A few weeks ago, James Madison University student Tabitha Sawyer asked on The Tab whether the name of her college should be changed due to its namesake’s slave-holding past.
The results were overwhelming: No way.
Our fourth president is but the latest mark for renaming efforts. Late last month a student began a petition to do away with Madison’s name from her high school; other targets have included John Calhoun, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and even — no kidding — buildings honoring people named “Lynch.”
In the unscientific online questionnaire, 91% of respondents said Madison’s name should remain. Five percent said it should be changed, and 4% were unsure.
“More interesting than the quantitative results, though, are the comments that people left,” Sawyer writes. “The very idea of changing the name of our school enraged a lot of students; over half of the 2,675 comments on the survey were some variation of ‘kill yourself,’ ‘transfer,’ ‘you’re a dumb libtard,’ ‘n****r lover,’ ‘cuck’ and other cruel insults.”
Here are some of the more thoughtful remarks:
“Everyone has aspects of their personality that is flawed. If we focus on the negatives, than there will never be anyone to look up to or name a college after. Yes slavery is absolutely terrible. But our founding fathers saw owning slaves like millennials treat owning a smart phone. Is that correct and moral? No. But it is part of our history and part of the society of the time. James Madison is looked up to for being an influential man who helped shape our country. That should be the focus.”
“One of the most relevant concepts learned in the required social science courses at any university is the importance of context in social, economic, and personal interactions. Owning slaves was an economic reality of farming in James Madison’s times. We cannot nor should we try to erase history that we are uncomfortable learning about. James Madison did not glorify slavery.”
“While James Madison and the Founding Fathers owned slaves, they all were integral in creating the Representative Democracy we know and love today. This is different than naming a school after a Confederate General or Politician who openly advocated for rebellion against the federal government. Just because our university is named after Madison doesn’t mean we are implicitly ignoring, or worse, supporting the brutal subjugation of slaves.”
“I think it’s fairly disingenuous to superimpose our present day morality on historical figures. Sure, Madison owned slaves at the time, but that was a societal norm at the time. Arguments like this are presentist in nature. We can still celebrate Madison for the many good things he did, and the fashion in which he led our country forward.”
Sawyer’s favorite comment was the student who said he hadn’t spoken to anyone who thought the name thing was a big deal: “People are more worried about more parking then [sic] this.”