Members of Congress publicly condemned the white nationalists who’d gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. “The views fueling this spectacle are repugnant,” House Speaker Paul Ryan declared on Saturday. “I wholeheartedly oppose their actions,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell added. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urged her fellow Americans to support diversity and “reject hate,” while Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the march and rally were “against everything the flag stands for.”
But the protesters weren’t waving the stars and stripes. America’s resurgent white-nationalist movement thrives on the power of imagery and symbolism, especially the symbols of the Confederacy. And right in the United States Capitol, there’s a collection of monuments to their cause.
Thanks to segregationist Southern state legislatures in the early 20th century, eight statues of Confederate leaders currently reside in the National Statuary Hall Collection on Capitol Hill. They include Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Vice President Alexander Stephens, and Lee, whose Charlottesville monument was the focal point of this weekend’s strife. These bronze and marble figures, standing in the center of American democracy, pay tribute to the same authoritarian forces that congressional leaders eagerly denounced.
States can voluntarily swap out their statues for new ones at will, thanks to a 2000 amendment to the original federal law authorizing the collection. But Congress is ultimately responsible for what can and can’t be kept within the Capitol; the senators and representatives who condemned the marchers in Charlottesville have the power to clean their own house by banning Confederate statues.
The collection’s origins date back to 1864, although the Capitol has been home to sculptures since its construction. The idea was elegant in its simplicity: Under the original authorizing law, each of the states could commission two statues “in marble or bronze … of deceased persons who have been citizens thereof.” The bill called on the states to accordingly honor citizens who were “illustrious for their historic renown or for distinguished civic or military services such as each state may deem to be worthy of this national commemoration.” Once completed, the chosen statues would then be placed in the old House chamber in the Capitol building, which was renamed National Statuary Hall.
States responded, albeit slowly, by commissioning the likenesses of a variety of eminent Americans in the ensuing decades. Connecticut, for example, sent marble sculptures to Washington in 1872 of Roger Sherman, who helped draft the Declaration of Independence, and Jonathan Trumbull, the only colonial governor to join the revolution when it broke out. Massachusetts contributed one of the famed revolutionary leaders Samuel Adams in 1876 for the nation’s centennial; Pennsylvania proffered the inventor Robert Fulton, who made steamboats a viable means of transportation, in 1896.
But many Southern states took a different approach. At the turn of the 20th century, the Democratic Party’s counterrevolution against Reconstruction-era reforms had reached its apex. “Redeemed” states drafted new constitutions to exclude black Americans from political life and restrict their civil rights. Violence had also returned to the forefront of Southern political life. White supremacists in North Carolina overthrew a multiracial local government in Wilmington in 1898 in the only successful coup d’etat in American history. After Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House in 1903, South Carolina Senator Ben Tillman remarked that the president’s invitation “will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they learn their place again.”
Against this perilous backdrop, legislators in Virginia’s redeemed General Assembly began to discuss sending a statue of Robert E. Lee to take up an honored place in the nation’s capital. The state reserved one of its two allocated statues for George Washington, an obvious and universally hailed choice. But for the second slot, the legislature rejected efforts to commission statues of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and other famous Virginians. Only Lee would be allowed to join the father of the nation in the heart of the republic.
News of Virginia’s plans prompted outrage elsewhere in the country. Kansas legislators threatened to send a statue of John Brown, the hardline abolitionist executed by Virginia for organizing a slave revolt there in 1859, to join Lee in the Capitol if the Old Dominion placed him there. “I do not know about John Brown, but I do know there is one man who will fight against putting Lee’s statue in the hall,” Kansas Representative Charles Curtis said in 1903, referring to himself. “I think it will be a disgrace. He was a traitor to his country, and I will not sanction an official honor for a traitor.”
Nonetheless, Virginia’s General Assembly approved $10,000 for the Lee statue in 1908. It took its place in the halls of Congress, dressed in full Confederate uniform, in August 1909. Criticism kept pouring in, especially from northern and western states. Idaho Senator Weldon Heyburn held the floor by himself for nearly an hour to denounce the move and urge Virginians to reconsider. “I understand the senator represents 264 Negroes and that’s all,” scoffed the aptly named Arkansas Senator Jeff Davis during the speech. “If there are 264 Negroes in Idaho, I represent them,” Heyburn fired back.
