White Supremacy in the Capitol: Remove the Statues

Though the House voted to remove Confederate idols, but Republican efforts to protect the monuments reveal a failure of historical comprehension.

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives voted 285 to 120 to remove statues of several confederates and white supremacist figures from Capitol grounds, including former Chief Justice and Confederate Vice-President Jefferson Davis.1 The vote, though still dependent upon approval from the Senate, is sure to invigorate the debate over the role of historical artifacts in the public square. But more than that, the partisan inclination of the vote reveals the changing perception and misconceptions surrounding the role of history.

While the vote is largely symbolic in nature, the significance of the decision can’t be understated. In this debate lies a distinct rhetorical divide between the two parties’ responses. Democrats unanimously voted for the bill, but most Republicans—120 of them—voted against it.2 And the rhetoric of the GOP matched their voting. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-C) denounced the bill with an obsequious speech, saying:

“All the statues being removed by this bill are of Democrats…Democrats are desperate to pretend their party has progressed from their days of supporting slavery, pushing Jim Crow laws, and supporting the KKK. But today, the Democrat Party has simply replaced the racism of the past with the racism of critical race theory.”3

Others echoed the charge within the GOP. Montana Rep. Matt Rosendale made a similar accusation:

Unfortunately, Democrats, animated by the Critical Race Theory concepts of structural racism, microaggressions, and a United States based solely on white supremacy, have chosen to remove statues that underscore the failures of our pre-1861 Constitution. Make no mistake, those who won the West and George Washington are next.4

The reaction reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of historical reconsideration and the state's role in promoting historical figures. It also fails to adequately consider the differences between figures like Washington, who helped create America, and Jefferson Davis, who readily accepted its disillusion. Moreover, there is little to no consideration about the role of white supremacist propaganda in how these statues got on capitol grounds in the first place.

Many of these statues, including the bust of Taney, are on Capitol grounds because of the Lost Cause movement.5 As I’ve previously written, the Lost Cause was a deliberate effort to obfuscate the truth about the South’s racism in the Civil War, but it was also an attempt to revamp white supremacist violence.6 Ignoring that history does a disservice to the public’s ability to acknowledge its past.

There is also an underlying assumption to the right-wing defense of these idols—an assumption that these statues weren’t controversial until recently. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When the statue of Taney was first proposed in 1865, it created an uproar among the Senators. Senator Charles Sumner (R-Massachusetts) condemned the idea of having Taney displayed so prominently. Responding to the bust’s sponsor, Sen. Lyman Trumbull, Sumner rejected the idea, saying:

"Let me tell that Senator that the name of Taney is to be hooted down the page of history. Judgment is beginning now… And an emancipated country will fasten upon him the stigma which he deserves.”7

Sumner had reason to be outraged. Taney was and is one of the most infamous judges in the Court’s history. Taney served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court during the case of Dredd Scott v. Sanford.8 The Court ruled that the constitution wasn’t written with Black citizenship in mind and effectively argued that Black Americans were not legally that: citizens.9 The decision by Taney and his colleagues was so controversial that Lincoln himself condemned the decision.10 In all effects, Taney’s name was heavily associated with opposition to equality and emancipation. The fact that the men of the 19th century understood that when modern representatives seem incapable of doing so is baffling.

It is one thing to worry about hiding the past, but to suggest that a man like Taney deserves such a prominent place on Capitol Hill without so much as a consideration as to the opposition’s perspective is nothing short of bad faith. And it is not just Taney who is under scrutiny.

Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederacy, has enjoyed similar treatment on Capitol Hill. His statue is portrayed prominently at the National Statuary Hall and has retained its glorified position at the Capitol despite his contributions to the paternalism of slave-owning confederates, of which he was one.

