No Clear and Compelling Justification

by Donald Smith

Governor Northam’s November speech to the VMI cadet corps has been widely panned for many reasons. Here I offer a new reason: The speech violated a cardinal principle of American leadership: you must be able to articulate compelling reasons for your decisions and actions.

When Northam spoke to the assembled Corps of Cadets, his previous treatment of VMI hung over his head like a dark cloud. Among the many animosities he had inspired was the banishment of Stonewall Jackson’s statue from Main Post, followed by an assault on the general’s legacy at VMI. Statues are symbols — of people, events or traditions we want to honor. They reflect upon the people who create and honor them — and also on those who tear them down.

With his speech, Northam had a chance to confidently and compellingly explain why Jackson’s statue had to go and why his legacy should be erased from the military academy.

“I believe VMI is the finest military school in the best country in the world,” the Governor said in the speech.

Well, American soldiers expect to know the reasons for their officers’ actions and decisions, especially controversial ones. It’s a tradition going back to the founding of our country. Literally.

“The genius of this nation is not to be compared … with that of the Prussians, Austrians or French. [In Europe, you] say to your soldier ‘Do this,’ and he does it, but [in America] I am obliged to say, ‘This is the reason why you ought to do that,’ and then [the American soldier] does it.”

Baron Friedrich von Steuben wrote those words after his first encounters with American soldiers in 1778. In “The Drillmaster of Valley Forge,” an account of von Steuben’s efforts to train the fledgling Continental Army, author Paul Lockhart explains that “Prussian soldiers, and European soldiers generally, were peasants, bred to deference.” The Continentals, though, did not see themselves as peasants. They were not simply “content to do what they had been told to do; they wanted to know why they should do it.” Why did it need to be done?

Two years earlier, these soldiers’ representatives in Philadelphia had set the standard for how American leaders should act. In the Declaration of Independence, the Founders spelled out the reasons why the colonies felt compelled to secede. “A decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” they wrote, “requires that [the Founders] should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

American leaders — good ones, that is — know we expect them to follow and enforce the standard set at Philadelphia and Valley Forge: they owe us compelling reasons, which they can explain and defend, for their decisions. Americans have never accepted “Because I said so” (or “Because, shut up!” or “Because I can get away with it”) as a good reason. That standard is a sign of a leader’s respect for those he/she leads. It’s also a check on bad or arbitrary decision-making. If the commander’s primary reasons are easily rebutted, they’re probably not strong.

The publicized justifications for the purge of Jackson’s legacy are shallow, not compelling, or easily rebutted. The petition created by VMI alumnus Kaleb Tucker, which started the Jackson statue controversy, doesn’t explain why Jackson himself was so uniquely awful that his legacy should be dismissed by VMI. Statements issued by the VMI superintendent and alumni organization immediately after the decision to remove Jackson’s statue don’t explain why Stonewall’s legacy was so toxic that his statue couldn’t even stay on Main Post or why a public university had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to remove it. I sent three separate requests to VMI’s Promaji Club, asking them to explain why Jackson’s legacy just had to be diminished at VMI. No response.

Governor Northam had a chance to answer those questions, to lay out compelling reasons why a great military institute had to cleanse itself of the legacy of its — and one of America’s — greatest battlefield generals. Reasons strong enough to convince not only progressives, emotionally brittle people, and Washington Post staff writers, but especially the Cadet Corps, VMI alumni, Virginians in general, and graduates of other great military academies such as West Point, Sandhurst, and St. Cyr. Strong enough to justify the turmoil Northam unleashed on VMI. Strong enough to convince Virginians that VMI did the right thing — and to dispel the widespread perception that an honorable institution was bullied by an opportunistic politician, eager to appease his critics, who took advantage of the national turmoil following the COVID and George Floyd tragedies.

In his speech, Northam gave no compelling reasons. He said it was good that Jackson’s statue was gone, because it made some cadets feel unwelcome and it “glorify[ied] rebellion against the United States.” No explanation for why Jackson’s battlefield greatness, or the courageous citizenship he showed by creating a Sunday School for slaves, should be dismissed, or viewed as insignificant. No acknowledgment that Jackson lived in a different time, with different beliefs than we have nowadays.

VMI cadets, who know the standard, surely recognized that the Governor didn’t meet it in his speech. I’m confident that many reasoned that, if Northam didn’t lay out compelling reasons at the time and place that called for him to lay them out… then it’s fair to conclude that he didn’t have compelling reasons in the first place. The governor couldn’t even say Jackson’s name.

