The Volokh Conspiracy

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Thoughts on Renaming John Marshall Law School

I would keep John Marshall's name, but add Frederick Douglass'.


Within reason, I think it's good for American society to be rethinking who were deemed heroes and role models in the past. It always bothered me that despite the victories of the civil rights movement, we still had so many monuments, public buildings, and so on named after architects and supporters of slavery. It's akin to German Nazis still being honored in Germany–though admittedly, unlike some of the Founding Fathers who promoted slavery but also were champions of liberalism in other spheres, Nazis had little else redeeming going for them.

I also understand why some think that John Marshall, regardless of his involvement in slavery both in his private and public lives, should be honored for his contributions to American jurisprudence. And I also understand why alumni of the law school might be attached to the name of the school they attended.

So here is what I would be inclined to do if I were in charge of the issue: keep the Marshall name, but add an abolitionist champion. For example, one could rename the school Marshall-Douglass Law School after Frederick Douglass. By keeping the Marshall name, you honor Marshall's contributions to American jurisprudence, but you also rebuke his complicity in slavery by giving Frederick Douglass equal billing. I think this sort of compromise has general application to this sort of controversy.