June 5, 2023

Middlebury College Flunks a History Test

Whatever else might be said about John A. Mead’s views on eugenics, they didn’t define his life or his legacy.

In 1914, 50 years after his graduation from Middlebury College and two years after completing his term as Vermont’s 53d governor, John Abner Mead reached out to his alma mater with a generous offer.

In a letter to the college president that was forwarded to the board of trustees, Mead proposed to underwrite the construction of a campus house of worship — a “dignified and substantial” chapel that would reflect “the simplicity and strength of character” of the people of Champlain Valley and the state of Vermont. Specifically, wrote Mead, he would provide $60,000 to build a chapel at the highest point on the Middlebury campus, “to be known as the Mead Memorial Chapel.”

The trustees readily accepted Mead’s offer. A groundbreaking ceremony for the chapel was held in June 1914; the completed building was dedicated two years later. By then, the funds donated by the former governor had risen to more than $75,000 — the equivalent of $2.2 million today. The chapel soon became an iconic feature of the Middlebury landscape and the college’s branding. It still is. But the building was recently stripped of its benefactor’s name. Thereby hangs a lawsuit, and another chapter in the dismal annals of contemporary cancel culture.

On Sept. 27, 2021, with no advance notice, Middlebury workers were dispatched to remove the stone slab engraved with the words “Mead Memorial Chapel” from its niche above the building’s entrance. With the name gone, bare brick was exposed beneath the pediment.

Hours later, Middlebury administrators issued a statement announcing that after a “deliberative process,” they had decided to eliminate the name of the chapel’s donor on the grounds that he had played a role in “advocating and promoting eugenics policies in Vermont in the early 1900s.”

Mead thus joined a long list of prominent historical individuals whose names or images have been stricken, toppled, defaced, or expunged from public places of honor because things they did or said long ago are regarded today as shameful or benighted. Statues of figures as varied as Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, and the singer Kate Smith have been “canceled” in this manner, as have buildings named for Woodrow Wilson, the Sackler family, and Dianne Feinstein. In Boston, the street bearing the name of former Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey was renamed in 2018. A year later, Roxbury’s central hub became Nubian Square, memory-holing the name by which it had been known for generations, that of Puritan governor Thomas Dudley.

Sometimes the case for removing a statue or a name from a building is undeniably compelling. I have long argued that monuments honoring leaders of the Confederacy — the vilest cause in American history — deserve no place in a free society. Too often, however, men and women whose careers were admirable and even heroic have been dishonored because in one notable respect they fell short. Jefferson, for example, was among the most visionary, inspiring, and influential leaders in US history. But because he was a slaveholder, he is deemed by many to be unworthy of any honor. In his case and numerous others, historical figures are reduced by contemporary critics to a single, defining negative characteristic — and that moral failing is given more weight than all the good they may have achieved in a life of accomplishment and merit.

That is what Middlebury has done to Mead. And to rectify that unfairness, a more recent Middlebury alumnus — former Vermont governor James Douglas — has gone to court to get his predecessor’s name restored to the chapel made possible by his munificence.

In a 79-page lawsuit filed in Vermont Superior Court, Douglas makes two essential arguments.

One is that removing Mead’s name from the Middlebury chapel amounts to a breach of contract, since the former governor’s offer to pay for the building was conditioned on its being called the “Mead Memorial Chapel.” That understanding was expressed in numerous communications at the time, Douglas contends. Mead specified that the building to be constructed with his money would bear his family’s name, and the college accepted that term. “The name ‘Mead Memorial Chapel’ was the essence of the deal and it was the entire deal — forever,” the complaint reads.

Whether that argument will stand up in court is unclear. In a motion to dismiss Douglas’s suit, the college argues that Mead’s offer in 1914 was never made explicitly contingent on a permanent grant of naming rights and that “it certainly did not call for a reversion of the gift if the name should be changed more than one hundred years later.”

But if Douglas’s legal claim is iffy, the moral argument he makes is wholly convincing.

In prying the former governor’s name from the chapel because of his support for eugenics — support that appears to have amounted to little more than a single passage in Mead’s farewell speech as governor — Middlebury College “sullies the reputation of a decent man,” Douglas maintains. The college “has obliterated any memory of the selfless acts and the altruistic contributions John Mead made to his nation, state, county, town, church, and to Middlebury College itself.”

Those acts and contributions were considerable. Mead, an orphan who worked to put himself through school, became a successful doctor, businessman, and philanthropist. He served as Vermont’s surgeon general, a state senator, the mayor of Rutland, and lieutenant governor before being elected to the state’s highest office in 1910. As governor, Douglas observes, Mead was a progressive who supported women’s suffrage, toughened child labor laws, and strengthened campaign finance statutes.

It is true that he was sympathetic to eugenics and believed that “undesirable” people, such as the mentally ill and criminally insane, should be restricted from procreating. But in the early decades of the 20th century, that was the mainstream progressive view, enthusiastically embraced by leading thinkers, scientists, and activists, including Theodore Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, and Helen Keller. Mead’s single 1912 speech on the subject was, by modern standards, profoundly unenlightened. But it changed nothing and was not a subject he pursued further. Not until 1931 did the Vermont legislature pass a bill for the sterilization of “mentally unfit” people. By that point, Mead had been dead for over a decade.

Whatever else might be said about Mead’s views on eugenics, they didn’t define his life or his legacy. They were far outweighed by the good he did as a citizen, a public official, and an alumnus of his college. To strip his name from the landmark chapel he provided because his once-conventional support for eugenics is now disfavored doesn’t amount to an honorable grappling with history. It amounts to tawdry virtue signaling by an institution that should be better than that.

With or without Mead’s name, the chapel he built will continue to stand tall. A pity the same can’t be said for the president and trustees of Middlebury College.

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