What’s in a Name?

There’ve been some complaints about a recent executive action changing the name of Mount McKinley to Mount Denali. While I can sympathize with the citizens of Ohio on this matter, personally I think the latter name makes more sense for a mountain in Alaska (and sounds better too!).

However, there’s more to this issue than just a name, as Greg Weiner points out at the libertylawsite blog:

The more striking issue surrounding this event is the national news media’s utter incapacity to distinguish between executive power and executive authority.  Coverage of the event focused almost entirely on the fact of the renaming and not on exactly who or what authorized the Executive Branch to do it….

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell used a 1947 law dealing with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names—there is such a thing—whose job appears to be to make sure entities of the federal government call geographic places by the same designations.  If the Board fails to act on a measure in a timely manner, the law says, the Interior Secretary can.  So she did.  This would seem a stretch in the face of an obvious intent of Congress to the contrary, paired with a live debate between dueling bills that would rename the mountain Denali and keep the moniker of McKinley….

Legislation … renaming the mountain, was bottled up in Congress.  So the President up and unbottled it, sans the annoyance of legislation…. Mt. McKinley was initially named by an act of Congress, so the President not only facilitated the equivalent of passing a law Congress was ignoring, he actually de facto overturned one….

Renaming mountains is not, in the scheme of things, that big a deal….  But precedents are.  So are lessons.  One is this: All a Republican Interior Secretary needs to reverse this decision is to be literate enough to sign his or her name.  That is the staying power executive actions have.  Legislation can last, as the renaming of Denali for McKinley did, nearly a century.

Legislation also has deliberation behind it, and the balancing of interests.  That balance may well favor the views of Native American populations in Alaska over distant civic relatives of McKinley in Ohio.  But such deliberation would ensure the calculation was based on the public good rather than the political interests of a single actor.

With all this, one suspects McKinley’s successor [Teddy Roosevelt] would be pleased.  Certainly the man who signed the legislation anointing Mt. McKinley would.  Woodrow Wilson wrote that the President was “at liberty, both in law and conscience, to be as big a man as he can.”  Presidents have sought to be ever since, apparently to the point of renaming mountains. Can they move them too?


Jon Guze / Director of Legal Studies

Jon Guze is the Director of Legal Studies at the John Locke Foundation. Before joining the John Locke Foundation, Jon practiced law in Durham, North Carolina for over twent...

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