A republic perishes when its citizens no longer remember their past. Without an active remembrance of those who founded and protected its institutions through good times and bad, its citizens gradually lose sight of the virtues that made their republic great. Failing to cultivate those virtues will lead them to squander their precious inheritance. By preserving knowledge of their past in a tradition—a word whose root, the Latin, trado, means to bequeath, deliver, or hand over—free people may avoid this fate.
Today the past is more often treated as a cautionary tale instead of a guide. Rather than emulating our forbearers’ virtues, we are urged to focus only on their sins. But the costs of such a one-sided relationship are very real. Trying to scrub our past clean of any taint of imperfection or contradiction risks whitewashing the lessons of the past, both good and bad, that together sustain us at present and into the future.
Of course, we do not mean to say that all traditions are equally good or that we should blindly follow the example of our ancestors. Traditions must sometimes be rejected. The key is determining when change is appropriate and how much is required. Doing so takes prudence and judgment, or, as G.K. Chesterton famously explained it, it requires us to first make sure that we fully understand existing traditions before deciding whether to reject them.
Unfortunately, such discernment is lacking in our nation’s capital these days. For example, take the recent effort by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, to rename the Russell Senate Office Building after John McCain, R-Az., who passed away recently after a long battle with brain cancer. The building is currently named after Richard B. Russell, Jr. (1897-1971) who, for thirty-eight years, represented Georgia in the Senate. Schumer’s call for renaming the building, issued almost immediately after McCain’s death, has been received generally as a no-brainer. This is because the question of whether to rename the Russell Building has been framed as a choice between defending a racist and honoring a public hero. The New York Times has described opposition to Schumer’s effort (along with Vox and many others) as supporting “a segregationist’s legacy,” as if that was why Russell’s fellow senators, conservatives and liberals alike, decided to name the building after him in the first place. The implication is that those who oppose the rush to remove Russell’s name do so because they value his retrograde racism over McCain’s virtuous public service. But framing the debate this way cheapens the virtues shared by both Russell and McCain.
The Senate’s oldest office building was not named after the patrician senator from Georgia because of his position on civil rights. Rather, Russell’s colleagues believed unanimously that they should honor him because he honored the Senate. That is, he valued the institution’s stature and integrity higher than his party and the presidency for more than three decades. Toward the end of his life, people frequently remarked that Russell served under six presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Richard Nixon. Yet the mild-mannered senator rejected this characterization. Russell insisted that he had instead served with six presidents.
In short, Russell was an institutionalist. That was something on which staunch defenders of civil rights like Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Hubert Humphrey, DFL-Minn., could agree with champions of states’ rights and segregation like Strom Thurmond, R-SC., and James Eastland, D-Miss. Senators passed the resolution naming their office building after Russell on a near-unanimous vote. Philip A. Hart, D-Mich., was the only senator to oppose it. Yet he did so only because he believed that his colleagues were moving too quickly to honor Russell after his death—much like Schumer’s present effort to rename the building in honor of McCain.
Russell also exhibited many of the other virtues that Schumer wants to honor in McCain. He was a skilled legislator who, like McCain, had a strong independent streak. He played a leading role in creating the national school lunch program by building a coalition of small famers and low-income Americans. His efforts on this front led to the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act being signed into law in 1946. As the longstanding chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (the same panel chaired by McCain when he died), Russell was a leading architect of America’s postwar foreign policy.
Perhaps Russell’s finest moment was as chairman of the congressional hearings reviewing President Harry Truman’s decision to fire General Douglas MacArthur. With large portions of the American people energized by MacArthur’s bellicosity and pushing him to run for president in 1952, Russell used the forum brilliantly to deescalate the situation. He brought the hearings behind closed doors (but with redacted transcripts released every half hour) and kept them going for weeks as the public’s anger subsided. Most impressively, he managed to organize a deliberate and probing inquiry of MacArthur’s claims that ultimately left most members convinced the General had overreached. As Robert Caro put it in his Master of the Senate, the investigation had done
precisely what the Founding Fathers had wanted the Senate to do, what their Constitution had designed it to do: to defuse—cool off-and educate; to make men think, recall them to their first principles, such as the principle that in a democracy it is not generals but the people’s tribunes who make policy.
From our vantage point today, Russell’s failings on racial issues can only be described as profound. He was, at the end of the day, a sincere racist, if not one prone to hate-fueled outbursts. But far from being a secessionist, he was someone who worked the system for all it was worth to represent his constituents. Yet he also accepted the outcome of the legislative process as legitimate. Without members like Russell, southerners would likely not have viewed the passage of civil rights legislation as final or legitimate. Reflecting on Russell’s career, Senator Robert Byrd, D-WV, another great institutionalist, noted,
As the 1964 Civil Rights Act was about to be passed, Russell spoke movingly, and at length, against it. This, however, was to make a statement of principle with no thought of defeating the measure. He knew the outcome had already been determined. After passage of the law, he urged all people to “comply with the law of the land,” a statement that brought praise from President Johnson.
Losing well is a characteristic we should perhaps honor more. In doing so, Russell exhibited the kind of virtues that we need to sustain the republic. If we forget those, and are only able to remember his racism, it will be our loss. Senators have every right to decide that Russell’s decades-long stand against civil rights laws should now disqualify him from the honor of having his name on their oldest office building. But suggesting that Russell’s history on civil rights is all that should be considered is seriously misleading. Worse still, it quickens our forgetting the traditions that are responsible for the continued success of the American republic.