Letter to the Editor: Harvard Law School and Corporation flunk history

The Harvard Corporation has endorsed the Law School’s wish to withdraw its sheaves-of-wheat seal. The seal is now damned as derived from the family crest of the father of the School’s early benefactor, Isaac Royall, Jr., an 18th-century slave-owner. In justifying its decision, the Corporation abuses historical reasoning. “When the shield was adopted [in 1936],” the Corporation notes, no “attention was given to the prospect that its imagery might evoke associations with slavery—a circumstance that, if recognized at the time, would quite likely have led to a different choice” (my emphases). In short, the Royall emblem became the Law School’s seal because its adopters back in 1936 lacked the anti-racist awareness of 2016. Had those old-timers been more alert, it is speculated, they would have behaved better—that is, like the Law School’s later-day saints—and rejected the seal. This wishful thinking echoes the classicist Benjamin Jowett’s Victorian faith that apparent homosexuality in Plato’s Phaedrus was really heterosexual; Plato’s lovely youths were actually young women, and had he “lived in our times he would have made the transposition himself.”

Worse is the sophistry of the Law School’s request to depose the seal. “The Law School of the present is very different,” claims its Committee, “from the Law School of 1937 for which the family crest of a slaveowner could be chosen as its official symbol without anyone seeing the association with slavery.” This implies an eighty-year transition toward modern rectitude. But today’s mea culpa reflects only recent repentance. Use of the Royall seal became most prominent in the 1990s. Apparently not until last year did anyone at Harvard notice, let alone object to, the seal’s slavery linkage. Law School staff and students were neither aware of nor “even thought to ask how the Royall family amassed its fortune” not only in the benighted 1930s, when “few people . . . asked such questions,” admits the Committee, but up to “the near present.” Only “our new awareness of the shield’s connection to slavery” makes it a painfully divisive “reminder of an exclusionary past that should have no place in an inclusive present.” This fudges the issue. Is it the exclusionary past or its reminder that should have no place? If it is the reminder, will not today’s discomfort give way to tomorrow’s desire for visible historical memory? Is the “inclusive present” a reality, an ideal, or a pipe dream? Finally, the Committee self-righteously arraigns Washington and Jefferson–and by implication all slaveholders–as having “moral feet of clay,” though slavery was a morally accepted practice for most of human history.

Where were Harvard’s historians when the Law School and the Corporation penned these self-serving gaffes? To fancy that our forerunners would have shared today’s racial egalitarianism, if only they had looked harder, is ahistorical presentism. To deplore and then palliate their failure to live up to modern moral standards is patronizing anachronism. To expunge visual reminders of a distressing past is Orwellian obeisance to our own uniquely blameless present.

David Lowenthal, College ’44, is an Emeritus Professor of Geography at University College London.

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