Monument Law


Ah, public monuments. They’re how we remember important events and help define who we think we are. Dan Solove’s recent posts on courthouses reminds me of how much we’re concerned with presenting the right image to communities. And there’s been a lot of writing about the function that courthouse architecture has served in American history. Moreover, lots of folks are writing these days about monuments and their meaning. Sanford Levinson’s charming book, Written in Stone covers a lot of ground in a little bit of space. And people are talking more about removing monuments from parks or renaming them (such as the Nathan Bedford Forrest Park in Memphis). Sewanee: The University of South is going through something like this right now.

I haven’t seen any serious commentary (in the blogosphere or elsewhere) on the United Daughters of the Confederacy v. Vanderbilt University, decided last May by the Tennessee Court of Appeals. Perhaps, though, it warrants a little bit of attention. It has some things to say about long-term contracts, the right of donees to alter monuments (like changing the names of buildings), and even how we remember the Civil War. The case arose from the effort of Vanderbilt University in 2002 to rename a dormitory on its campus from “Confederate Memorial Hall” to “Memorial Hall.

According to the court of appeals’ opinion, Chancellor Gordon Gee began efforts to change the name when he arrived at the University in the summer of 2002. People on campus had been talking about renaming the building for some years; some thought it was appropirate. Not surprisingly, others did not. Now, name changes are incredibly controversial, and I have mixed feelings about them. There’s something to be said for keeping names up because we want to honor folks who contributed money or whose accomplishments deserve honor. Even in the case those who engaged in what some might now think of as rather reprehensible conduct, we might still want to continue to honor, because of other contributions they made. And because a name on a building is part of a tradition. On the other hand, names convey messages to folks; and sometimes those messages are unfriendly, even if not everyone sees them as unfriendly.

Chancellor Gee’s plans included changing the name of “Confederate Memorial Hall” on campus maps and on the front of the building to “Memorial Hall.” The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) sued to prevent the change. The factual background is, well, a little complex. The UDC contributed $50,000 towards the building cost in the 1930s. But the history goes back to the 1910s, when the UDC was instrumental in building monuments and putting up plaques to the Confederate dead. The UDC’s history is well worth a read.

In the 1910s, the UDC began talking with Peabody College about providing funding for a dormitory. There were contracts (in 1913 and 1927), which together called for the UDC to provide $50,000 to build a dormitory. In return, Peabody would call the building “Confederate Memorial Hall” and allow the UDC to nominate young women who were descended from Confederate veterans to live rent-free in the building.

The UDC had trouble raising money. Then in 1933 there was a new contract drafted (which ratified the previous two), calling for $50,000 from the UDC and the rest of the money from the National Recovery Administration, a New Deal Agency. It provided that the agreement was void if the NRA didn’t provide funding. Turns out, that contract was never signed (that we can tell) and Peabody ended up getting funding from a bond they floated when the NRA said they wouldn’t provide money to a private school. Peabody went ahead and built the dormitory, named it “Confederate Memorial Hall” and housed young women nominated by the UDC free of charge.

Then, in 1979 Peabody, skirting the rim of bankruptcy, was acquired by Vanderbilt. As part of the acquisition agreement, Vanderbilt agreed to accept all liabilities of Peabody. But after 1979, they no longer accepted any new nominations from the UDC to house young women rent-free in Confederate Memorial Hall.

The Tennessee Chancellor found (p. 10 of majority) that it was “impracticable and unduly burdensome for Vanderbilt to continue to perform that part of the contract pertaining to the maintenance of the name ‘Confederate’ on the building and at the same time pursue its academic purpose of obtaining a racially diverse faculty and student body.” The UDC appealed.

Now watch these moves by the Judge William C. Koch for the majority of the Tennesee Court of Appeals, because I think they’re pretty interesting.

First, the court (following the Chancellor) reads a contract into the parties’ course of dealings. That is, even though the 1933 contract was never signed (and even if it had been, the NRA never provided funding), the court found that there was a contract through Peabody’s acceptance of the $50,000, through the naming of “Confederate Memorial Hall,” and through their acceptance of women to live in the the hall.

Second (see especially note 13), it found the contract was divisible between the UDC’s right to nominate women to live rent-free and the name of the Hall. If those rights weren’t divisible, then the statute of limitations would have run on the UDC’s right to enforce the contract in the early 1980s. Not surprising here. But that leads to a strange result when , third, the court awards damages on the entire $50,000. That is, while the contract was divisible into parts for purposes of statute of limitations, it was not divisible for purposes of damages.

There is a lot more than one might say about the majority opinion. One of them is: it converted the Chancellor’s interpretation of the contract as creating a charitable trust, which is subject to cy pres or other equitable modification, into a straight-out gift, which was not subject to such equitable modifications. My friend John Eason has a very good article on this, which was cited by the majority. The opinion’s also interesting to me from a property perspective. The majority requires that the name continue as long as the building stands–which sounds a lot like an equitable servitude to me. (Vanderbilt must maintain the name “Confederate Memorial Hall” on the building.) Sounds like a nearly perpetual servitude to me. As I say, there’s a lot in this rich opinion. I bet the case will be a staple of contracts (and maybe trusts) classes in the future.

But what is perhaps even more interesting to me (as a legal historian) is Judge William B. Cain’s concurrence. For those of us interested in judges’ thinking, the concurrence opens a window on the thought of Judge William Cain. It which consists in large part of a quotation from the memoirs of Union General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Chamberlain is an important figure; he fought and was wounded at Gettysburg. Chamberlain accepted the surrender at Appamatox.

