John Heaton (jheaton) wrote,
John Heaton

On U.S. Capitol statuary

Yesterday, a statue of civil rights icon Rosa Parks was unveiled in National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol:

Rosa Parks Statue
Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol.

Unlike the other statues in Statuary Hall, which were commissioned by various states and can be moved to other locations within the Capitol at the discretion of the Architect of the Capitol, this new statue was commissioned and its placement dictated by Congress. It's a nice statue, and Parks is unquestionably deserving of such an honor.

But you know what I think would be an even better way to honor her memory and that of all the other heroes of the civil rights movement? Remove these statues from the Capitol:

John C. Calhoun Statue   Jefferson Davis Statue   Alexander Hamilton Stephens Statue
Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol.

The gentleman (I use the term very loosely) on the left is John C. Calhoun, whose statue was placed in the National Statuary Hall Collection by South Carolina. He's one of the most odious men ever to serve in the United States Senate and second in infamy as Vice President only by virtue of not having been forced to resign from office to avoid being prosecuted for bribery. In 1837, in a speech on the Senate floor, Calhoun gave a notorious speech in which he defended slavery in the strongest terms: "I take higher ground. I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good." He repeated the sentiment a year later: "Many in the South once believed that it was a moral and political evil; that folly and delusion are gone; we see it now in its true light, and regard it as the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world."

At least he's down in the basement. The other two are right there in Statuary Hall: Jefferson Davis (placed in the collection by Mississippi) and Alexander Hamilton Stephens (Georgia), the President and Vice President respectively of the Confederate States of America. I think it's disgraceful to honor either one of them anywhere in the Capitol. Calhoun at least had the dignity to die before the Civil War broke out, so he remained nominally loyal to his country. (He certainly would have approved of secession, though, having been the primary advocated of nullification, the idea that states had the right to refuse to recognize or enforce Federal laws they disagreed with.) Not so Davis and Stephens, obviously.

Having Stephens sharing a room with someone like Rosa Parks is particularly offensive, given his views on slavery, which he put forth in 1861 in what's now known as the Cornerstone Speech:

The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away... Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it—when the "storm came and the wind blew, it fell."

Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.

Bear that in mind next time a Confederate apologist tries to tell you the Civil War wasn't about slavery. (Incidentally, if you're a fan of irony, you'll want to click on the photo of Stephens's statue and read the inscription on the pedestal.)

Speaking of the Civil War, let's get rid of all the statues of Confederate military officers who stand in the Capitol. By my count, there are six: Joseph Wheeler (Alabama); Edmund Kirby Smith (Florida); James Z. George (Mississippi); Zebulon Vance (North Carolina); Wade Hampton (South Carolina); and Robert E. Lee (Virginia). Those states should follow the example of Alabama, which replaced their statue of Jabez Curry, who served as a lieutenant colonel under the aforementioned Joseph Wheeler, with one of Helen Keller.

But maybe I'm being unfair to these men. Many of them were elected to the House of Representatives or Senate after the war. Wheeler rejoined the U.S. Army and fought in both the Spanish-American War and Philippine-American War. Hampton was appointed United States Railroad Commissioner by Grover Cleveland. Curry was an advocate of public education and later served as ambassador to Spain. Vance toured the country speaking out against antisemitism and promoting religious tolerance.

OK, so Wheeler, Vance, and Hampton can stay, and I could possibly be talked into letting Kirby Smith and George stick around. But Lee's got to go. I'll give him some credit for being opposed to secession in the first place and a strong supporter of Reconstruction after the war, but he also advocated for deporting all African Americans from Virginia, and opposed giving them the right to vote, saying "My own opinion is that, at this time, they [black Southerners] cannot vote intelligently, and that giving them the [vote] would lead to a great deal of demagogism, and lead to embarrassments in various ways." So he goes on the ash heap with Calhoun, Davis, and Stephens.

As long as I'm dictating who should be kicked out of the Capitol, I may as well go ahead and name their replacements. For South Carolina, Francis "The Swamp Fox" Marion seems like a good choice. The Revolutionary War was one of the few times that South Carolina was on the right side of history, so it's probably best to stick with someone from that era.

There aren't many authors represented in the Capitol — Lew Wallace and Will Rogers are the only two who spring to mind — so for Mississippi, one of their great literary lights would be appropriate. My first impulse is to go ahead and pull the trigger on James George so I can make room for both William Faulkner or Eudora Welty, but if we end up keeping George, I'd make Welty my first choice, just because women are underrepresented in the Capitol art collection.

For Georgia, the obvious choice is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But there's already a bust of King in the Capitol, and while he was a great man, I don't think he needs a bust and a statue. So how about Jackie Robinson? He's a civil rights icon in his own right, and I think he'd be the only athlete with a statue in the Capitol, unless you count Gerald Ford.

Virginia seemed like it would be tough, what with Patrick Henry and Pocahontas and Nat Turner and all those Presidents, but then I glanced over a list of famous Virginians and Patsy Cline jumped out at me. I don't think there are any other musicians with statues in the Capitol, and it would help address the female deficit as well.

Oh, and if we end up needed to replace one of Florida's statues, Zora Neale Hurston. We wouldn't want all the black men and women with statues or busts in the Capitol to be civil rights icons, would we? I think not.

So let's get started on this! It took eight years for Congress to get the Rosa Parks statue in place after P.L. 109-116 was enacted; getting four or five state legislatures to commission and install four to six statues could take much longer. Heck, it took Mississippi 148 years to ratify the 13th Amendment, who knows how long this will take them?

Tags: art: sculpture, current events, dc, history

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