Memory and Monuments at the U.S. Capitol

One of the things I did during a recent trip to Washington, DC, was visit the U.S. Capitol. I’ve never been in the building, and went on a tour through most of it with some family. One thing I hadn’t ever heard of was the National Statuary Hall Collection, which displays 100 statues – 2 representing each state in the union – in several of the rooms in the building. Originally confined to the Statuary Hall, some statues now stand in the visitor center, rotunda, and other wings and halls of the building. Each of these statues was created and donated by a state, chosen by its legislature to represent it in the Capitol.

Looking through the list of statues is an interesting exercise to do. There are many people of renown and many who are rather obscure even to fans or scholars of American history. For every Samuel Adams, there’s an Edmund Kirby Smith. There’s a bit of diversity in types of figures – mostly politicians but some activists and inventors – but there’s also a sizable list of war heroes responsible for untold misery on the frontier, like Andrew Jackson.

The first thing that caught my eye upon entering the Capitol Visitor’s Center’s Emancipation Hall was that several statues of indigenous leaders flanked the lines for tours. Kamehameha I, resplendent in gold and the heaviest statue in the collection, represents Hawai’i. 17th Century Pueblo leader Po’pay represents New Mexico and is the oldest figure among the collection. Sakakawea, Washakie, and Sarah Winnemucca also stand in Emancipation Hall. (Sequoyah and Will Rogers bring the indigenous to seven percent of the 100 statues in the collection. Impressive and unexpected).

There are six presidents currently in the collection, from Washington to Jackson to Reagan. There are also a number of Vice Presidents, like John C. Calhoun and Hannibal Hamlin, as well as presidential hopefuls from William Jennings Bryan to my own home state’s Barry Goldwater, the newest statue. Of the hundred statues, nine are women, among them several suffragettes and activists.

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Some tourists – presumably Arizonans – posing by Barry Goldwater. In the National Statuary Hall.

As any historian might guess, the Civil War era features prominently in the collection, and that’s the demographic that I want to talk about here.

There are two dozen Civil War figures among the hundred statues, and if you add such antebellum big names as Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, and a couple of lesser known Reconstruction names, the specter of the Civil War makes a huge mark on the National Statuary Hall Collection. What’s interesting – albeit not surprising – is just how many Confederate fighters have monuments in the U.S. Capitol.

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Jefferson Davis, who worked in this building as a U.S. Senator until he resigned and became the President of the Confederate States of America.

Despite the fact that there were twenty-three Union states and eleven in the Confederacy, there are roughly a dozen statues representing each side in the collection. Included among the secessionists are none other than Jefferson Davis and Alexander Hamilton Stephens, the President and Vice President of the Confederate States of America, represent Mississippi and Georgia, respectively.

Remember that the states choose which two statues represent them in the collection. Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia all sent a Confederate to Capitol Hill – several of whom had resigned from positions as U.S. Senators and Congressmen to join the Confederacy.

Mississippi is the only one with two Confederates representing it (James Zachariah George, as well as Davis). Alabama had two until former member of the U.S. and C.S.A. Congress Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry was replaced by Helen Keller in 2009 (Confederate general Joseph Wheeler remains). In addition to Confederate Zebulon Vance, North Carolina’s other statue is Charles Brantley Aycock, a Gilded Age/Progressive Era politician who was a champion of white supremacy and famously said, upon being nominated governor, “When we say that the negro is unfit to rule we carry it one step further and convey the correct idea when we declare that he is unfit to vote. To do this we must disfranchise the negro.”

Of the twenty-two statues in the collection from states that once formed the Confederacy, eleven are of men who fought against the United States of America. While half of these statues are secessionists, just a quarter of the statues representing the states which once made up the Union forces are from the same time period. Among them, however, are leaders like Hannibal Hamlin and Free Soilers and founding Republicans who not only fought to preserve the Union but to rid it of slavery.

Frederick Douglass. On the side of the pedestal is a quote regarding emancipation in the West Indies:

Frederick Douglass. On the side of the pedestal is a quote regarding emancipation in the West Indies: “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”

Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that the 100 statues in the collection feature zero black people. Rosa Parks and Frederick Douglass both have statues in the Capitol – both installed way back in 2013, and there are busts of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Sojourner Truth in the building, but no state has chosen to represent itself with a black person in the collection. But 11% of the collection once fought the United States in the name of slavery. Go figure.

What do we do with a collection of statues that memorializes so many men who once tried to leave the union? I’m not necessarily for getting rid of monuments completely. While I’m all for taking down the Confederate flag, less a historical artifact and more a symbol of white supremacy and hate, it’s less clear what should be done when Robert E. Lee is literally put on a pedestal in the same room as Samuel Adams or Roger Sherman.

When it comes to monuments in general, I find myself agreeing with Ta-Nehisi Coates, who tweeted that “the fact that white supremacists were lionized for so long is also history.” And indeed, many of the statues in the collection were first donated in the early 20th Century, just decades after Reconstruction was cut short and in the midst of the White Supremacist Democrats’ Solid South era.

But the statues continue to stand, shoulder to shoulder with historical figures who struggled for things like liberty and rights and not white supremacy and slavery. What’s more, while the U.S. Capitol is part-museum, there is only brief discussion over who the actual figures are and why they are there. The tour guide when I went (who was awesome despite her relatively recent employment there) explained statues correlating to states where her guests were from, and briefly referred to Davis and Stephens’ statues in the light of recent debate over Confederate flags and other paraphernalia.

But, just as Colin McEnroe says about the name of Yale’s (John C.) Calhoun College, “It’s not called Calhoun College So Let’s Talk About That.  It’s called Calhoun College, and it’s an easy feat to spend four years at Yale without ever having one those “teachable moments” about the background of the name… For three of my four years [at Yale], my roommate was an African-American man, Ken Jennings. He tells me the Calhoun name was a topic of discussion, if not a towering issue at the time. He’s not surprised I never noticed. ‘A lot of this kind of thing is below the radar if you’re not of African descent.'”

The fact of the matter is, the dozen rebels standing in the Capitol weren’t even put there by the Capitol. They were sent by Southern Democrat state legislatures in the early 1900s – that is to say, White supremacist state legislatures – and they were sent to memorialize great men of their states. This was no history lesson on racism. We can make it one by changing the plaque to signify these men’s real actions. To cite another Coates tweet, this time regarding what we should do with monuments like Stone Mountain: “Keep it. Put a big-ass inscription near it saying ‘These Men Fought For An Empire Of Slavery.'” Or, better yet, these state legislators can commission a new statue to represent them in the Capitol, and move these old ones into a museum or state park – with proper and honest signage. After a century of these Confederates standing on pedestals, I think it’s time for something new.

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