Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

They're Not All Saints

Abbott Lawrence Lowell, as President of Harvard, attempted to impose quotas on Jewish students and ban black students outright.

Chester Greenough, with Lowell's ample support, presided over the Secret Court of 1920, which expelled eight students on allegations of homosexuality.

Benjamin Wadsworth was one of the first anti-abortion writers in America.

The Cabot family owned slaves.


These are not pieces of our University's history that we should be proud of, but they are pieces of our history whether we acknowledge them or not. And it is disingenuous to object to a single donor's unpleasant past -- as in the case of a Harvard Law School committee's recommendation to replace the Royall family arms which appear on that school's shield -- without acknowledging that our University's entire history is laced throughout with the remnants of our country's morally troubled past.

But they're not all devils, either. Lowell was an ardent supporter of academic freedom in the face of the patriotic furor surrounding World War I, and was called "a traitor to his class" for his efforts to integrate the College along socioeconomic lines. The Cabots were generous benefactors, not just to Harvard, but to public education projects throughout Boston and the state of Massachusetts.

Harry Lewis, former Dean of Harvard College has written of Gordon McKay (founding donor of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and by most accounts a womanizing cad): "I like to think that universities cleanse the money they take from such folks and society comes out better the exchange, as long as the donors don't buy too much influence and the university doesn't honor the donors too publicly or too fulsomely."

Now, one could argue that incorporating a family crest into the heraldic identity of Harvard is "honoring too fulsomely" men whose moral principles do not deserve honor today. But it seems odd to claim that in the twenty-first century, the design of "azure, three sheaves of wheat or" sets a pro-slavery tone here at Harvard. Today, those sheaves of wheat signify Harvard Law -- with its proud tradition of academic excellence and social service -- far more than they honor the moral views of Issac Royall.

William Stoughton presided over the Salem Witch Trials, forcing juries to reconsider "not guilty" verdicts until they convicted women under trial.

Increase Mather, who appointed Stoughton, repeatedly refused to denounce the trials' brutality. He also owned slaves.

John Adams, often praised for his opposition to the idea of slavery, was nevertheless opposed to the abolition movement, except "gradual[ly, with] much caution and [c]ircumspection". He would later write that "general Debauchery...produced by...theatrical Entertainment... [is] in my opinion [a] more serious and threatening [evil], than even the slavery of the Blacks". ("I might even add that I have been informed, that the condition, of the common Sort of White People in some of the Southern states particularly Virginia, is more oppressed, degraded and miserable than that of the Negroes.")

John Winthrop, as governor of Massachusetts, ordered local Native American tribes raided and captured as slaves, many of whom were shipped to the West Indies. Winthrop also kept three for himself.


We can reduce these men's lives to a binary moral judgment, or we can understand their legacies in a framework that understands that they are neither perfect, nor perfectly flawed. And if we avoid dismissing them reflexively for their moral failings, we can see that Mather worked to stamp out ingrained traditions of hazing at Harvard, and was nearly framed for treason for supporting freedom of religion in Massachusetts. John Adams has little need of more praise, and I encourage you to look up the history and legacy of both men named John Winthrop, to decide for yourself whether their family crest deserves to hang on the house between Eliot and Leverett.

After all, the man who most famously wrote that "[w]e hold [this truth] to be self-evident: that all men are created equal" raped one of his slaves. Should the Declaration of Independence be a source of shame for our nation? Janet Halley, Royall Professor of Law, was quoted in the Crimson saying "it's important for us to responsibly and humanely grasp this thistle", and it ought to go without saying that this is a project of nuance and complexity.

And if, upon reasoned consideration, we cannot come to terms with the fact that our university was built on the legacies of deeply flawed men and women, then let's pull up the thistle by its roots, under the banner of "Adams, Cabot, Greenough, Lowell, Mather, McKay, Royall, Stoughton, Wadsworth, Winthrop, and All Others Must Fall". But let's not believe that it is in any way principled to stop at one change because “the absence of a living donor laying claim to the crest...make[s] retiring the shield less controverted than some other issues about names [and] symbols.” If this project of divorcing ourselves from icons of our problematic past is truly important, there remains a great deal more work to do.

[T]he now-visible associations of the shield divide the Law School community and hinder engaging that portion of the institution’s past; that many who become aware of its origins are more likely to see the shield as a distasteful symbol of the past rather than as an opportunity to learn from that past.

At bottom, this latter view rests on the conviction that there are better ways to engage the past and its legacy in the present than by retaining a symbol that so many members of the community reject. It is this conviction that represents the consensus of the Committee. (...)