Should one of the most important U.S. government buildings feature commemorations of men who fought against the U.S. government?
The Capitol Building’s Statuary Hall features 100 statues, depicting two notable people from each of the 50 states, chosen by the state itself. Included are such notable names as George Washington for Virginia, Helen Keller for Alabama, Thomas Edison for Ohio, and Sakagawea for North Dakota.
However, 11 of the 100 statues depict Confederate leaders — including such notable names as Gen. Robert E. Lee and Confederacy President Jefferson Davis — representing Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. (Both of Mississippi’s statues depict Confederate leaders.)
Amid the recent momentum to take down Confederate statues across the country, some are calling for the federal government to start in its own headquarters.
There is precedent for such a decision. In 2009, Alabama replaced Confederate Army officer Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry with blind and deaf author Helen Keller. Other 21st century statue changes have included:
- Kansas replaced Gov. George Washington Glick with President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 2003.
- Ohio replaced Rep. William Allen with inventor Thomas Edison in 2016.
- Michigan replaced Detroit mayor and U.S. Sen. Zachariah Chandler with President Gerald Ford in 2011.
- Arizona replaced World War I Brigadier General John Campbell Greenway with Sen. Barry Goldwater in 2015.
- California replaced minister Thomas Starr King with President Ronald Reagan in 2009.
What the legislation does
The Confederate Monument Removal Act would remove all Confederacy figures from the Capitol Building’s Statuary Hall within 120 days of enactment.
Under the legislation, a state would have the right to reclaim any such statue for potential display or housing back home. If a state declines, the statue would be given for the Smithsonian Institution’s collection, though presumably not for public display.
The Senate version was introduced on June 12 as bill number S. 3597, by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). The House version was introduced three days later on June 15 as bill number H.R. 7217, by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA13).
What supporters say
Supporters argue that one of America’s most esteemed collections for honorifics should not honor those who went to war against the U.S. government and military in order to continue to enslave other human beings.
“Americans in all 50 states and millions of people around the world are marching to protest racism and police violence directed at people of color. And yet across the country, Confederate statues and monuments still pay tribute to white supremacy and slavery in public spaces,” Rep. Lee said in a press release. “It is time to tell the truth about what these statues are: hateful symbols that have no place in our society and certainly should not be enshrined in the U.S. Capitol.”
“The National Statuary Hall Collection is intended to honor American patriots who served, sacrificed, or made tremendous contributions to our nation,” Sen. Booker said in a separate press release. “Those who committed treason against the United States of America and led our nation into its most painful and bloody war to preserve the institution of slavery are not patriots and should not be afforded such a rare honor in this sacred space.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that the push to remove the Confederate statues whitewashes history, including some of the greatest Americans.
“I’m a descendant of a Confederate veteran myself. What I do think is clearly a bridge too far is this nonsense that we need to airbrush the Capitol, and scrub out anybody from years ago who had any connection to slavery,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said in a press conference. “You know, there were eight presidents who owned slaves. Washington did, Jefferson did, Madison did, Monroe did.”
“Look, as far as the statues are concerned, every state gets two. Any state can trade out… if they choose to, and some actually are choosing to, for one reason or another.”
Interestingly, mere moments later at the same press conference, McConnell said he wasn’t opposed to renaming military bases after Confederate generals.
Odds of passage
The House version has attracted 58 cosponsors, all Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in the House Administration Committee. A prior version introduced by Rep. Lee in 2017 attracted 48 Democratic cosponsors, but never received a vote in the then Republican-controlled chamber.
The Senate version has attracted 20 cosponsors: 19 Democrats and one independent. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. Odds of passage are lower in the Republican-controlled chamber. A prior version introduced by Sen. Booker in 2017 attracted four Democratic cosponsors, but never received a vote in the Republican-controlled chamber.
It’s also possible the federal legislation may not ultimately prove necessary, as several states in recent weeks have already taken steps to remove their Confederate statues from the Capitol of their own accord.