The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
The Alexandria, Virginia City Council recently voted to rename Jefferson Davis Highway, a major thoroughfare in the area named after the president of the Confederacy. As a longtime resident of neighboring Arlington, I welcome the move. Since a new name has not yet been decided on, I also have a possible suggestion: George Thomas Highway, in honor of Union Civil War General George H. Thomas.
The case for changing the name is obvious: We should not continue to honor a man whose greatest claim to fame was leading a war in defense of the evil institution of slavery. To this day, apologists for Davis and other Confederates argue that the Civil War was not really about the "peculiar institution." The truth is otherwise. Don't take my word for it. Take that of Jefferson Davis himself, who unequivocally stated in 1861 that the cause of his state's secession was that "she had heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races." Other Confederate leaders made similar statements, including Davis's vice president, Alexander Stephens, who famously avowed that "slavery . . . was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution" and that protecting it was the "cornerstone" of the new Confederate government.
One can try to excuse Davis by pointing out that we honor many historical figures who committed various moral wrongs. For example, many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves, just like Davis did. But the Founders deserve commemoration because the evil they did was outweighed by other, positive achievements, such as establishing the Constitution (many of them also hoped and wrongly expected that slavery would soon disappear). By contrast, leading a war in defense of slavery was by far Davis' most important historical legacy. Few would remember him today, otherwise.
Critics of renaming might argue that we should not "whitewash" or "erase" history. But no one is proposing that we erase Davis and the Confederacy from the historical record. We should certainly remember them, and continue to study their deeds. We just should not honor them.
Renaming Jefferson Davis Highway after General George Thomas would be an appropriate way to repudiate Davis' evil legacy and honor a far more deserving figure from the same time period. Thomas was a Virginia-born army officer who remained loyal to the United States in 1861, and was ostracized by most of his family, as a result. He eventually became one of the most successful generals of the war. Afterwards, during Reconstruction, he commanded occupying federal military forces in various parts of the South. In that role, he worked to protect the rights of African-Americans against the early Ku Klux Klan and other advocates of white supremacy.
During the Civil War, Thomas became famous as the "Rock of Chickamauga." But he mostly has not gotten due credit since then, in part because many white southerners saw him as a traitor (though the Thomas Circle in Washington, DC is named after him, as well as a few other sites).
In addition to being a highly successful general, Thomas in many ways stood for the opposite of the values that Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy represented. Virginia, like other former Confederate states, has done far too much to honor southerners who chose to fight for an evil cause during the Civil War, and sought to restore white supremacy afterwards. We would do better to commemorate those who made better decisions, sometimes braving social ostracism in order to do so.