Jim Douglas Is a Pud (And Other Observations)

Oh, boy. Former governor Jim Douglas is at it again, enthusiastically destroying what’s left of his reputation as a Nice Guy and a moderate Republican. He’s had a bee in his bonnet since 2021 about Middlebury College’s decision to remove the name “Mead” from what is now known as the Middlebury Chapel, the most prominent building on campus.

Douglas started complaining about this as soon as the name was changed in September 2021. In May 2022, he proclaimed loudly — in an essay not published in the Addy Indy or Rutland Herald or VTDigger but in the New York Sun, a conservative outlet that’s been described as having “a modest online presence” largely featuring opinion pieces — that he would not attend his 50th class reunion, so upset was he at the deMeadification of the chapel. At the time I called bullshit because…

Douglas may have skipped his class reunion, but he gave no indication that he would give up the “Executive in Residence” title he’s enjoyed at Middlebury since 2011, or that he would cease his part-time teaching role.

He still hasn’t given up his honorary or teaching roles, nor has he otherwise absented himself from campus activities, but now he’s filed suit against his employer and alma mater over the unMeading. Given the fact that he’s doing his best to turn Middlebury into a right-wing punching bag for its alleged embrace of “cancel culture,” it might just be time for the college to initiate a full separation on its own.

Obligatory First Amendment debunking. If Douglas did get canned, Middlebury would not be guilty of violating his free speech rights or “canceling” him. Douglas has every right to speak his mind. He does not have the right to avoid the consequences of his speech. I say this as someone who was once fired for using the word “dick” on Twitter.

Douglas’ lawsuit and public statements about the name change are exercises in mendacity, deliberately downplaying former Vermont governor John Mead’s support of eugenics as nothing more than a blip on the radar. Initial coverage of the suit included copious comments from Douglas but no attempt whatsoever to figure out what exactly Mead had said or done.

Which is journalistic malpractice, since it only takes about ten seconds on the Google machine to find the text of the farewell address Mead delivered at the end of his single term as governor. (VTDigger’s Peter d’Auria did manage to find the text.) The speech included a full section, roughly 1,000 words in length, about “Our Degenerates,” in which he thoroughly laid out the case for eugenics.

You’ll also quickly find a link to a lengthy account published in Vermont History by historian Mercedes de Guardiola, who has made the Vermont eugenics program a central focus of her work and is writing a book on the subject.

She launches her piece with Mead’s farewell address, which she describes as…

…a defining moment for the eugenics movement in Vermont. It was the first time a state official had publicly proposed eugenics as an answer to a growing number of perceived social crises in the state.

And while Douglas absolves Mead of culpability because Vermont didn’t institute a full eugenics program until almost 20 years later, de Guardiola points out that…

Mead’s proposal for eugenical marriage restrictions, segregation, and sterilization resulted in the near-legalization of eugenical sterilization and the founding of a new state institution in 1913.

…Furthermore, his work solidified the foundation for the research conducted by Henry F. Perkins’ Eugenics Survey of Vermont (1925–1936) and paved the way for Vermont’s legalization of voluntary eugenical sterilization in 1931.

His advocacy was not confined to a single speech on his way out the door. Mead had made eugenics a centerpiece of his administration and frequently promoted eugenical ideas and policies. Mead was a physician, which added the heft of perceived expertise to his position.

Here’s where we acknowledge that Mead was, indeed, a creature of his time. Many worthies of all political persuasions believed that eugenics was the key to a flourishing of humanity. We can’t erase them all from human history.

But that’s not what Middlebury College has done. It made a decision that Mead’s legacy was tainted enough that it no longer wanted his name on the most prominent building on campus, whose spire is visible for miles around and is essentially visual shorthand for “Middlebury College.” It was a perfectly reasonable decision for the college to make.

Douglas argues that Mead donated the money for the chapel, thus creating a perpetual obligation to retain the name. Well, how far are you supposed to take this? Does Mead have a perpetual claim on the chapel? Is the college obligated to keep the building forever, even if it falls into disrepair or the land is needed for another use? What if a modern-day donor gave all the funds necessary to bring the chapel up to date?

That happens all the time on college campuses. Old buildings are replaced, updated, or expanded. If the nature of the building is fundamentally changed, it might well be renamed. If some rich guy gave enough money to the rebuild, his name is going on that new facade.

There is no other circumstance under which a donor could claim “forever” status for a name and the building in question. Douglas’ lawsuit is ridiculous. And his fierceness in defense of a central figure in the eugenics movement certainly puts his public persona in a fresh and unflattering light.

Douglas was, after all, the governor who tried to single-handedly block marriage equality from becoming law. Perhaps he has the slightest concern that he might someday join Mead on the ideological trash heap of history.


4 thoughts on “Jim Douglas Is a Pud (And Other Observations)

  1. Fubar

    Let’s hope that Douglas is thrown onto the same trash heap as Mead, but here he has shown what he really is, was, and always will be.

  2. Chuck Lacy

    History will most remember Jim Douglas as Vermont’s most prominent opponent of marriage rights for same sex couples. A hundred years from now when historians are putting the civil rights era for Gays and Lesbians in context (much as it took time to really look at the Eugenics movement) Governor Douglas will be front and center to the story. I’m guessing no campus chapels for him in the meantime and no future controversy in that regard.

  3. Complicit Vermont

    You speak of eugenics in Vermont and of Middlebury and of professor Henry Perkins end of the eugenics survey of Vermont. You speak of names and names on buildings, yet you do not speak of the man who made possible the enacting of Vermont’s state-sponsored eugenical sterilization of other human beings into law. And no, it was not a voluntary law, an individual could be sterilized on the order of a doctor or by recommendation of a relative or guardian. That man was the chairman of the Vermont commission on country Life, committee on the handicapped which served the purposes of the eugenics survey of Vermont which as Henry Perkins himself stated was formed specifically for the purposes of influencing the Vermont legislature and eugenical sterilization law in Vermont. That man’s name was William Irving Mayo. His name too is on a building, a rather large building, in fact it may be the largest building in town. That town is also one of the oldest towns in Vermont, where the so-called Westminster massacre is alleged by local denizens to have occurred. There may have been a massacre in Westminster, but it was a massacre perpetrated upon children in the town of Westminster Vermont.


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