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Amherst’s Lord Jeff Out: Lessons Learned

Lord Jeff no longer enjoys official support at Amherst College. News reports of the January 26 statement from the Board of Trustees varied in reporting the decision as 'dropping,' 'booting,' or 'dethroning,' but the official statement of the trustees actually employs a more convoluted expression: "The College, when its own resources are involved, can decide not to employ this reference in its official communications, its messaging, and its symbolism…."

The Amherst Trustees thus decided to allow the college administration to decide whether to abandon Lord Jeff. All the trustees themselves did was to "support such an approach, and [make it] College policy." Nevertheless, rather than see this as passing the buck, we can congratulate the trustees on having stepped up to the controversy over Lord Jeff and not blinked too much in the face of those who argued to keep the old Indian fighter around. The decision was not unanimous.

The trustees actually went a step further and indicated that the college inn—the only place where Lord Jeff's name officially appears on a building—will be renamed in a way to "reflect its deep connections with Amherst College and the town of Amherst." As to the unofficial presence of Lord Jeff as a college mascot—at sports games and elsewhere in student and alumni life—the trustees stepped behind the principle of "free expression," saying the college has no official mascot and "the College has no business interfering" with unofficial mascots.

The trustees initiated "a process that will consider a variety of mascot ideas and whether the College should officially adopt one." This aspect of the trustee decision may reflect the fact that 38% of alumni voting in a college poll supported keeping Lord Jeff around in whatever capacity he may have had, official or not. It may also be a smooth way to approach a deeper divorce from the general, by finding an official mascot that alumni and students "can all rally around."

The trustee decision was thoughtful about many elements in the controversy over Lord Jeff, including what they called "gnarly debates about how we understand history, about the very nature of war, about the weight we give to words and actions, and about who has standing to render moral judgments."

The trustees were even thoughtful about what might be termed the "trivial" issue of a college mascot, stating, "Amherst College finds itself in a position where a mascot—which, when you think about it, has only one real job, which is to unify—is driving people apart because of what it symbolizes to many in our community." Ultimately, the trustees said, "This is not about political correctness; it is about present community. … The ambition is to make Amherst College a place where all three words in the phrase 'diverse intellectual community' have as much meaning as the middle one has always had…."

Significantly, the trustee statement made no pretense of any doubt about the root of the controversy, saying, "a central reason [to dislike the symbolism of Lord Jeff] has always been his suggestion, in wartime correspondence, that smallpox be used against Native Americans."

In this, the trustees faced the historical record: letters preserved in the British Manuscript Project, between Lord Jeff and his officers—principally Colonel Henry Bouquet—discussing plans to spread smallpox among the Indians, and "to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race."

As recently as a month ago, commentators in major sources like the New York Times and the New York Review of Books were describing the smallpox letters as "allegations" rather than fact.

It may be ironic that the Amherst College library holds a microfilm collection of the British Manuscript Project. I researched there in 2000-2001 to compile evidence of the smallpox plan and make it available on the Internet: "Jeffrey Amherst and Smallpox Blankets." My motivation was to make good on a promise I made to Floyd Red Crow Westerman (Dakota), who asked me to "find the proof" about the smallpox plans to counter the many commentators who denied anything like that had ever happened.

Floyd told me he wanted to make a movie that would "put a knife into America's heart and pull it out to heal America." I think what he meant was that facing historical truths would heal America, though this would kill its illusions. Floyd passed on before he could complete this film project, but his inspiration lives in the material available to educate those who will learn.

Amherst College was named after the Town of Amherst, which was named after the general. Lord Jeff had no connection with founding the college. Yet today, when the Amherst Trustees step into the public debate about history and historical symbols, Lord Jeff can take on a new role, as an example of the way that America—or any nation—can revisit its history: not to deny it or cover it with whitewash (which amounts to the same thing), but to face it.

The trustees' statement reflects a lesson, which will be very difficult for some people: no nation is "exceptional" in having clean hands or a "divine" mission. Every generation has a duty—and many opportunities—to study this lesson and to find ways to leave their own history enlightened by acknowledgment of their own mistakes and misdeeds.

Tearing down a historical monument or renaming a building will be significant only if it grows from learning about history. Furthermore, the deeper and more difficult issue—what to do about the historical legacies that survive in practice—can only be approached on the basis of study and learning. Without learning and critique, removing a symbol of history becomes only a way of hiding the truth.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.