Virginia to Cancel Lee-Jackson Day, Make Election Day a Holiday

A long overdue correction.

My home state is about to do two very good things in one stroke:

Virginia is one step closer to ending its tradition of honoring Confederate generals.

This week, the Virginia House voted to strike Lee-Jackson Day from the list of state holidays. The holiday, observed on the Friday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January, honors Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson as “defenders of causes.”

Both men owned slaves and fought to preserve slavery in the US.

In its place, the House bill proposed that the state replace it with Election Day, the first Tuesday after the First Monday in November, instead.

Gov. Ralph Northam included the measure in his 2020 legislative proposals. If Election Day becomes a state holiday, he said, it’ll be easier for Virginians to vote.

“We need to make Election Day a holiday,” he said in his State of the Commonwealth speech last month. “We can do it by ending the Lee-Jackson holiday that Virginia holds … It commemorates a lost cause. It’s time to move on.”

The Virginia Senate passed an identical bill last month. Both chambers will need to approve the legislation before it appears before Northam.

Getting the bill passed in identical form by a Democratic-majority Senate shouldn’t be an obstacle. And, one presumes, Northam will sign a bill that he himself proposed—especially in light of the embarrassment of the uncovering of his college blackface photos.

Lee and Jackson continue to be revered military figures for their tactical acumen. And one can debate the merits of continuing to honoring them in some fashion, including the existence of the U.S. Army’s Fort Lee not that far from the state capital. But there’s simply no question that “Lee-Jackson Day,” especially with its unfortunate overlap with the King holiday, stands as a reminder of the state’s racist past and an obstacle to healing.

And it’s fitting that, rather than take a holiday away from the state’s civil servants (the only ones, frankly, who get the day off) we instead give them Election Day. It won’t have much practical impact, given that they almost certainly get some time off for voting and, again, the vast majority of other workers in the state are unaffected by the holiday. But it’s a good example to send given the absurdity of the American practice of holding elections on a work day.

FILED UNDER: Society, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. CSK says:

    Celebrating a Lee-Jackson Day seems to me to be roughly the equivalent of celebrating a George III-Cornwallis Day. Why should we revere our traitors anymore than we do our oppressors?

  2. James Joyner says:

    @CSK: Like it or not, Lee and Jackson weren’t traitors to Virginia. Their legacy in Virginia and the South writ large is complicated and perhaps, in some ways, worthy of honoring. But not in this way. It is literally an annual reminder of the Lost Cause moment, Jim Crow, and all the ways in which Virginia and the South fought desegration and equality.

  3. CSK says:

    @James Joyner:
    I understand that. But they did rebel against the United States. Lee famously said that he could not raise his sword against Virginia. He did, however, raise it against the United States.

  4. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    “Unfortunate” you say? When MLK day came about Virginia originally tried to merge them into a single holiday, the MLK-Lee-Jackson holiday.

    But yes, this is good news.

  5. Jax says:

    Election Day should be a Federal holiday, and public transportation should run free of charge to and from polling sites, personally. I would even go as far as saying you get fined if you are legally able to and you don’t vote. This thing where half the country doesn’t vote is nuts.

  6. Gustopher says:

    @CSK: It’s worth remembering that States meant more to people in those days. Not saying that they weren’t traitors to the United States, or that they weren’t defending horrible human rights violations, but just that loyalty to one’s state was not that much less than loyalty to one’s country.

    I wouldn’t take up arms to defend Washington State and I find the prospect preposterous, but it was a whole lot less preposterous then.

  7. CSK says:

    Sure, but Lee wasn’t just some well-off Virginia land and slave owner. He had made a career in the U.S. army, and sworn an oath to protect and defend the country as a whole. He even wrote a letter to Winfield Scott extolling the army for its kind treatment of him.

    Lee opposed secession…but he went along with it.

    I understand the loyalty that southerners in particular felt (and still feel) for their states, but Lee seemed to have carried this to a bit of an extreme given his prior career.

  8. An Interested Party says:

    Their legacy in Virginia and the South writ large is complicated and perhaps, in some ways, worthy of honoring.

    Why is their legacy worthy of honoring?

  9. Kurtz says:


    It’s worth remembering that the USFG was meant to be subordinate to the States as a whole, with the exceptions outlined in the Constitution. From what I understand, people considered themselves citizens of their State.

    In another post today, Joyner mentioned Ann Coulter’s habit of accusing of treason those who opposed the Iraq War. She wasn’t the first to do that–it filtered down to regular people. It’s ironic that the same kind of person who would say that about fellow citizens is the same kind of person who would oppose removing statues of Confederate figures.

  10. DrDaveT says:

    Perhaps they will make the official announcement from somewhere along Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway

  11. Mike says:

    Resigning your commission is one thing. Sit it out. Taking up arms against your former soldiers. Too much. He took an oath. Can’t switch sides. My two cents.

  12. Mister Bluster says:

    @Jax:..I would even go as far as saying you get fined if you are legally able to and you don’t vote.

    In the United States Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Amish are all legally able to vote however many do not for reasons of religion and conscience.

