Why No Erasing of Blaine’s Name Too?

Activists across the country have been protesting venerable names inscribed on college buildings, as well as the identities of old soldiers on sculpted horseback in village squares, and even the olden name of a lake in Minneapolis, as they view those names and identities as unacceptable symbols and reminders of America’s often ugly racial history.  Think, for example, of South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, a 19th Century slavery proponent whose name has not only been condemned, but erased from places such as the largest lake in a beautiful chain of them, as witness the newly named Mde Maka Ska.

Despite their putoffish P.C. quotient, I don’t question the sincerity of most protesters.  And in fairness I agree with them when it comes to flying the confederate flag on public property.  But I do question their sense of proportion, as we have more important things on which to work, as well as inevitably contest.  Distinguished though he may have been in other ways – as a Vice President, Senator, Secretary of State, and Secretary of War – Calhoun was a terrible proponent of slavery.  He is not someone to be celebrated no matter what fine things he may have done before his death in 1850 at age 68.  Yet seeking to erase his name every which way would result less in uplift and more in the kind of historical cleansing more fitting for a wholly different kind of society and government.

Which brings us to another 19th Century political leader, albeit holder of a less familiar name, James G. Blaine of Maine.  Among other posts, Blaine served as Secretary of State, Speaker of the House of Representatives, as a member of the United States Senate, and not least, he ran for president three times.  He was the namesake of a failed amendment to the U.S. Constitution aimed at forbidding the use of public dollars for “sectarian purposes,” though similar language eventually wound up in 37 state constitutions, including Minnesota’s.  The prohibition certainly appears to be sound, seemingly aligned as it is with the first sentence of the Bill of Rights.  But as historians along with current and late members of the High Court have pointed out, Blaine’s intentions, and those who supported his efforts, were the opposite of benign.

“Opposition to aid to ‘sectarian’ schools,” Justices Thomas, Rehnquist, Scalia, and Kennedy wrote in 2000, “acquired prominence in the 1870s with Congress’ consideration (and near passage) of the Blaine Amendment, which would have amended the Constitution to bar any aid to sectarian institutions.  Consideration of the amendment arose at a time of pervasive hostility to the Catholic Church and to Catholics in general, and it was an open secret that ‘sectarian’ was code for ‘Catholic.’”

This soiled history became prominent again last week when two rulings of the Supremes, in education-related cases out of Colorado and Missouri, offered further encouragement to those of us who favor school choice programs that include both public and private schools, be they religious or not.  The High Court’s decision was significant even though it already ruled, fifteen years ago in a Cleveland case, that a properly designed voucher program, one in which public dollars go directly to parents, who then decide which school is best for their children, is perfectly constitutional.

But it’s exactly these morally deficient Blaine Amendments that opponents of educational choice have relied on, over the decades and across the country, in seeking to shrink educational freedom for low-income families in particular.  Think about it for a moment:  In the name of all that is progressively unholy, opponents of choice, including those in Minnesota, have grounded their arguments and obstructionist zeal in discriminatorily rooted law.

Blaine might not have been as anti-Catholic as Calhoun was anti-black.  But if Calhoun warrants denunciation, don’t Blaine’s activities warrant something akin?  Why isn’t the left interested in doing a little denuding of his name and prejudices too?

A change-of-pace postscript.  On the outside chance Blaine, Minnesota was named after the same Blaine, I called up the city’s website and there it was: Blaine was, in fact, named after Blaine in 1877 or shortly thereafter.  The recommendation had been made by the new township’s first chairman of the Board of Supervisors, a man by the name of Moses Ripley, who not coincidentally was a Minnesota transplant from Maine.  As far as I know, there’s no record of Moses’ staff having anything to do with encouraging the decision.  Somehow, there’s also no record of the role played, if any, by citizens’ fear of snakes.