Union Army veterans, many in their 60s and 70s by then, also protested. The Grand Army of the Republic’s Chicago post denounced the statue “as against public policy, against the fundamental principles of our republic, and against the honor and integrity of the veterans who nobly gave up life and home to preserve the country Robert E. Lee attempted to destroy.” The GAR’s New York department went even further by asking Attorney General George Wickersham to intervene and remove the statue.
Wickersham responded with a formal legal opinion, endorsed by President William Howard Taft, concluding that no law barred Lee’s placement in the Capitol. Beyond the legal issues, he also praised the wisdom of Lee’s selection. “Robert E. Lee has come to be generally regarded as typifying not only all that was best in the cause to which at the behest of his native state he gave his services,” Wickersham opined, “but also the most loyal and unmurmuring acceptance of the complete overthrow of that cause.” He also defended Virginia’s decision to place Lee in a Confederate uniform, claiming the depiction “eloquently [testified] to the fact that a magnanimous country has completely forgiven an unsuccessful effort to destroy the Union.”
This is the Lost Cause portrayal of Lee at its most supine—the chivalrous and reluctant warrior-statesman whose loyalties during the war lay with Virginia itself, and not with slavery. The characterization became dominant even in the North as the 20th century progressed. But it is the stuff of myth, a pernicious one that my colleague Adam Serwer has thoroughly dismantled. In reality, Lee was a cruel slaveowner whose army enslaved free black Northerners during its invasion of Pennsylvania and massacred black Union soldiers at the Battle of the Crater. During Reconstruction, he opposed racial equality and urged Congress to reject black suffrage.
Seven other Confederate statues subsequently followed Lee into the Capitol. North Carolina put forth a bronze rendition of Zebulon Vance, the state’s Confederate governor during the war, in 1916. Florida sent Edmund Kirby Smith, the last Confederate general to surrender, in 1922. From Alabama came Confederate cavalryman Joseph Wheeler in 1925. (The state also sent a statue of Confederate officer Jabez Curry, but replaced it with one of Helen Keller in 2009.) In 1929, South Carolina commissioned one in honor of Wade Hampton, who fought against the Union at Gettysburg and won the state’s governorship in 1876 with the help of white-supremacist paramilitary groups.
Georgia sent a statue of Alexander Stephens, an unalloyed white supremacist who served as the Confederacy’s vice president, in 1927. In an infamous speech made shortly after the fall of Fort Sumter in 1861, Stephens had made clear why the seceding states wanted to break away from the Union. “Our new government is founded upon exactly [this] idea; 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 normal condition,” he declared.
The process concluded in 1931 when Mississippi sent statues of Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy’s only president, and James Z. George, a Confederate colonel who signed the state’s ordinance of secession, to fill its two spots. Their arrival came without apparent protest, despite the potency of what it symbolized. Davis had led a war against the United States for five years to create an independent nation where the enslavement of human beings could survive and flourish. Now his life-sized likeness adorned the political center of the country he tried to destroy.
Lee’s statue was installed in the Capitol without fanfare because of the controversy surrounding it. Davis, on the other hand, received a respectful unveiling ceremony led by Southern senators and Davis’s great-granddaughter. House and Senate chaplains gave benedictions. The U.S. Marine Band played patriotic songs. Mississippi’s Pat Harrison, who helped orchestrate the defeat of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in a 1922 filibuster, had the gall to cast the Confederate statues’ arrivals as a healing moment for the nation, according to The New York Times’ account of the ceremony.
“When,” [Harrison] said, “that martial and stately figure of Robert E. Lee was placed by Virginia in this rotunda, it was the beginning of a finer feeling between the sections; when Alabama selected that heroic figure of Joe Wheeler to occupy a place of honor in this historic hall, it kindled still warmer fires of common understanding.
“When Florida answered her invitation with a salute to E. Kirby Smith, it was a rebel yell for a common country. When Georgia graced this hall with the figure of Alexander Stephens, a further step was taken in the cementing process of the two nations.
