The College of William and Mary has a history problem.
That problem threatened to overflow on the afternoon of Feb. 6 as Jim Murray gave his Charter Day remarks to a celebratory Kaplan Arena crowd. Murray spoke extensively about the life and accomplishments of James Monroe, one of the College’s most prestigious alumni. “Here at the College, we pay obeisance to Monroe’s legacy,” he declared, invoking the self-abnegating deeds of a man whose “clarity and courage” during the War of 1812 preserved a nascent democracy.
James Monroe undoubtedly served his nation well, and his legacy bears the luster of patriotism. However, if we, as constituents of the College, are to truly pay obeisance to that legacy, should we not acknowledge the whole?
James Monroe was an unrepentant expansionist and a forbearer of American exceptionalism. Per Murray’s remarks, Monroe pushed Thomas Jefferson to haggle for more land from France in the Louisiana Purchase. It was under the aegis of Monroe’s presidency that the Adams-Onis Treaty was signed with Spain, transferring Florida to U.S. control. James Monroe designed the Monroe Doctrine, a paternalistic policy that placed the Western Hemisphere (especially Latin America) under U.S. protection.
While some may see these acts as admirable, Monroe’s legacy is undeniably complex. Murray chose to speak of Monroe as “truly great.” However, some may see Monroe’s accomplishments as transgressions. Murray rewrote the struggle for republican democracy, inexorably entangled in the cruelties of slavery, displacement and imperialism, as a simple parable. He made the rise of the U.S. seem the product of a few good and prescient men, ignoring those on the margins, and he positioned the College as an enabler of that rise. His speech was an exercise in selective blindness — a view that benefits no one.
We must move beyond Murray’s one-dimensional mythologizing and seek a nuanced history. We must remember the whole of our story, the story of the College. We must acknowledge that, inscribed in the very charter to which we dedicate a day of celebration, one of the stated purposes of the College is to disseminate “the Christian faith … amongst the Western Indians.” Hiding in the facsimile of American colonial life we neighbor is the specter of slavery. If we are to celebrate the role the College undoubtedly played in history, we should acknowledge an entire history, not just its burnished excerpts.
“We all revere the history of the College. We feel the pride of it in our bones.” Murray’s sentiments reverberated off the rafters of Kaplan. They rang true to some of the green-and-gold-clad crowd. A cheer went up, and the chorus led the audience in “Alma Mater.” Underneath that melodic note was silent dissonance, an contemplative sound waiting to be explored.
Email Quinn Monette at [email protected]