"You may talk about your Johnnies and your Elis and the rest;
For they are names that time will never dim.
But give us our only Jeffery, he's the noblest and the best;
'Til the end we will stand fast for him."
Actually, that end may be near. Some of the students of Amherst College aren't standing very fast for Lord Jeffery these days.
Amherst may be on the verge of dropping the century-old "Lord Jeffs" nickname for its sports teams. The faculty has already spoken, in a non-binding vote in favor of getting rid of the nickname, back in November. The student body also overwhelmingly voted to disassociate from Lord Jeff. The college's Board of Trustees could decide the fate of Lord Jeff, at least as a nickname, next week.
So who is Lord Jeff, and what's the problem?
Field Marshal Sir Jeffery Amherst, the 1st Baron of Amherst, was a British military leader best known for directing Britain's conquest of Montreal and Quebec during the French and Indian War. The town of Amherst, Mass. was named for him – and Amherst College was named for the town.
Unfortunately, a more thorough exploration of Lord Jeff's life reveals a man perhaps a bit less heroic. For example, he may have been the first military officer to knowingly advocate the use of biological warfare.
In a letter discussing how to quell the Native American uprising known as Pontiac's Rebellion, Amherst wrote, "Could it not be contrived to send the small pox among the disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them."
Historians debate whether it mattered – smallpox was already rampant and other local military officials may have already tried to use germs to wipe out the Indians. But whether or not it mattered strategically, Lord Jeff seems to advocated germ-induced genocide. The school hasn't tried to dispute it – information about Lord Jeff's thoughts on Indians is even part of the college library's webpage FAQ.
In the early 1900s, a member of the college's Glee Club wrote the little ditty "Oh, Lord Jeffery Amherst Was a Soldier of the King," and it seems the Lord Jeff mascot emerged from there. The student who wrote it later said the song was "frivolously conceived," and it's doubtful any students at the time had any idea about Lord Jeff's arguably genocidal proclivities.
School officials have never used the nickname much – and it's never actually been official. The sports information office routinely refers to their teams as "The Purple and White." A couple of times, a guy in a moose costume has roamed the sidelines at Amherst football games, but in a show of how hard it can be to move past tradition, the moose got punched by a couple of fans at a homecoming game a couple years ago.
The Amherst Board of Trustees is scheduled to meet Jan. 21-23 and a college spokeswoman said the board is expected to take up the issue then.
"Oh, Lord Jeffery Amherst was the man who gave his name
To our College upon the Hill
And the story of his loyalty and bravery and fame
Abides here among us still"
At least until next week, perhaps.