Jackson’s statue may be gone from VMI Main Post for good, but there’s an important principle at issue here, one worth defending. Leaders set standards. A former Army Chief of Staff once said that, if a leader ignores a standard — or fails to live up to it — he’s just set a new, lower standard.

I suspect Ralph Northam and his “confederates” knew their justifications for attacking Jackson’s legacy were weak, falling far short of the standard set in Philadelphia and Valley Forge. That explains why they’re so evasive and vague when challenged. They deserve to be pilloried, so that their sorry example doesn’t become the standard for the future.

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32 responses to “No Clear and Compelling Justification”

  1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Funny, when I was in Army basic training, I was not given a chance to question my drill sergeant’s orders. In fact, if I had questioned them, I would have been instantly doing 100 pushups. (I have a feeling that von Steuben’s comments were not meant to be compliments.)

    Although Northam had no obligation to offer an explanation or justification, because the decision was that of the Board of Visitors, not his, he did provide one: the statute “glorify[ied] rebellion against the United States.” Although you obviously do not think so, that seems a pretty compelling reason.

    1. vicnicholls Avatar

      What? The statue, in the military command/leadership aspect at VMI, was an indication of a military genius. Otherwise, we should not honor *anyone* *ever* in any position that has ever gone against the US – that would include our current friends, England, Japan, Germany …

    2. Jake Spivey Avatar
      Jake Spivey

      In basic, you’re attempting to get into “the club”. As a graduate, Coonman was already in the club and as a the Guv, (in theory) it’s #1 leader. All Coonman did was blather about his feelings about how he’s “improved” the Institute. He’s done no such thing. The facts that he a) had to “invite” himself to Post and b) prohibit alumni, the press or other outsiders from attending, pretty much defines his petulant and petty manner and governorship. Donald is correct to note that Coonman a disgrace to the office he holds (28 days more days). But, Coonman is more disgraceful for what he’s said and done. Above all else he’s a liar. Very soon he will become a small, forgotten, unknown man. Worse, he will be unwelcome among by his Brother Rats. That will be his Sisyphean stone.

    3. Donald Smith Avatar
      Donald Smith

      “Although Northam had no obligation to offer an explanation or justification, because the decision was that of the Board of Visitors, not his”

      1) To imply that the BOV’s decision to remove Jackson’s statue was a spontaneous one, that simply came out of thin air, unprompted by any external event (cough cough that contemptible letter cough cough)…feel free to go with that.

      2) He did have an obligation. He’d put his alma mater through turmoil. He forced it to take actions that make others question VMI’s honor. (Does anyone think Northam treated General Peay honorably? To the contrary, Northam took advantage of General Peay; that is the antithesis of honorable behavior). He made VMI look shallow and narrow-minded, driven more by emotion than by reason. VMI graduates are now in the unfortunate position of having to explain to officers from other great military institutions why their alma mater gave into what the French widely deride as “le wokeisme.”

      Northam needed to explain why all that was necessary. He didn’t. I submit he didn’t because he knew he couldn’t. He needs to own that, and we should shun him and his ilk for that. Most importantly, we need to make clear to our kids that Northam’s behavior is not something to emulate. “Never let a crisis go to waste” is an example of the Chicago Way. We can’t let it become the American Way.

    4. Greg Long Avatar

      According to those with direct knowledge of the events, in the closed BOV session before “the VOTE” the BOV was told that if it was not a unanimous vote they would all be fired and replaced by others who would vote for removal. Two BOV members resigned rather than participate or risk the whole BOV being fired. The notes from that “closed session” have never been released.

      Also, as Jim Bacon previously reported there was a memo from Gov Northam to key administration leaders laying out “the Plan” for VMI and the “investigation”. The Governor’s office refused to release any of it except blank pages with just the title, date and his signature. Everything else was redacted.

      If this was all legitimate, reasoned and supportable as you say then why not put all that out to the public and allow everyone to make their own decision?

      The VMI Alumni association recorded “Town Hall” meetings when alumni raised questions. Many of those are now difficult, if not impossible, to find on their website and they are password protected.

      In terms of your “glorified rebellion against the United States” can you explain (or can he explain) specifically how? There are specific criteria for what constitutes something supporting “the Lost Cause” philosophy. There is just to be provided a single compelling argument how that statue (or the other changes anticipated) fit that criteria.