Before the War, he was a moral philosophy professor at Bowdoin College in Maine. (Moral philosophy professors were important in the years before the war. Stonewall Jackson taught moral philosophy at VMI, for instance. Moral philosophy was a class in applied ethics. I think we can understand much about antebellum judging by looking to moral philosophy texts, not because the lessons students learned in college controlled their behavior later, but because the texts give us an understanding of how people at the time thought. There’s some fine work on moral philosophy recently, including Mark Bailey’s Guardians of the Moral Order and Peter Carmichael’s The Last Generation. Francis Wayland, who was president of Brown University before the Civil War, wrote an important moral philosophy treatise, which is quite helpful in understanding antebellum thinking about the rule of law and things like the right (or non-right) to disobey the fugitive slave act of 1850. But now we’re getting rather far afield from the issue at hand.). My friend Jeremiah Goulka has recently published a book on Chamberlain.

Anyway, about the time of the fiftieth anniversary of Gettsyburg, as folks North and South were struggling with the memory of the war and with reunion, he published his memoirs. Judge Cain quotes Chamberlain’s text, which honored the soldiers on both North and South:

Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond;–was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured? Instructions had been given; and when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier’s salutation, from the “order arms” to the old “carry”–the marching salute. Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual,–honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead! . . .

What is this but the remnant of Mahones Division, last seen by us at the North Anna? its thinned ranks of worn, bright-eyed men recalling scenes of costly valor and ever-remembered history.

Now the sad great pageant–Longstreet and his men! What shall we give them for greeting that has not already been spoken in volleys of thunder and written in lines of fire on all the riverbanks of Virginia? Shall we go back to Gaines Mill and Malvern Hill? Or to the Antietam of Maryland, or Gettysburg of Pennsylvania?–deepest graven of all. For here is what remains of Kershaws Division, which left 40 per cent. of its men at Antietam, and at Gettysburg with Barksdales and Semmes Brigades tore through the Peach Orchard, rolling up the right of our gallant Third Corps, sweeping over the proud batteries of Massachusetts–Bigelow and Philips,–where under the smoke we saw the earth brown and blue with prostrate bodies of horses and men, and the tongues of overturned cannon and caissons pointing grim and stark in the air. . . .

Then in the Wilderness, at Spottsylvania and thereafter, Kershaws Divison again, in deeds of awful glory, held their name and fame, until fate met them at Sailors Creek, where Kershaw himself, and Ewell, and so many more, gave up their arms and hopes,–all, indeed, but manhoods honor. . . .

Ah, is this Picketts Divison?–this little group left of those who on the lurid last day of Gettysburg breasted level cross-fire and thunderbolts of storm, to be strewn back drifting wrecks, where after that awful, futile, pitiful charge we buried them in graves a furlong wide, with names unknown! Met again in the terrible cyclone-sweep over the breast-works at Five Forks; met now, so thin, so pale, purged of the mortal,–as if knowing pain or joy no more. How could we help falling on our knees, all of us together, and praying God to pity and forgive us all!

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, The Passing of the Armies 260-62 (Stan Clark Military Books 1994) (1915).

What’s significant to me is the way that Chamberlain’s thoughts appear again, nearly one hundred years later, in a judicial opinion. They are a reminder of how north and south reconciled after the war and the meaning of the monuments to the Confederacy to many. As the concurrance later observed,

It is to the memory of these men that Confederate Memorial Hall was built and, to that end and at great personal sacrifice in the midst of the Great Depression, that the United Daughters of the Confederacy raised and contributed to Peabody College more than one-third of the total cost of the construction of the dormitory.

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4 Responses

  1. Ann Bartow says:

    Hi Al,

    I’m actually working on a paper that addreses some of these issues from an intellectual property perspective (hey, that’s what I do!). My working title is: “Trademarks of Privilege: Naming Rights and the Physical Public Domain.” I’d sure be interested in hearing from folks with similar scholarly interests.


    Ann Bartow

  2. Eric says:


    Why does architecture not have first amendment recognition? Currently, the government appears to reserve the right to architectural expression to itself, as an administrative matter, while denying the same right of expression to individuals.

    One leading (unnamed) constitional scholar recently said that that architecture “…lacks the capacity to convey ideas…” that other forms of art and entertainment – and he included pornography in this category of art and entertainment – do.

    One other thought is that architecture affects property values and is therefore derived from the commerce clause. Racial property covenants also affect real estate values, but that does not mean that issues of race are commercial issues. In fact, we find the concept repugnant.

    Is there anyone who posts in this category who has a more credible response? I’m posting this same question as a comment to several bloggers, and if it is slightly off topic to the post that it follows, that is because it is intended to address the larger issue.

    Thanks in advance.

  3. THEOFILIDIS says:

    Aix, 6/6/2008

    Congratulations for your article!

    My name is Theofilidis Vasilis and I’m greek. I do my doctorate degree in France but I’m interested also in monument law of the US.

    I would be grateful to you if you could tell me which pages of internet contain US jurisprudence and legislation on this theme. In particular I would be interested to know about the private factors and funds regarding the protection and the valorisation of historic monuments or listed buildings.

    Thank you

    Vasilis Theofilidis

  4. THEOFILIDIS says:

    Aix, 6/6/2008

    Congratulations for your article!

    My name is Theofilidis Vasilis and I’m greek. I do my doctorate degree in France but I’m interested also in monument law of the US.

    I would be grateful to you if you could tell me which pages of internet contain US jurisprudence and legislation on this theme. In particular I would be interested to know about the private factors and funds regarding the protection and the valorisation of historic monuments or listed buildings.

    Thank you

    Vasilis Theofilidis