Confederates in the Capitol

Chief Civil War traitor Jefferson Davis is among the honorees in the national statuary collection who would lose his place if Cory Booker has his way. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The debate over Confederate (and more often, neo-Confederate) monuments that has been underway for decades has reemerged as a national political issue after the violence in Charlottesville precipitated by white supremacists “defending” a Robert E. Lee monument scheduled for removal. Unsurprisingly, most of the monuments are in the former Confederate states, and most were erected long after the Civil War to proclaim a sort of delayed victory for the Lost Cause via the imposition of Jim Crow as the closest thing to chattel slavery still possible.

But there’s one prominent display of Confederate statuary that to an even greater extent represents unsuppressed rebel yells in the very heart of the Republic the Confederacy sought to destroy: the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. Via a law passed, ironically, during the Civil War itself, states are allowed to place two statues of their choice in the collection. There are at least ten ex-Confederates currently so honored, and Senator Cory Booker has announced he will introduce legislation to have them removed.

No former Confederate state exercised its option in the 19th century. But in 1903, the Virginia legislature proposed placing statues of George Washington and Robert E. Lee in Statuary Hall.

That this was intended as a neo-Confederate gesture was made clear by the fact that the Old Dominion passed over such favorite sons as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to honor the military leader of the treasonous rebellion against the United States. And it so was controversial (especially among African-Americans and Union veterans of both races) that the Lee statue did not go up until 1909.

As time went by and Jim Crow became a hardened part of the national landscape, southern states roused themselves to exercise their “right” to put the images of former traitors — some repentant, some defiant — in the national statuary collection. In 1931, Mississippi sent statues of Confederate general James Z. George — who signed the 1861 secession ordinance, and later in his career helped devise and defend a state constitution disenfranchising African-Americans — and the arch-traitor himself, Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The neo-Confederate floodgates were open.

Eventually, Lee, Davis, and George were joined in the national statuary collection by CSA vice-president Alexander Stephens (Georgia), Confederate general and anti-Reconstruction terrorist Wade Hampton (South Carolina), and Confederate governor Zebulon Vance (North Carolina). Alabama decided to honor Confederate general Joseph Wheeler, whose Civil War exploits included a massacre of freed slaves in Georgia.

Alabama originally sponsored in Statuary Hall another Confederate officer, Jabez Curry (he was at one point on Wheeler’s staff). But he was better known as an educator, diplomat, and advocate for educational opportunities for African-Americans, and in any event was replaced in 2009 by Helen Keller. Three other ex-Confederates were not especially identified with neo-Confederate or racist causes: John Kenna (West Virginia), Uriah Rose (Arkansas), and Edmund Kirby Smith (Florida). Yet another (Edward Douglas White of Louisiana) did achieve racist notoriety many years after the war as part of the Supreme Court’s majority in the notorious Plessy v. Ferguson decision declaring “separate but equal” public facilities constitutional.

And some lists of Confederates in statuary hall include John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who actually died more than a decade before the Civil War broke out. Calhoun is probably considered an honorary Confederate because his constitutional theories created the foundation for secession, but he was also a former vice-president of the United States.

It is unclear at this early point how selective Booker would be in ejecting ex-Confederates from the national statuary collection. The most obvious distinction is between those who just happened to have served in the Confederacy but made other great contributions to the United States, and those whose states chose to honor them precisely because they were traitors and racists. In the most egregious cases — say, Davis, Lee and Hampton — perhaps their sponsoring states can be shamed into replacing them the way Alabama did with Curry.

But there is something to be said for simply abrogating the tradition of the states getting to choose which 100 Americans should be honored so uniquely in the U.S. Capitol, particularly when states exercise that choice by dishonoring the country and its post–Civil War, post–Jim Crow principles. If nothing else, the exercise Cory Booker is trying to initiate should serve as an occasion for educating Americans — perhaps even the incorrigible 45th president — about their own history.

Confederates in the Capitol