    Jehovah’s Witnesses are known to be politically neutral and for refusing to vote. They have suffered imprisonment and even death (such as Malawi) for abstaining from involvement in political affairs. However, the requirement not to vote has varied over time. Although few Witnesses vote, since 1999 it is technically a conscience matter. The latest elders manual – Shepherd the Flock of God – does not mention voting at all.

    Adventists should take civic responsibilities seriously. We should participate in the voting process available to us when it is possible to do so in good conscience…

    Only a small number of Amish cast ballots in presidential elections, perhaps 10-15%.  Amish may be more likely to get involved when voting involves issues which directly affect them, such as zoning…amishamerica

    Apparently you want to fill all the County Jails with these free Citizens on Election Day.

  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    I agree. He swore an oath. If you can’t square the morality of fighting for the country, fair enough. But directing artillery and musket fire on men you once commanded is despicable. Doing it in support of a heinous cause makes it unforgivable. Virginia my ass, they were fighting for slavery.

  14. Robert C says:

    @James Joyner: It’s really not that complicated.

  15. Mister Bluster says:

    Of course if you are going to force free citizens to vote you have to force them to register to vote first. You are, I assume, wanting “legally able” citizens to vote in all elections. This means that citizens in many states would be forced to register as a member of a political party and forced to cast a ballot in that party’s primary election or be subject to punishment by the government. State government? Federal government? Which authority is going to mete out your fines and how much do you want these fines to be?
    Just to let you know, if I am fined by your compulsory voting court I AIN’T PAYING! COME AND GET ME!

  16. Kathy says:

    There’s remembering, and then there’s honoring. Lee, Jackson, Forrest, Rommel, Dönitz, and many other brilliant commanders who served the wrong side should be remembered. But we should also remember what side they served, and what damage that did to their country, their people, and in some cases even the world.

    And of course, we can remember without bestowing honors.

    BTW, do Lost Cause enthusiast ever honor James Longstreet?

  17. Michael Reynolds says:

    Thank you. Longstreet was a top-notch general, but an indifferent supporter of the cause and no supporter at all of the Lost Cause. Whereas someone like Forrest was a real piece of shit, and they love ‘ol Nathan Bedford.

  18. de stijl says:

    Treason in support of renegade state. A slavery state.

    Lee, tactically, was a great general. He was a crappy person, and treasonous.

    Had Reconstruction proceeded properly, we would be a much better nation. We allowed the Confederacy to virtually enslave those we purportedly freed: to be subjugated for another century after the 14th Amenment. That was shameful.

    If you rebel and fail, you shouldn’t get to dictate national policy.

    The lack of will to see Reconstruction through is a national disgrace. And thwarted our progress.

    KKK and Jim Crow. Tulsa.

    It took us a century to pass the Voting Rights Act, and the Civil Rights Act.

    All that brutal nonsense previously had been enacted and implicitly endorsed by states while we supposedly operated under the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.

    And that 1964 action realigned the parties into warring camps.

    Slavery was the original sin of America. It echoes to this day.

  19. de stijl says:

    Imagine if in present day Germany there was a honor statue to Rommel in Berlin?

    A highway called Karl Brandt Memorial Highway? It would be horrific and objected to by all civilized nations.

    Treason in defense of slavery renders you inelligible for any honorific.

  20. Teve says:

    When Robert E. Lee’s slaves escaped he would whip them and then have brine poured in their wounds.

    the Myth of the Kindly Robert E. Lee

  21. CSK says:

    Thanks, but no thanks.

  22. Mikey says:


    Perhaps they will make the official announcement from somewhere along Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway…

    A few years back, here in Fairfax County, the road was re-designated Fairfax Highway. In eastern Fairfax County and in Arlington County, it is Arlington Highway.

    Also here in Northern Virginia, Lee-Jackson Day hasn’t been observed for so long that many young people have no idea it even exists.

  23. CSK says:

    Coincidentally, today is William T. Sherman’s 200th birthday.

  24. de stijl says:

    I worked for a company that moved their annual retreat from Phoenix to Palm Springs.

    They never declared why, but the timeframe was MLK backlash congruent.

    Good on them. Better if they had publicly said why.

  25. de stijl says:

    Palm Springs has the bossest airport.

  26. An Interested Party says:

    I’ll ask again…can anyone, anyone at all, explain how the legacy of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson is worthy of honoring?

  27. DrDaveT says:


    A few years back, here in Fairfax County, the road was re-designated Fairfax Highway.

    By whom? There are lots of current redfin and zillo listings for properties on Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway in Chantilly and Fairfax. Businesses list themselves online as being on LJMH. Recent local news stories (including the Washington Post and the Fairfax Times) locate events on LJMH. I’m looking right now at a posting on the Fairfax County Government official website about a retirement class that was held a year ago. The address given is on LJMH. Google Maps still labels US 50 LJMH as it goes past Fair Oaks Mall. Etc.

    Are you perhaps confusing this with the fracas over renaming Jefferson Davis Highway a couple of years ago?

  28. Robert says:

    @DrDaveT: Lee Highway is Fairfax Boulevard within Fairfax city limits only.Fair Oaks Mall is in Fairfax County so that is still Lee Highway.


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