“We did not belabor the point.” No words better capture the lack of intellectual and historical content of much of the cancel culture sweeping the nation. It was the response of Jeremiah Jeffries, the Chair of the San Francisco School Names Advisory Committee. The Committee has recommended the renaming of Abraham Lincoln High School as well as targeting the George Washington High School, Herbert Hoover Middle School and Paul Revere K-8. Even an elementary school named after Dianne Feinstein is being targeted. This is not the first such effort around the country that focused on Lincoln. We recently discussed the effort of University of Wisconsin college students to remove the prominent statue of Lincoln on campus as not sufficiently “pro black”and a single-handed symbol of white supremacy.”
Jeffries declared “Lincoln, like the presidents before him and most after, did not show through policy or rhetoric that Black lives ever mattered to them outside of human capital and as casualties of wealth building.” This is the signer of the Emancipation Proclamation, the vocal advocate for the 13th Amendment, and the man assassinated for his war against the South and slavery. The reason such culture cancel efforts succeed is that academics and others are intimidated from challenging such ahistorical and unhinged views.
Jeffries is a first-grade teacher who also co-founded Teachers 4 Change and Teachers 4 Social Justice. He has been a vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders and Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar. However, some liberal politicians like San Francisco Mayor London Breed have opposed the effort.
The Committee emphasized Lincoln’s treatment of Native Americans, which we have previously discussed. One issue that was raised is that Lincoln ordered the execution of 38 Dakota men and signed the Homestead Act, which gave settlers land forcibly taken from Native Americans.
Lincoln’s role in the Dakota executions is legitimately controversial but has been presented without some countervailing facts. The Sioux or Dakota uprising occurred not long after Minnesota became a state and involved the death of hundreds of settlers. The Army crushed the Sioux and captured hundreds. A military tribunal sentenced 303 to death for alleged crimes against civilians and other crimes. The trial itself was a farce with no real representation or reliable evidence. Lincoln reviewed the transcripts of the 303 and told the Senate:
“Anxious to not act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak on one hand, nor with so much severity as to be real cruelty on the other, I ordered a careful examination of the records of the trials to be made, in view of first ordering the execution of such as had been proved guilty of violating females.”
However, only two men were found guilty of rape and Lincoln later expanded the criteria to include those who participated in “massacres” of civilians as opposed to battles with the Army.
Lincoln however commuted the sentence of 264 of the 303 convicted.
I have heavily criticized Lincoln for the unconstitutional suspension of habeas corpus and the loss of free speech rights as well as other decisions. However, historical figures often have such conflicted elements that can be discussed and understood in context as we did recently with a pre-revolutionary hero.
Dianne Feinstein is being targeted because she allegedly flew a Confederate flag at City Hall when she was mayor. It is an ironic moment as those who have supported (or declined to condemn) the cancel culture become targets of it. As discussed earlier, As proven by the French Revolution, today’s revolutionaries are tomorrow’s reactionaries — or victims. We also saw recently as Democrats called for blacklisting anyone “complicit” in the Trump years, including those connected with the Lincoln Project despite the vicious attacks launched by the Project against Republicans. Indeed, these hair-triggered attacks are why most academics have remained conspicuously silent in the face of a wholesale attack on free speech and academic freedom on our campuses.
In the case of Feinstein, her standing with the left seemed to plummet when she exhibited civility toward a Republican colleague by hugging Senate Judiciary Committee chair Lindsey Graham after the Barrett confirmation hearing. That simply hug sent the left into orbit and soon thereafter stories began to appear calling for her resignations and saying that she was no longer mentally competent.
What is striking is that Jeffries held out the possibility of a type of political reeducation for Feinstein:
“On a local level Dianne Feinstein chose to fly a flag that is the iconography of domestic terrorism, racism, white avarice and inhumanity towards Black and Indigenous people at the City Hall. She is one of the few living examples on our list, so she still has time to dedicate the rest of her life to the upliftment of Black, First Nations and other people of color. She hasn’t thus far.”
Just for the record, flag allegation occurred decades ago. She was first elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1969 — over 50 years ago.