With a self-congratulatory whack on the back that would break the spine of a more modest institution, Harvard Law School has announced it is “retiring” the school’s seal because of its association with slavery. The seal, which was adopted only in 1936, depicts three bundles of wheat, and is based on a bookplate used in the distant past by Isaac Royall (1672‒1739). Royall’s son, Isaac Jr., in 1781 devised land to Harvard for establishing a professorship of either law or science. That endowment helped fund a professor who went on to create the law department at Harvard in 1817.
The problem is that Royall senior ran sugar plantations in the Caribbean where he kept slaves. Subsequently, he moved to Massachusetts, bringing some of his slaves with him, and raised wheat. The son bequeathed this “plantation” to Harvard. Hence the images on the bookplate, incorporated into the law school’s seal.
The decision to stop using the seal was made in response to protests by students, some of whom may have been as much as 23 years old. We (or their tuition-paying parents) might ask, What could 23-year-olds so steeped in wisdom possibly learn from a professoriate that until only a few months before had happily collected salaries and consulting fees without, apparently, noticing anything amiss in the moral climate of the prestigious law school?
We Are Inclusive of People Who Agree
In her letter announcing the decision to discard the seal, Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow wrote: “I am profoundly grateful to Professor Mann and all members of the committee for the exceptionally thoughtful, inclusive, and responsive process they led.”
It would be pointless to pretend that anything Harvard does in the political realm is not freighted with progressivism and authoritarianism. Even so, whenever you see the word “inclusive” you should reach, if not for your gun, at least for a stiff drink, regardless of how many you’ve already had or what your doctor says. Oh, what the Hell, go ahead and reach for your gun if it makes you feel better — but not if you’ve already had those drinks, and for Heaven’s sake (“Heaven” and “Hell” are capitalized because they’re places, like Washington): Don’t shoot at anybody!
Until you get the word.
How inclusive was the process? Not just “inclusive,” but, according to Minow’s description, “exceptionally inclusive.” Well, stone the crows! That’s good to hear, isn’t it?
But what does “inclusive” mean? Does it mean listening to people who don’t agree with you? Well, maybe one or two, but surely never a majority — i.e., not enough to derail a freight train. If Minow’s process had started out with listening to a black, a woman, two Jews, and a cripple, all of whom were against retiring the seal, raise your hand if you think the Powers that Be would not have been sure to include at least six other people in the process who were in favor.
Did Mann’s exceptionally inclusive process include listening to slave-holders? Presumably not — too expensive to fly them over from Africa. A homosexual? Who knows, but why not (and so surely yes). Whom, after all, does “inclusive” generally refer to if not people with, er, unattractive sexual practices, and remember this committee was “exceptionally inclusive.”
Did the process include listening to a pair of one-eyed non-bathing Hispanic Rosicrucian transies who thought the whole business was just an exercise in moral posturing and self-congratulatory swill? Let’s go with the transies. Even people who can’t keep their gender straight can, like a slow clock, be right once in a while.
Moral Posturing Is Easier than Action
But, of course, the whole business is more complicated. It always is. The law school is old, but the shield is new. Why shouldn’t it go?
One dissenting member of the committee wrote: “Maintaining the current shield, and tying it to a historically sound interpretive narrative about it, would be the most honest and forthright way to insure that the true story of our origins, and connection to the people whom we should see as our progenitors (the enslaved people at Royall’s plantations, not Isaac Royall), is not lost.” Thank Heaven for Marxists, who would see no value in either the financial or intellectual capital of the Royalls.
There were other dissents as well. But the train rolled on.
Retiring the shield was the easy solution to Harvard Law School’s problem, a solution as easy as sewing fig leaves together. The visible sign of the Royalls is gone. Although the financial fruits of their largess remain, the people who voted for the cover-up, and who agree with the decision, can feel good about themselves.
