If it wants to repudiate the violent mob that stormed the Capitol earlier this month, Congress should act quickly to remove eight statues that depict men who, like people in the mob, wanted to overthrow America’s constitutional order. These particular monuments depict those who played leading roles in the confederate states’ decision to wage war against a democratic government in order to defend slavery.
And this last point is important to stress: Anyone who claims that monuments to confederate “heroes” are about “heritage,” “history,” “states’ rights” or “economic freedom” is wrong. The Confederacy existed because of slavery. We know this because when they decided to leave the Union rather than respect the results of an election, the states that stated reasons all said it was because they wanted to preserve slavery. The Confederacy also adopted a constitution making it clear that “the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected” but lacking any allowance for succession. If that isn’t enough, in a speech delivered just a few weeks before the South started the war, confederate Vice President Alexander Hamilton Stephens said “institution African slavery as it exists amongst us” caused ‘rupture’ and that the ‘cornerstone’ of the new state rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.” A few men’s desire to own other people caused over 640,000 deaths on the battlefield (nearly 10 percent of fighting-age men in the country at that time) and untold suffering.
The statues depict Joseph Wheeler (Alabama), Uriah Milton Rose (Arkansas), Edmund Kirby Smith (Florida), Alexander Hamilton Stephens (Georgia), Jefferson Davis (Mississippi), James Zachariah George (Mississippi), Zebulon Baird Vance (North Carolina) and Wade Hampton III (South Carolina). All renounced oaths they had taken to uphold the Constitution and devoted significant parts of their lives to fighting the government of the United States. The monuments were placed in the Capitol by state governments that, under Jim Crow, glorified the South as part of an effort to disenfranchise African American citizens while excluding them from most public places, political offices, formal educational opportunities and high-status careers. They are different from statues of people who enlisted in the confederate army as young men (West Virginia Sen. John Kenna and Supreme Court Chief Justice Edward Douglas White), those who defended slavery without waging war against the United States (Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky) or simply had very questionable character (Gov. Huey Long of Louisiana.) They committed clear acts of treason and sedition.
While members of Congress have proposed legislation to remove the statues in the past, there’s no reason our national legislature should spend more time debating an issue that, while important, is symbolic. Existing procedures and precedents actually allow the statues to be removed almost immediately. Here’s how it would work: as soon as a few minutes after inauguration on January 20, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris (acting in her capacity as president of the Senate) could formally ask the governors of the states that have sent confederate statues to remove them. The governor of Virginia already removed a statue of Robert E. Lee by executive action and the precedent he set should allow all other governors to make the same request without additional process at the federal level.
Further, Florida and Arkansas have already decided to replace their monuments and this action is probably enough to ship those two back immediately even without a request. South Carolina’s statue of Hampton — a major slave holder who later ran paramilitary terrorist organizations working to disenfranchise African Americans — is in a remote corner of the Capitol Visitor Center and has been removed entirely from public view in the past. If the states do not respond within a few days and promise to remove the statues posthaste, Pelosi, Harris, and other parts of the House and Senate leadership should ask the Joint Committee on the Library — responsible for the building’s artistic heritage — to treat them like Hampton’s statue and remove them from public exhibition.
The mob attack on the Capitol did tremendous symbolic damage to a place sacred to American democracy. Removing some statues of men who declared war on the United States in order to defend slavery can begin the process of setting things right.
Image credit: Mark Dozier