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One of my privileges as a former Secretary of the United States Senate is the ability to conduct guided tours of the US Capitol. One of the offices I supervised was the US Senate Historical Office. One of the Secretary’s responsibilities is to promote the history and significance of the US Senate, a responsibility that I continue to relish. During my tours, I frequently stop to point out certain statues, especially in Statuary Hall (the former House Chamber until about 1857, when the current Chamber was completed).
So when the latest brouhaha over statues began, especially given the “presentism” gripping our political discourse, I knew right away it would find its way to many of those statues. Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not disappoint, calling for the removal of 11 statues of historical figures she finds especially objectionable.
Here’s what you need to know. About 100 of those statues, half of which are located in Statuary Hall, are there under a Concurrent Resolution that invited every state to send up to two statues of their choosing. They get to decide; not Congress, not Speaker Pelosi. Other statues are placed under other congressional resolutions.
These statues, and the people they feature, have interesting histories, not to mention the abundant symbolism throughout the complex. Robert E. Lee’s statue used to be located in the Capitol Rotunda but was moved to the crypt, on the first floor below the rotunda, to accommodate a monument to women’s suffrage — “three ladies in a tub,” it is affectionally and frequently referred to. If you’ve seen it, you know why.
I always point out a few (such as the aforementioned monument to women’s suffrage), including those of Alexander Stephens, from Georgia, and Jefferson Davis, of Mississippi. Stephens was a deeply racist Democratic Congressman from Georgia who opposed southern secession but became, rather infamously, the Vice President of the Confederacy; Davis, of course, was the first and only President of the Confederacy, and before that a Democratic US Senator and Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. In recent years, I’ve warned that those statues would likely not survive.
My favorite statues include Hawaii’s King Kamehameha (which was moved to a more prominent place in the Capitol’s Visitor Center); Iowa’s Norm Borlaug, the father of the “green revolution” and a plant biologist credited with saving millions of lives from starvation; Rosa Parks, who famously refused to take a seat in the “back of the bus” and triggered Civil Rights legislation; and astronaut Jack Swigert from the aborted Apollo 13 moon mission, who sadly died just after being elected to Congress from Colorado but before being sworn in.
Another favorite, on the first floor below the House Chamber, is that of Oregon’s Edward Dickinson Baker, a famous abolitionist who raised his own regiment for the Union and led troops — as a sitting US Senator — into the Battle of Balls Bluff at what is now Leesburg, VA. He died in that battle. Can you imagine any Senator doing that today?
So, sorry, Nancy, you don’t get to decide by yourself which statues come and go. But maybe Members of Congress should thoughtfully decide by what standards we should apply to the removal or location of all statues. Former Speaker John Boehner actually began that process during his tenure but I don’t know what happened to it. And, in all cases, there is much history to learn from all of them. You’ll likely find it is more nuanced and complicated than you think — especially concerning those former Confederates, some of whom went on to serve to reunite the country in some remarkable ways — including Robert E. Lee who, by the way, never wanted to be memorialized.
Addendum: The federal statute that governs the removal of statues under the National Statuary Hall Collection can be found here.Published in