The board of visitors at James Madison University did the right thing by thoroughly reviewing and ultimately removing the institutional markers that honor three men who were traitors to our Constitution, sought to dismantle our country, and fought to establish an independent slavocracy in perpetuity.
However, the university should not rename these buildings after public figures. I suggest renaming them Piedmont Hall, Rappahannock Hall, and Appalachian Hall.
Why not honor accomplished Americans?
There is a small but growing iconoclastic movement (that has latched onto activists with nobler pursuits than theirs) who believe the United States is inherently perverse beyond redemption and has little to nothing in its earlier or even recent history worth memorializing. For example, last week’s Washington Post article, “Virginia schools quickly drop Confederate names, this time ignoring calls to preserve ‘history,’” mentions that a Virginia Commonwealth University student has started a petition to rename Thomas Jefferson Elementary in Falls Church that is being considered by the city’s school board. In the eyes of this student’s movement, Jefferson is not merely unworthy of admiration but repugnant and irredeemable; for them, writing the Declaration of Independence, founding the country’s first secular university, inventing the swivel chair, introducing us to macaroni and cheese, defeating the slave-raiding Barbary pirates, and banning the international slave trade cannot remove the stain of his status as a slave owner, typical of his peers in 18th-century Virginia. These fanatics are shallow in their understanding of history and apply an uncompromising purity test, holding long-deceased people of remarkable accomplishment against themselves. This puritan mob derives much self-esteem from minimizing the virtues and amplifying the vices of people who’ve contributed much more to the greater good than they ever will. To borrow a phrase from Madison in Federalist No. 55, their passions are inflamed by “indiscriminate and unbounded jealousy, with which all reasoning must be vain.” If their momentum continues, even the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. could be at stake soon.
The JMU board of visitors should strongly consider renaming Jackson, Ashby, and Maury halls for things that are relevant and unobjectionable, such as physical features of Virginia: our hills, rivers, and mountains. Let us return to the land we all share for much-needed symbols of unity, organic sources of inspiration to engender civic virtue and sustain patriotism.
In 1926, students at the University of Arizona pondered the meaning of patriotism:
“Patriotism is more than saluting the flag or singing the national anthem. It is a respect for the nation, a deep seated love for the soil itself.”
The JMU board of visitors has an opportunity to rename these three campus buildings for things that can unite us today as well as connect our history with our present and future. Virginia’s physical features define its borders, provide us natural sanctuary, and shape who we are. Their beauty inspires wonder and discovery, as does James Madison University itself. Piedmont Hall, Rappahannock Hall, and Appalachian Hall would forever befit the JMU community like no tribute to a public figure could.
Brian Stout, a James Madison University graduate, lives in Reston.