The Logical Solution to This Madness
The hard solution would have been to divest the funds realized from the sale of the Royall land. The value of those funds, $2,938 in 1796, might be $5 million today, or even $50 million, a minor part of Harvard’s $37.6 billion endowment, but still real money. One can be excused for thinking that divesting the funds might have seemed to the exceptionally inclusive committee to be morally superior to discarding a small symbol no one knew anything about until practically yesterday. Of course, there is the problem of who would have been the recipient of the divested funds. Yale?
Perhaps the Powers that Be at Harvard know that Harvard’s history, perhaps even its modern history, is full of other Isaac Royalls, and that if they disposed of his gift, they would have to dispose of others. Then there might be no endowment left.
In the past year, Harvard has also disposed of the term “House Master” because (you can’t make this stuff up) its supposed connection with slavery upset some of the college students, some of whom were said to be 18 years old — and who therefore may never have heard the word “schoolmaster” or “headmaster,” and may also not have known that the word “master” comes from the Latin word magister, which means “teacher.”
While we’re on the subject of teachers, surely not all of Harvard’s previous teachers can be acceptable to the current guardians of her moral purity. Harvard professors Charles W. Eliot and A. Lawrence Lowell both supported the eugenics movement — we might not unfairly call them the intellectual Isaac Royalls of their time. Both were also presidents of Harvard, and both have houses (student dormitories) named after them. What to do?
What, a hundred years from now, will Harvard’s guardians do about Harvard’s decision, way back in 2009, not to keep calm through the storm of gender-identity politics, but to institute a professorship in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender studies? Is promoting eugenics really a lot worse? What to do?
And Liberals Call Conservatives Unnuanced
Indeed, what are we to do with the age that is past?
Perhaps learn from it. And learn especially that man is complex, filled with the potential to do both good and evil, to succeed and to fail, to see truth and to practice error. To sin and to repent.
And to be redeemed. Why did Isaac Royall Jr. give his land to Harvard anyway? Do we know? Do we care? Perhaps it was to aid the pursuit of knowledge. Perhaps it was to expiate the sins of his forebears. Or his own. Maybe that was his way of choosing between Heaven and Hell.
Why do people give to Harvard today? That is a puzzler. Surely not for education purposes. What Harvard can’t teach with $37.6 billion it won’t be able to teach with $37.6 billion plus a few extra million in annual giving. It’s a good guess that many people give to Harvard to be seen giving to Harvard. That is not a sin anywhere nearly as great as Royall’s sin of holding slaves, or Eliot and Lowell’s sin of supporting eugenics, but it should be sufficient to cause them to rethink being the first to throw stones, from the safety of a quarter of a millennium’s distance, at people they believe to be their moral inferiors.
Far Be It from Us to Actually Help Black People
What was really going on at Harvard was not about the seal or even about money, whether it’s $5 billion or $5 million or $5,000 dollars. The whole seal business was really about identity politics. Harvard’s guardians spent four months producing a ten-page report, which said, inter alia: “The Committee was unanimous in recognizing that modern institutions must acknowledge their past associations with slavery, not to assign guilt, but to understand the pervasiveness of the legacy of slavery and its continuing impact on the world in which we live.”
That sounds suspiciously like saying that the problems today’s blacks face are the direct result of slavery. Please! The black illegitimacy rate in 1940 was about 15 percent. In the mid-1960s it was 26 percent. Today, 50 years after the civil rights acts and the Great Society programs so championed by Harvard professors of progressivism and authoritarianism, it’s about 75 percent. What are the chances an illegitimate black child will prosper in today’s world? Slim to none.
Harvard’s contribution to solving that problem is: to dispose of a symbol practically no one had ever noticed, and to pretend that act will do something about the legacy of slavery! You can’t make this stuff up.
If Harvard doesn’t want to divest itself of $5,000 or $5 million or $5 billion dollars — it could give the funds to charter schools in poor black neighborhoods — at least it could refrain from encouraging the breakdown of Western Civilization’s family culture by keeping two lesbians as the housemasters of Lowell House. (You’re right: “housemaster” is an odd term for a brace of lesbians.)
Harvard would have done better to let the past be the past.