How would you rename the Jefferson Davis Highway?
Well, which one? Thanks to efforts by the United Daughters of the Confederacy a century ago, there are a number of roads that bear that name, one as far west as San Diego, as historian Erin Blakemore explained on Twitter last week. At least one of them will get a new name, and not because of the controversies that erupted over the past week or so. Last year, the city of Alexandria, Virginia decided to rename its stretch of highway, and now is accepting suggestions from the public, Jalopnik reported yesterday:
The city council of Alexandria, Virginia unanimously voted to rename Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway and have now set up a survey for public feedback and suggestions for what to rename the road. You probably have ideas.
Alexandria’s decision to rename the highway that leads to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Arlington National Cemetery, and the Pentagon was made in September of last year, and now people can send in suggestions. One of the people in our office has already suggested The Ayrton Senna Memorial Highway.
If you’re curious about the campaign to stretch the name “Jefferson Davis” across the US despite his status as a traitor, the Federal Highway Administration has its own history available on line as well. The UDC launched the effort in 1913 as a response to a proposal for a coast-to-coast highway honoring Abraham Lincoln. Both efforts were later eclipsed by Dwight Eisenhower’s interstate highway system, but the remnants of the Davis project “periodically generate controversy,” as it did last year in Alexandria, although it largely flew under the radar of national news outlets.
Alexandria has made clear that its suggestion form is for replacement names, not to take up the debate over renaming the highway. Their advisory group will make a recommendation by October 5th to the city manager. They are not bound by the results, but clearly they would like a popular choice to help quell whatever political opposition is bound to arise, especially with passions as hot as they are now over the fate of Confederate memorials.
So whom should they choose to honor with this stretch of highway? All due respect to Jalopnik’s suggestion of a deceased Formula One driver, but perhaps this would be a good time to honor a Revolutionary War hero and a lifelong warrior for freedom — Tadeusz Kościuszko. The Polish engineer served throughout the war, rising to the rank of Brigadier General in the Continental Army, after successfully assisting in the defense of Philadelphia and Saratoga.
After helping the Americans win their independence, Kościuszko returned to Poland to try and liberate his own country. Unfortunately, he had less success there; Russia absorbed Poland and remained under Moscow’s direction for the rest of Kościuszko’s life. Nevertheless, he never gave up hope for his mother country, and never gave up his affection for the country he helped to found.
Kościuszko had connections to Virginia as well. He became lifelong friends with Thomas Jefferson, having met him at the beginning of the war. Jefferson called Kościuszko “as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known.” He died in Switzerland, and asked that his estate be used to free and educate slaves in the US, including and specifically Jefferson’s. Unfortunately, Kościuszko left that in the hands of his friend Jefferson as executor, who then “coldly declined to execute his friend’s dying wish,” as Christopher Hitchens noted in his biography of Jefferson.
Kościuszko was the Polish Lafayette, but gets much less attention than he deserves for his service to American independence. Ever since first reading about Kościuszko as a boy, I marveled at the vagaries of history. Alexandria can take a step toward righting that injustice by taking this opportunity to remind Americans than a son of the Poles stood for independence and true freedom.
Addendum: I did submit Kościuszko’s name to the panel through their website. if you’re so inclined, feel free to do so as well.