they’re driving people into the arms of the right. Calling the right “fascists” is just an obligatory bit of rhetoric, if he’s to talk to people on the left.

              1. Inherent in that is the assumption that the left otherwise would let rioters burn and loot and murder. What a crazy assumption …. right?

    2. Sullivan is a bad person, his search for the real mother of Trig Palin proved that.

  8. I think this — along with the countless failures of the DC government — is why Congress should repeal the DC Self Government Act and go back to running the city itself, like it did in the 1930s.

    Hire a competent city manager and be done with it.

    1. The more urgent problems are in Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee, North Dakota, Arkansas, Lousiana, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and similar failed states . . .

      1. Has Kirkland ever read the US Constitution?

        Does Kirkland even know how to read?

        1. Which constitutional provision directs Congress to micromanage D.C. before addressing the intensifying dysfunction of our nation’s desolate conservative backwaters?

  9. Interesting…there’s a DC school named after some honky named Alexander Graham Bell. They want to rename that school.

    I assume that this Bell character founded the DC Klan chapter.

    1. Wikpedia provides a clue:

      Bell was connected with the eugenics movement in the United States. In his lecture Memoir upon the formation of a deaf variety of the human race presented to the National Academy of Sciences on November 13, 1883 (the year of his election as a Member of the National Academy of Sciences), he noted that congenitally deaf parents were more likely to produce deaf children and tentatively suggested that couples where both parties were deaf should not marry.[12] However, it was his hobby of livestock breeding which led to his appointment to biologist David Starr Jordan’s Committee on Eugenics, under the auspices of the American Breeders’ Association. The committee unequivocally extended the principle to humans.[167] From 1912 until 1918, he was the chairman of the board of scientific advisers to the Eugenics Record Office associated with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, and regularly attended meetings. In 1921, he was the honorary president of the Second International Congress of Eugenics held under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Organizations such as these advocated passing laws (with success in some states) that established the compulsory sterilization of people deemed to be, as Bell called them, a ‘defective variety of the human race’. By the late 1930s, about half the states in the U.S. had eugenics laws, and California’s compulsory sterilization law was used as a model for that of Nazi Germany.[citation needed]”

      1. Do you think they’ll cancel Planned Parenthood for similar reasons?
        I’m guessing no since these aren’t principles being applied, only excuses being made.

  10. They want to tear down the Washington Monument.

    Impressive, even the Red Guards were not so ambitious.

    1. That’s why I was glad my son got his class trip to DC last year. As I said at the time, I wanted him to see the monuments before they were destroyed.

      No, I don’t think the government is going to tear them down. But they’re not really well enough guarded to survive in this political environment: Sooner or later somebody is going to decide to deploy explosives against them, and only one bomb needs to get through.

      1. As I understand it, an earthquake nearly did in the Washington Monument….

      2. The Washington Monument? That’s what you guys are concerned about? It’s just an enormous abstract depiction of a phallus. A 2-year old could make one out of Legos.

  11. Here’s an article from 2018:

    “WASHINGTON — He was a controversial leader in D.C. known as the District’s “mayor for life,” and four years after his death he’ll be recognized for years to come outside of the Mayor’s office in D.C.

    “Marion Barry was memorialized Saturday morning with an 8-foot statue outside of the Wilson Building, which houses the mayor’s office and the D.C. Council on Pennsylvania Avenue in Northwest D.C.”


    1. “Wilson” as in the racist President?!?

      1. No, as in John Wilson, a long-time city council member in DC.


        1. John Wilson should have known better than to keep a name associated with that Birth-of-a-Nation-loving president. Allowing himself to continue ue to be called by that name is as bad as using the word “n*ggardly”, which has been sufficient grounds for losing your job with the D.C. government. Cancel John Wilson. Rename City Hall after someone with a less problematic name.

  12. “No one will survive the purge.”

    Isn’t that the whole point of it? According to the “progressive” left our entire system is perpetuated by racism built on white supremacy. The entire thing must be jettisoned and then, only then, can we build something that they find acceptable.

    With this we lurch one more step toward the natural conclusion. And I for one can’t wait for that to happen.

    1. “With this we lurch one more step toward the natural conclusion. And I for one can’t wait for that to happen.”

      Why would you welcome the American future, Jimmy? You figure right-wingers are on the verge of turning the half-century tide of the culture war, Jimmy? When do the predict the clingers to become competitive and to stop getting stomped?

      1. Kirkland, you’d be worried if Trump was not President right now.

        1. Why?

          1. A boat mooring consists of a 2 ton granite block, and then a length of heavy chain, and then the rope that goes to the boat. When the storm comes and the boat starts pulling on its mooring, the chain will start getting lifted off the bottom — but it keeps falling back down. Only when it gets *really* bad does the boat start pulling on the actual mooring block — and that’s with the entire length of heavy chain still moderating the boat’s pull on the block.

            Trump serves in a somewhat similar function, moderating what would otherwise be extralegal violent responses to provocations.

            See: https://www.whatfinger.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/trumpistheman-e1597801447481.jpg

  13. My great grandfather, Oliver Johnson (1809-1889), devoted his life to the abolition of slavery. He was the youngest of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society, the first organization in the US committed to the immediate abolition of slavery. His biography, by Steven M. Raffo, mentions Birney several times. The principal area of disagreement between Birney and Johnson (and Wm. Lloyd Garrison) was that Johnson and Garrison favored allowing women to participate in the leadership of abolitionist organizations, and Birney opposed that. But Birney seems to have been fully committed to the abolition cause, even when it was widely condemned both North and South. I spent most of my working life in and around Washington DC, and I don’t remember seeing any monument to Birney, nor, come to that, to Johnson. So after removing names and monuments honoring Birney (if there are any), how about replacing them with Oliver Johnson? You could also substitute Johnson for the bigots Wilson and F. D. Roosevelt while you’re at it.

  14. ” I knew these purges would never end at eliminating confederate statutes. ”

    Those who worry about this should have done more to excise the genuinely obnoxious monuments earlier — and been less offensive when objecting to removal of the disgusting statues commemorating losers, vicious bigots, and traitors.

    I am inclined to be concerned less about ‘going too far’ than about appeasers of the indefensible.

    1. Because Neville Chamberlain achieved “Peace in our Time.”

  15. “These purges will sweep in everyone.”

    When you sleep with the dogs, you might wake up scratching with fleas.

  16. Just name all the schools after trump, josh, you know it is what you want

Please to post comments