“And today, as Mississippi places here two illustrious and matchless military geniuses, statesmen and leaders in this hall, the last link is forged in the chain that will forever hold our country together.”
There was applause when the names of Lee, Wheeler, Smith, and Stephens were mentioned, but the loudest outburst came as Senator Harrison made a reference to a “united nation.”
Harrison’s warm remarks glazed over the unspoken reality of what the statues represented. Reunion after the war was between Northern whites and Southern whites alone, one that symbolically excised black Americans from the body politic. By honoring Confederate leaders in the Capitol, Southern legislatures consecrated the white-supremacist regimes that had reconquered the South after Reconstruction. Their political order would endure another three decades before the civil-rights movement dismantled the legal architecture of Jim Crow.
The Confederate monuments erected across the country represent a similar rejection of American democracy and pluralism, as my colleague Yoni Appelbaum has noted, making them sites of veneration for white nationalists from coast to coast. This embrace is as pragmatic as it is ideological. Every movement needs its symbols. Far-right groups in Europe typically draw from deep reservoirs of national iconography—the English Defense League and the St. George’s cross, neo-Nazi groups and German paganism. But America’s national symbols are too synonymous with democracy and pluralism to be readily appropriated by white nationalists. Even Thomas Jefferson, a lifelong slaveowner who defended states’ rights, wrote the immortal phrase declaring that all men are created equal. That leaves the imagery of the Confederacy—the apostates of the American civic faith—as the most accessible wellspring of symbolic power.
To see this resonance, look no further than Peter Cvjetanovic. The 20-year-old college student from Reno, Nevada, traveled 2,600 miles to attend the white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville this weekend. A photographer took a picture of his torchlit face during the event on Friday night, featuring his mouth agape in what appears to be a furious yell. It went viral across Facebook and Twitter on Saturday.
Classmates quickly identified Cvjetanovic and reporters reached out to him to comment. In an interview with a local news outlet on Sunday, he openly identified himself as a white nationalist. He also made efforts to rehabilitate his public image. “I hope that the people sharing the photo are willing to listen that I’m not the angry racist they see in that photo,” he told KTVN.
Cvjetanovic then clearly stated the purpose of his long journey, and the journeys of hundreds of others: to defend Lee’s statue against the city’s plans to remove it. “I do believe that the replacement of the statue will be the slow replacement of white heritage within the United States and the people who fought and defended and built their homeland,” he said. “Robert E. Lee is a great example of that. He wasn’t a perfect man, but I want to honor and respect what he stood for during his time.” That a young man would travel across the North American continent for this underscores the power these statues can hold.
Even without the historical circumstances of the Capitol Hill statues’ arrival, there is virtually no justification for their continued presence. Nor can it be said there aren’t better native sons and daughters to honor. Virginia could replace Lee with John Marshall, the legendary chief justice and father of the American rule of law, or Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington. If it needs a Civil War hero, why not George Henry Thomas? Alabama could select author Harper Lee or jazz legend Nat King Cole. Georgia could replace Stephens with Casimir Pulaski, a Polish Revolutionary War hero who died in the battle of Savannah, or a full statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., who already has a bust elsewhere in the Capitol. This is not a novel idea, nor is it unprecedented. Florida’s legislature has recently debated replacing both of its lackluster statues with those of more eminent persons. Alabama already replaced one of its selections with a tribute to Helen Keller. The statues are supposed to represent the finest these states have to offer.
No state’s choices for the statuary collection will receive unanimous acclaim; civil disagreement is a democratic virtue. But honoring Confederate leaders is fundamentally different. By defending slavery with gunfire and cannonade, they prolonged the life of an institution that brought indescribable suffering and horrors to millions. By waging war against the Union to do so, they betrayed the United States and killed hundreds of thousands of their fellow Americans. If Democratic and Republican lawmakers truly reject the ideology that paraded through the streets of Charlottesville, the only logical conclusion is to expel it from their own halls and chambers as well.
This article originally stated that there are seven Confederate statues on display in the Capitol building. We regret the error.