Capital Time for a House Cleaning

by John Lawrence

Every year on the anniversary of the birth of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, a ceremony was held at his statue in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall. Incantations were uttered to the great general’s glory, and flowers were laid before the marble effigy, recalling his role in our Nation’s history. A few years ago, it was noticed that Lee’s statue was situated so as to peer over the shoulder of anyone speaking at a podium often set up in the Hall for ceremonial occasions. The next day, one of the speakers was to be Martin Luther King III.

A phone call was placed from Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and Lee’s statue was relocated from its prestigious place in the Old House Chamber to a site with a lower profile (both figuratively and architecturally) within the Capitol. Whether the annual tributes continue to honor the man who led Confederate forces in rebellion against the flag he was sworn to defend, I am not sure.

The issue of the statues within the Capitol is an inevitable corollary to the current debate about the inappropriateness of flying the flag of the Confederacy over public buildings in the South. Statues in the Capitol, in general, are donated by state legislatures; each state gets two statues to represent the state’s history or the contributions of a favorite son or daughter. The statues range from pre-Independence Native Americans to modern political figures. Some states have chosen to replace dated figures with more recent natives: Presidents Ford and Reagan, Helen Keller and Apollo XIII astronaut Jack Swigert (who was elected to the House but died before being sworn in) have all been newer additions.

Occasionally Congress will decide that an individual deserves to be in the Capitol regardless of a state’s preferences. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, is represented in the Rotunda, a site usually reserved for presidents; Frederick Douglass is in the Visitor’s Center representing the District of Columbia, which had been denied the statuary privileges granted to the states; Rosa Parks, a former congressional staff member in addition to her historic role in the civil rights movement, was recently added.

From time to time, like Lee, statues are moved in response to changing attitudes and preferences. A marble statue of suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott, long banished to the netherworld of the Capitol’s vault, was moved up to the Rotunda in May 1997 in response to a resolution pushed by women Members.

The decision of where in the Capitol it is appropriate to honor the sculpted images of the men and women of our past is therefore open to discussion. Specifically, it is time to remove the two highest ranking officials of the Confederacy from Statuary Hall.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ statue was donated by his home state of Mississippi in 1931. Granted, Davis served as a senator (twice), as well as serving as Secretary of War, and he voiced concerns about secession, as did Lee and many others who went on to mount a 4 year rebellion against the country they had taken an oath to defend. But Davis, like many southerners of that era, was not apologetic about the issue of slavery, or the appropriate role for African-Americans to play in our society. “African slavery, as it exists in the United States,” Davis famously opined, “is a moral, a social, and a political blessing. You cannot transform the negro into anything one-tenth as useful or as good as what slavery enables them to be.”

OK, right there, get out the dolly: that statue has to go. I’m an historian; I understand that attitudes and perspectives change, that we should not base our contemporary attitudes on the mistakes of the past, no matter how deplorable (although it is worth noting that at the time, there were plenty of Americans who were engaged in vigorous activities to end the “peculiar institution,” as slavery was euphemistically described). But just because we understand the errors of the past does not mean we have to honor them, and leaving the statue of a treasonous and racist leader of a rebellion in an honored place in the U.S. Capitol is an insult that should be corrected.

Davis famously requested that the South be allowed to secede without a war, pleading, “All we ask is to be let alone.” I suggest we honor his request and leave him alone somewhere other than in one of the most honored of sites in the Capitol.

While we have the dolly in Stat Hall, it should also pick up Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ statue for relocation. Stephen’s seated statue was presented by his home state of Georgia in 1927. Like Davis, Stephens served in the Congress, and he also was the post-war governor of Georgia. Like Davis and Lee, Stephens had reservations about the wisdom of secession and he even had defended black clients as an attorney.

But Stephens’ legacy is irretrievably damaged by his vigorous defense of slavery. His most famous address, known as the “Cornerstone Speech,” helped to define the entire rationale for the Confederacy not simply as an assertion of states’ rights, but the right to sustain the institution of slavery. The Confederate government was “founded…its cornerstone rest[ed],” Stephens declared a few weeks before the war erupted at Fort Sumter in 1861, “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man …[S]lavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition … This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” The fight over slavery, Stephens asserted, “was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”

Key word: “revolution.” We should not grant a place of honor to men who fomented, supported, rationalized and conducted “revolution” against the government they had sworn to defend. Americans who are understandably insulted by the views of such bigots should not be asked to acquiesce so that the statues of those who committed treason can continue to reside in the Capitol.

So far, the momentum to remove the Confederate flag from official buildings in the South does not appear to have made it to the halls of the Capitol, where these marble and bronze vestiges of the Confederacy remain ensconced in places of honor. Although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called for his home state legislature to remove Davis’ statue from the state Capitol grounds, he has not yet offered up an opinion about the appropriateness of the statue down the Hall from his Capitol office. And senators like Lindsay Graham, Thad Cochran, Jeff Sessions and Tim Scott have all indicated they are not interested in moving, or removing the statues of the secessionists. It’s as though their feet are planted in stone.