      Finally, the B&T report states the statue was “donated by an alumnus” at some point. Recommend you read this week’s edition of The Cadet Newspaper, the 100+ year old independent newspaper of cadets. You’ll find that Moses Ezikiel, world recognized sculptor and the first Jewish graduate of VMI is the one who donated it. You will also read, in his own words, how he, and his peers, were against slavery. So if the creator of the statue was anti-slavery and obviously did not create the statue to praise or uplift slavery, then what FACTS do you or Governor Northam have to refute that?

      As for the VMI alumni association, heir COO classifies anyone who raises questions as a member of a small disgruntled group of old alumni. That same COO changed the rules for Town Hall meetings so that alumni must submit questions IN ADVANCE and he decides with the VMI administration what will be responded to and how in advance. During the Town Halls you can post questions but they decide what they will respond to. No one can speak.

      Of the 18,000+ (could be as high as 20,000) living VMI alumni attendance in the last Town Hall dropped to just 51 participants.

      Those are facts.

      1. Donald Smith Avatar
        Donald Smith

        I have had an amazingly hard time getting people to talk about the details of the deliberations to remove the Jackson statue, and also the ongoing efforts to erase signs of his legacy from VMI.

        The folks-in-the-know, so to speak, should bear in mind that, if they (the folks who know what actually happened) don’t provide details on what actually happened, then the rest of us will come to our own conclusions. And we will act on those conclusions.

        For example, I think the Youngkin administration and GOP-led House of Delegates should presume that VMI was bullied and forced to act dishonorably. The governor’s office, Attorney General’s office and House of Delegates should act accordingly. (I”ll leave them to fill in the details—but at the very least there should be some public hearings, with sworn testimony).

        I’ll stipulate that reasonable people could conclude that VMI’s image was too Confederate. (It had a monument to Edmund Ruffin, of all people!) But it appears that Northam and some activists took advantage of that situation and used it to punish and humiliate VMI. That’s not honorable. And dishonorable people should not be leaders in America.

        1. Carmen Villani Jr Avatar
          Carmen Villani Jr

          Governor-elect Youngkin made the commitment to put together a panel to review VMI during his interview with the Spirit of VMI PAC. A letter was sent by myself and 2 other alum to urge him to follow thru on that commitment.

          1. Donald Smith Avatar
            Donald Smith

            Let’s hope he follows through. He can start by telling the VMI BOV that, if they proceed with their plans to destroy Jackson Arch, they’ll be held to account for it.

          2. Thomas Anthony Wilson Avatar
            Thomas Anthony Wilson

            Isn’t it too late? Wasn’t Jackson already removed from the entrance?

          3. Donald Smith Avatar
            Donald Smith

            The last time I spoke with VMI, the lettering on the arch was still there.

      2. Was firing Peay part of the demands that Northam gave the BoV, ‘fire him or I fire all of you’? I remember hearing that through the grapevine but could never confirm. Additionally, do you know if he was doing this to prevent a more severe crackdown by Democrats in the legislature? As for the ‘Plan’ is that the ‘One VMI’ thing or something else entirely? I’m not challenging your claims nor am I defending Northam’s actions, but i’m interested to hear more details if you have them.

      3. Carmen Villani Jr Avatar
        Carmen Villani Jr

        Excellent response Greg!!! THANK YOU! Was on the Town Hall meeting call and believe the number stated was 59 but a very small turnout indeed and a lot on generalities but not much on specifics. The total # of alumni is indeed higher as you alluded to.

      4. Jake Spivey Avatar
        Jake Spivey

        The CEO of the VMI Alumni Agencies “retired” last month. VMI Foundation funding dropped (again), for 2020-2021 it sank 16.4% number of donors, 19.7% decease in gifts/commitments. Draw you own conclusions. Clearly, more than a few of VMI’s benefactors aren’t happy with the direction the Institute is headed in.
        The COO of the VMI Alumni Assoc. changed the format re: asking questions after the town hall in February, when neither he, nor the then-CEO could answer specific questions posed by alumni about the B&T investigation. The town halls are now just speeches made by VMI administration officials.
        Similarly, the Alumni Assoc. COO has had to recant his & the Association’s “support” for The VMI Cadet because it isn’t a club (subject to control by the Commandant’s office) nor “sanctioned by the Institute” (again, to remain free from editorial control by the administration).

