Awhile back the folks out in Seattle got in a dudgeon when they learned that their county, King, was named after William R.D. King, who was elected Vice-President in 1852. They wanted the world to know that the county was ever after to be considered as named for The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. It seems that the earlier, non-Revered Doctor, Mr. King was a bigoted slaveholder.
Let’s suppose it is true what they say about Mr. King. Should we not change the name of Washington State, which is, after all, also named after a racist slaveholder? Should we change it to Lincoln? But, alas, dear readers, Lincoln was a confirmed racial bigot (like everybody else at the time), so that won’t work either. It is going to be hard to find any prominent person in earlier American history who was not a racist by 21st century standards. The State of Mandela? The State of Obama? The unwelcome fact is that almost all white Americans well into the 20th century were white supremacists. And in the 18th and 19th centuries slaveholding was widespread and commonplace.
Actually, the original Mr. King was not, I think, a particularly bad fellow for his time. A congressman from North Carolina, Senator from Alabama, U.S. Minister to France, and apparently quite a learned man for a politician at that time (not to mention THESE TIMES). Curiously, he was elected Vice-President on the ticket with Franklin Pierce, but died before being sworn in. There was no Vice-President for four years, and nobody seemed to mind.
I doubt if the people of Washington State outside Seattle are quite as excitable or as addicted to profitable victimology as the big-city folks, but I have to tell them that they have at least five other counties named for slaveholders, and who knows how many named for racial bigots. Their Left Coast neighbours in Oregon have them beat, with, at my count, eight. Of course, the names of counties simply tell us what part of the country prominent national figures at the time came from, especially those prominent national figures who were friendly to the settlement of the West. I doubt that there are any politicians and not many professors out there these days who can identify the counties I mean, and I ain't about to tell them.
And speaking of county names, the Midwestern States, especially Illinois and Michigan, are even more egregious offenders than the Pacific ones. But I ain't telling about that either.
Clyde N. Wilson is the Emeritus Distinguished Professor of History at the University of South Carolina and a Contributing Editor to Chronicles. Dr. Wilson is best known as the editor of the 28-volume documentary edition of The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the author or editor of a dozen other books—including Carolina Cavalier: The Life and Mind of James Johnston Pettigrew and Defending Dixie: Essays in Southern History and Culture—and has published over 700 articles, essays, and reviews. He is also the co-owner of Shotwell Publishing.