On Saturday night, the evening before Constitution Day Sunday, a member of the Dallas Independent School District (ISD) Board of Trustees released a list of schools whose names should be reconsidered because of their association with the Confederacy or dark periods in American history. James Madison High School ranked on the list, suggesting that just as America was celebrating the 230th anniversary of the ratification of the Constitution, the “Father of the Constitution” would be considered too controversial for a school’s name.
Last Thursday, the administration of the DISD recommended changing the names of four elementary schools honoring Confederate generals: Albert Sidney Johnston, William L. Cabell, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee.
Following the white nationalist riots in Charlottesville, Va., there has been a burgeoning movement to remove all monuments and reminders of the Confederacy from public view. This has also extended far beyond the Confederacy, with vandals even targeting statues of California missionary Junipero Serra and French Catholic Saint Joan of Arc.
Dallas and its mayor, Mike Rawlings, have become infamous for spending upwards of $450,000 to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, despite the fact that at least one group (predominantly made up of African-Americans) warned that this effort is a “misguided” effort to “erase racism.” Recent polling has shown that removing these monuments is unpopular. Even so, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) warned of “turmoil and bloodshed” should Confederate monuments — including schools named after generals — remain standing.
During the DISD discussion about schools named for Confederate generals, it was mentioned that there was a much broader list, of at least 21 names, that bore further investigation and potential blacklisting.
Dustin Marshall, a DISD board member, released the list on Facebook Saturday evening. Number nine on the list should prove quite concerning, as it was none other than James Madison himself, America’s fourth president credited as the “Father of the Constitution.”
CLARIFICATION: Since this original post continues to be taken out of context by the local and national media, I am…
In publishing the list, Marshall noted that he will not support a name change for Ben Franklin Middle School, “since Benjamin Franklin clearly had many accomplishments that form the basis for why the school was named after him. I don’t believe this school was named after Franklin to send a signal of oppression and control.”
Marshall may have pointed out Franklin specifically because that school is within the district he represents. Even so, it is remarkable that he passed over the Father of the Constitution on the eve of Constitution Day.
The U.S. Constitution was ratified by the states on September 17, 1787, so Constitution Day is celebrated on September 17. This year marks the 230th anniversary of the ratification of the Constitution, making the United States the oldest representative government still in existence.
Madison was the chief architect of that document. Along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, he wrote The Federalist Papers, a series of pamphlets promoting the new Constitution. He was the central figure in drafting the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and is hailed as the “Father of the Constitution.”
In addition to this monumental achievement, Madison served as secretary of State and later as the fourth president. He led the country through the War of 1812.
This president seems an odd choice for Social Justice Warriors to target. Yes, Madison owned slaves throughout his entire life, but he looked forward to the abolition of slavery.
Fascinatingly, Madison’s former slave Paul Jennings wrote a glowing account of the late president, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison. In that book, the former slave said the president never struck a slave, nor permitted an overseer to do so. Jennings wrote that if a slave misbehaved, Madison would meet with the person privately to discuss the behavior.
Furthermore, Madison had a rather benign policy with the native Americans. As pioneers and settlers moved west, the president ordered the U.S. Army to protect native lands from intrusion by settlers. This angered military commander Andrew Jackson, who as the sixth president would launch the infamous “Trail of Tears.” The natives were abused and kicked off the land in spite of Madison’s efforts, not because of them.
The history of slavery in the United States is a dark and complicated story, but Madison is far from one of the villains in the narrative. Not only did he lead the creation of the U.S. Constitution, but he treated his slaves well and attempted to protect native Americans from settlers early in his presidency.
The Father of the Constitution was not a Confederate general, and his presence on such a list would be laughable if it were not so tragic. The members of the Dallas ISD board should be ashamed of themselves for even considering his name for blacklisting, but especially as they did so mere days before the 230th anniversary of Madison’s greatest achievement.
Even if Madison’s name is unceremoniously removed from this Dallas high school, his greatest contribution to American history will endure, as it has for 230 years. For that, he deserves to be remembered, in the Wisconsin city that bears his name, and in many elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools across America.