Pity Francis M. Wilhoit.

You’ve got to feel for Francis M. Wilhoit. Born in 1920, the Harvard-trained political scientist spent his entire career in academia, working as a professor at Iowa’s Drake University. He was published on subjects such as nationalism, equality in freedom, and the impact of populism on Black residents of Georgia. The topic that really motivated him was his opposition to racism. His PhD thesis was about the politics of Massive Resistance, which was published as a book in 1973. While he was no Mearsheimer, Walt, Huntington or Waltz, his career was one to be proud of. He died in 2010.

Despite all of this, what Wilhoit is most remembered for is this one, brief quote:

Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit:

There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.

It was an astute observation, though a sensible observation for somebody who had spent so long studying populism and racism in U.S. politics.

Unfortunately for Francis M. Wilhoit, this remark was in fact written by one Frank Wilhoit—no relation—on a comment posted to Crooked Timber in 2018, eight years after Francis M. Wilhoit’s death. The name is an absolute coincidence.

Frank Wilhoit is a 63-year-old classical music composer who lives in Ohio. In an interview with Slate this past June, he expressed horror at his quote being often attributed to Francis M. Wilhoit, not because he feels he’s owed some credit, but because he regards it as unfair to the deceased political scientist. He told his interviewer:

I had absolutely no right to create that kind of confusion, to pose that kind of insoluble problem for the custodians of his legacy. They will be playing whack-a-mole with that misattribution for all future time.

It’s clear in the interview that Frank Wilhoit is a thoughtful, erudite guy. But, again, he is not a political scientist, so it remains impressive that he managed to write a comment on a blog that has, in reputation, accidentally eclipsed the reputation of Francis M. Wilhoit. It’s like some baseball fan named Tony Peña being randomly selected from among the attendees at Fenway Park during the seventh-inning stretch, to come onto the field to try to hit a few balls pitched by Roger Clemens…and hitting a 510-foot homer. For decades after, people would understandably assume that it was the “real” Tony Peña who did it.

Perhaps it’s for the best that Francis M. Wilhoit didn’t live long enough to see a homonymous composer receive vastly more recognition for a blog comment than he did for his life’s work.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »