TAKE a look at the picture. Typical statue wouldn’t you say? It’s of a man for a start. A man from long-ago, up high on a plinth. I assume the book is the Bible and I assume he’s about to give us a big old lecture; the finger is already raised to make a point and the corners of the mouth are turned down to disapprove. All in all: the kind of thing you see all over the place all the time.

This particular statue is on the campus of Princeton University in the States and is of John Witherspoon, the Scottish minister and teacher who became a founding father of the US. There’s also a statue of him at the University of the West of Scotland in Paisley and it’s not surprising: Witherspoon was a remarkable Scot, a minister in Paisley and elsewhere, and later a president of Princeton and signatory to the Declaration of Independence. He’s the kind of man people make statues of, or used to.

But now, perhaps inevitably, the future of the Princeton statue is in doubt after the university announced last week that it was considering the option of taking it down. The authorities said they were doing so in response to a petition calling for its removal signed by around 300 people. In the words of the petition, people visiting the campus should be “free from the elevated gaze of someone who held beliefs we find repulsive” and the university should remember its history “rightly” and remove the statue.

What the signatories are referring to specifically is Witherspoon’s record on slavery. Until his forties, the minister lived and worked in Scotland but after moving to America to become a professor at Princeton, he owned slaves and, what’s more, later voted against the immediate abolition of slavery. This explains why in 2020 the statue of Witherspoon in Paisley was spray-painted with the words “slave owner”. And you can’t argue with that. He was.

The problem here is that it’s notoriously hard to capture nuance in bronze, or granite, or words from a spray can. Fortunately, Princeton’s own website does a pretty good job of putting the subject into context. Witherspoon was a slave owner. He did vote against the abolition of slavery. But as the website makes clear, it’s not quite as simple as that.

Take this little anecdote for example. In 1756, while a minister in Beith in Ayrshire, Witherspoon baptised a man named Jamie Montgomery who was born a slave in Virginia and sent to Scotland by the slave master. Remember this was 70 years before slavery was banned in the British Empire and was unusual behaviour to say the least. Although it’s hard to discern Witherspoon’s precise motives and attitudes, he baptised a slave and offered him the same religious instruction that was available to the white members of his congregation.

There are other parts of Witherspoon’s story that make the picture complicated. He made it clear that he disapproved of the slave trade but he also owned slaves. He tutored African and African American students but he also chaired a committee which voted against the abolition of slavery in New Jersey. The way the Princeton website puts it is that Witherspoon had a “complex” relationship to slavery and it’s certainly true that it’s an uncomfortable subject to explore from a modern perspective.

But the fact that Witherspoon’s legacy is uncomfortable goes to the nub of the issue here and the wording of the petition is highly relevant. The university, it says, should do what it can to prevent the daily experience of the “discomfort” caused by the statue. It also describes the statue as upsetting and impossible to ignore and an uncomfortable reminder of Witherspoon’s failings. Note the highly emotional nature of the language.

There are several things going on here I think and emotion is one of the most important of them because it’s something you often see in discussions about whether statues should come down or streets should be renamed. The proponents of change will often say they find the statue or name upsetting or uncomfortable and will argue that the university – it’s usually a university – has a duty to protect them from the upset or discomfort. Wrong. History is discomfort and so is life and the trick isn’t to avoid the discomfort, it’s to develop the skills to deal with it and put it into its proper context.

The other element that’s troubling – you might even say uncomfortable – is the fact the campaigns to take down statues are often led by a very small number of students. Princeton has more than 8000 undergraduates in any one year and yet on the basis of some 300 people signing a petition, the Witherspoon statue may come down. Something similar happened in Edinburgh where a group of students launched a petition to get the name of the David Hume building changed and the university caved. I’m pleased to say the principal Peter Mathieson now seems to be having second thoughts.

The Hume affair also highlights the other great problem with the desire to take down statues, which is the failure to put a historical figure in their proper context; the failure, essentially, to separate then and now. I quite like the radio presenter James O’Brien but one of the most ludicrous things he said during the furore over the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol was that “how you feel about that statue is how you feel about slavery”. This is nonsense. I would have thought there is zero chance of finding anyone in Britain who supports slavery but you’ll find lots of people who are concerned about the idea of pulling down statues.

This is effectively what the great historian Sir Tom Devine was saying about the renaming of the David Hume building – “by the criterion of this stupid decision, the whole of Scotland in that period deserved moral condemnation” – and I would have thought most historians would say the same about the campaign to remove the statue of Witherspoon. Taking it down is effectively a kind of misguided retrospective editing – Sir Tom calls such behaviour the nefarious intellectual sin of censorship and I can’t think of a better way of putting it.

We should also look at the petition in Princeton for what it is: an example of the well-meaning but immature behaviour that students have always been prone to (including me). The petition says the continued existence of the statue is holding Witherspoon up as a model for emulation. Do they seriously think that? It says the university has a duty to protect them from discomfort.

But can’t they see discomfort is part of life? Even the petition itself recognises there is “good” in Witherspoon’s legacy. I just hope the university has the strength to see it and let the statue stay.

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