        1. Thomas Anthony Wilson Avatar
          Thomas Anthony Wilson

          In fact a person in authority wanted to lay out what could not be reported in The Cadet. This was in fact recanted as some common sense of the First Amendment bled thru the brain somehow. The Institute is still not in favor of The Cadet. Imagine an Editor in Chief being appointed by the same different person that appoints the Bomb’s Editor. This person is so pro VMI that any bad press is immediately “threatened” with punishment; allegedly as I never heard it myself.

  2. Carmen Villani Jr Avatar
    Carmen Villani Jr

    Leaders don’t trash their troops as this disgraced governor did with his October 19, 2020 letter and then have the audacity to address those troops and tell them the exact opposite. To your point Jim, he should have explained why he falsely accused the Corps of being racists with his “clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism” statement. If he was a leader, he would have humbly gone before the Corps and apologized. He is nothing more than a pandering politician and a disgrace to VMI!

    As an aside Jim, don’t feel slighted by not getting a response. Alumni have experienced the same thing when reaching out to the VMI administration and the Alumni Association. Yet another example of what leaders shouldn’t do. Leaders understand and promote the need for civil discourse and the importance of acknowledging those that communicate with them.

  3. Greg Long Avatar

    Actual comments from the Corps, reported by cadets on the speech are available and can be read at The Cadet Newspaper website:

  4. Donald Smith Avatar
    Donald Smith

    Oops! I forgot to include two important links in the article.

    Kaleb Tucker’s petition can be found here:

    “These statements, issued by the VMI superintendent and alumni organization immediately after the decision to remove Jackson’s statue” are here:

  5. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    More Southern apology. Sheridan should’ve burned it and salted the grounds.

    1. Donald Smith Avatar
      Donald Smith

      Bless your heart, Nancy. That’s exactly the response I expected from you.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Hard to take seriously any man romantic for the days before his birth. But if you’ve been carrying…

        Gutshot would have suited him best.

        1. Donald Smith Avatar
          Donald Smith

          If that’s the best you’ve got, I’ll take that at a defacto admission that, on this issue at least, your side of the argument is Vercingetorix, our side is Caesar…and you know it.

          1. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            And all for naught. Remind me, what happened to Caesar?

        2. Greg Long Avatar

          You remind me of my Shakespeare.. you words are “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing…” The description of the “tale you tell” is in the rest of Bill Shakespeare’s quote.. look it up.

          1. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Your Shakespeare? You remind me of a quote from his work too, “Out, out damned Spot” and for the same reason, crapping on the rug.

      2. YellowstoneBound1948 Avatar

        I know of only one other man called Nancy. That would be James Buchanan, but there is no evidence (that I can find) that James liked that name. Instead, a hostile media started calling him Nancy. To be courteous, I shall henceforth address Nancy Naive as “James,” until the moderator tells me to dial it back.

    2. YellowstoneBound1948 Avatar

      Union Maj. Gen. David Hunter burned down the Institute, so there is no need to invoke Sherman in this case. Besides, he was too busy burning down Columbia, SC, and leaving thousands of women and children homeless. As for salting the “grounds,” surely an environmentalist — like you — would have intervened before that could happen.

  6. YellowstoneBound1948 Avatar

    “No acknowledgment that Jackson lived in a different time, with different beliefs than we have nowadays.”

    This is an important point, but it has generated very little commentary here. Yes, we do have different beliefs “nowadays.” My wife and I — staunch and lifelong Republicans, and delegates to the 1984 and 2000 Republican National Conventions — have four descendants, and none of them are aligned with the GOP. Or any other political party! Call it “different beliefs,” if you would like.

    The younger people “nowadays” freely choose diversity and inclusion. (Or, at least, most of them do.) And VMI’s alumni are, and have been, moving in that direction for 40 years.

    But now the government has interfered in this natural process. All thanks to an impatient and narcissistic governor who, on further inspection, has no character and probably never had any.

    1. Greg Long Avatar

      Good points. It was actually the VMI Corps of cadets who YEARS AGO voted to stop playing Dixie, lying the confederate flag and having the Confederate flag on their class rings – NOT politicians or the administration. Now they and alumni cannot be trusted to handle this issue? See:

    2. Carmen Villani Jr Avatar
      Carmen Villani Jr

      And I wonder how people of that time would view a governor and many of his fellow Democrats who promote keeping a newborn infant “comfortable” while a discussion takes place as to whether or not to kill the child. Seems to come under the category of an “appalling culture.”

  7. Greg Long Avatar

    Actual comments from the Corps on the speech are available at

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