Will the ghost of Andrew Hamilton haunt the Philadelphia bar?
Hamilton was a colonial-era lawyer who left big footprints. He was a former speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, friend of Benjamin Franklin's, and a man of wealth. Admitted to practice in the United States as well as England, he made the winning arguments in the 1735 libel and sedition trial of publisher John Peter Zenger, establishing a core principle: that citizens have the right to criticize their rulers.
But Hamilton also had a black mark on his record. He was a slaveholder like many prominent citizens of his day, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. To the Philadelphia Bar Foundation, that was an indelible stain. When it learned of Hamilton's slave ownership earlier this year, it stripped Hamilton's name from its annual benefit.
But in its zeal to stand on the right side of history, it may have taken a wrong turn. Hamilton's ownership of slaves is indefensible, but his framing of constitutional principles is a legacy that benefits every American today.
As some in the bar argued during the debate over Hamilton, stripping his name from the benefit risked canceling out his courageous defense of freedom of speech and erasing an important part of the city's history, both good and bad.
The bar foundation committee that studied the issue produced a thoughtful report. In a nod to those who resisted the name change, the committee decided the issue on grounds other than Hamilton's ownership of slaves.
The gala's name needed to better represent its mission of raising funds to provide legal services to the poor, the committee said.
It was a nuanced opinion that sidestepped the central question. Many of the founders and some early presidents owned slaves. It is hard to imagine that their names, too, should be removed from streets, buildings, and the nation's capital because a future generation holds them to a standard only a prescient few grasped during their lifetimes.
A Yale University report this year on a renaming controversy there suggests how the bar committee might have honed its analysis.
The Yale debate began more than a year ago when students launched a campaign to force the university to rename its John C. Calhoun residential college because of Calhoun's lead role in defending slavery before the Civil War.
Calhoun, a South Carolina slaveholder, had been vice president under President Andrew Jackson and a U.S. senator. Despite Calhoun's passionate defense of slavery, his reputation as a political leader persisted into the 1960s, when the Senate hailed him as one of the greatest lawmakers of all time.
Calhoun, who died in 1851, lived 100 years after Hamilton, and societal views had evolved to the point where slavery was banned in the North and the country was moving to war.
And here is where the Yale report comes in.
The Yale committee that studied the issue made no recommendation about Calhoun but set forth principles for dealing with name changes. It came back with several sensible ideas. First, the committee said changing names of a building or residential college should be highly unusual, and there should be a "strong presumption against" such changes.
Historical names, the Yale committee said, are a source of knowledge and history, and controversy has dogged even some of history's most revered figures. Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi was linked with "starkly racist views about black Africans."
Such inquiries should discern the reasons why the name was chosen in the first place. Officials changed a name at the University of North Carolina after learning that their predecessors thought they were honoring a segregationist.
Significantly, the Yale committee concluded that decision-makers must ask whether the offending behavior, like slave ownership, was significantly contested at the time.
They must also ask whether the principal legacy of the namesake is at odds with the institution that uses the name. Yale ended up keeping the Calhoun name while calling for a fuller study of his legacy.