Describing his view on slavery in a message to the Confederate congress in 1861, Davis wrote that:

Under the supervision of a superior race their labor had been so directed as not only to allow a gradual and marked amelioration of their own condition, but to convert hundreds of thousands of square miles of wilderness into cultivated lands covered with a prosperous people; towns and cities had sprung into existence, and had rapidly increased in wealth and population under the social system of the South.11

Much like his Vice-President, Alexander Stephens, Davis believed that the South was dependent upon slavery and that it was the “natural and normal condition” for Black people.12 Again, the issue of why these figures are promoted on government property becomes more pertinent. What historical value are these glorified statues providing? From what I can see, there seems to be only one benefit—a benefit that is not universally gained by those who walk Capitol grounds.

It is perhaps convenient for some to imagine great men coming together to maintain their ‘chivalry in post-war reconciliation. It is perhaps even more convenient for these same persons to pretend that putting these images in positions of prominence is equal to acknowledging past prejudices, but the truth is far different. Though not unique from other similar monuments, these statues don’t preserve history in their proper context. There is no mention of how Taney sent a Dredd Scott back into chains or how Jefferson Davis put his ‘business’ ahead of his country to maintain his paternalistic delusions about Black Americans and profit from their servitude. Those delusions, mind you, caused over half a million people to die in open warfare.

This deception is by design. Statues are meant to glorify figures, not to understand them. They instill visions of what we ought to be and the values we seek to uphold. What values are instilled by celebrating confederates? Putting a statue of Taney or Davis at the very seat of American legislative power sends a message that reflects horribly on our country and our government. The best thing to do is to remove these statues as swiftly as humanly possible.

1

Nicholas Fandos, “House Votes to Purge Confederate Statues From the Capitol,” The New York Times, June 29, 2021, accessed June 30, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/29/us/politics/house-confederate-statues-vote.html.

2

“Roll Call 196, Bill Number: H. R. 3005, 117th Congress, 1st Session,” Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, last modified June 29, 2021, accessed June 30, 2021, https://clerk.house.gov/Votes/2021196.

3

John Wagner and Eugene Scott, “House Votes to Remove Statues of Confederate Leaders from U.S. Capitol,” Washington Post, June 29, 2021, accessed June 30, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/powerpost/congress-confederates-statues-house/2021/06/29/304f7960-d8db-11eb-9bbb-37c30dcf9363_story.html.

4

John Dorman, “GOP Rep.: Confederate Statue Removal ‘Animated’ by Critical Race Theory,” Business Insider, June 30, 2021, accessed June 30, 2021, https://www.businessinsider.com/rosendale-republican-congressman-capitol-confederate-statue-removal-critical-race-theory-2021-6.

5

Nicholas Fandos, “House Votes to Purge Confederate Statues From the Capitol,” The New York Times, June 29, 2021, accessed June 30, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/29/us/politics/house-confederate-statues-vote.html.

6

Conor Kelly, “The Lost Cause: A Pernicious Myth,” The Progressive American, June 13, 2021, accessed June 30, 2021, https://progressiveamerican.substack.com/p/the-lost-cause-a-pernicious-myth.

7

Jessica Gresko, “Congress Weighs Kicking Bust of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney from Capitol,” Delaware Online, n.d., accessed June 30, 2021, https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/congress-weighs-kicking-bust-of-chief-justice-roger-b-taney-from-capitol/ar-BB1736VU.

8

Melvin Urofsky, “Dred Scott Decision | Definition, History, Summary, Significance, & Facts,” Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d., accessed June 30, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/event/Dred-Scott-decision.

9

Jessica Gresko, “Congress Weighs Kicking Bust of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney from Capitol,” Delaware Online, July 22nd, 2020., accessed June 30, 2021, https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/congress-weighs-kicking-bust-of-chief-justice-roger-b-taney-from-capitol/ar-BB1736VU.

10

Abraham Lincoln, “Speech on the Dred Scott Decision” (TeachingAmericanHistory, June 26, 1857), accessed June 30, 2021, https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/speech-on-the-dred-scott-decision/.

11

Jefferson Davis, “Message of Jefferson Davis” (Civil War Causes, April 29, 1861), accessed June 30, 2021, http://www.civilwarcauses.org/davis.htm.

12

Alexander Stephens, “Cornerstone Speech” (American Battlefield Trust, March 21, 1861), accessed June 30, 2021, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/primary-sources/cornerstone-speech.