1. Built environment
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August 16, 2017updated 03 Aug 2021 3:21pm

Here’s why a statue of confederate president Jefferson Davis still stands in Washington DC today

Some of the organisers of recent Far Right actions in Charlottesville, Virginia, have claimed that their public display of flames and fascist salutes was provoked by a plan to take down a local statue of the Confederate general Robert E Lee, who was born a two hour drive from the city.

And events in Virginia have prompted a flurry of declarations that other extant memorials to Confederate figures should be, or are being, removed from public view. These interventions have been somewhat varied: they range from the mayor of Lexington, Kentucky going out of his way to make clear to NBC News that his city was already in the process of removing statues of prominent Confederates, to protesters in Durham, North Carolina, physically hauling down a Confederate War Memorial in full view of representatives of the Sheriff’s office. 

As happened in relation to the #rhodesmustfall movement here in the UK, there has been some discussion – not all of it terribly coherent – about whether the removal of historical street furniture which offends contemporary morals constitutes a form of historical revision. In this context it is worth noting that the statue in Durham wasn’t installed until 1924, and as such is an example of historical revisionism in and of itself. All history is inherently interpretive, and 1924’s view of the 1860s isn’t more ‘authentic’ simply because it’s in greater temporal proximity.

At any rate: recent events have raised questions about how many public monuments there still are to Confederate figures across the United States, and how much longer they will be there. The answers to these questions are, in turn: “A lot,” and “Given that the tenth US President John Tyler was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives, some, probably, forever.”

What is surprising, however, is the sheer number of Confederates who are celebrated with statues in Washington DC – indeed, within the Capitol of the United States itself.

Just south of the Rotunda in DC is the National Statuary Hall, a huge circular chamber in which the US House of Representatives met for the first half of the 19th century. The House now meets elsewhere, of course, and in that Hall itself, and its various corridors and side rooms, are statues of 100 notable Americans, two from each state.

These ‘stone senators’ are sent as gifts from the states to the federal government, intended to be displayed in the ostensibly non-partisan Capitol. As such, it’s the states themselves, rather than the federal government, that gets to decide who represents them in that National Statuary Hall.

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As the hall filled up in the decades following its creation in 1864, in practice this has meant that quite a lot of formerly Confederate states decided to send statues of Confederate figures.

And almost all of them are still there.

One of Mississippi’s two statues is of Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy’s sole President. (Davis, astoundingly, also has a pseudo presidential library in Biloxi, Mississippi, supported by Mississippi itself – although not by thef federal agency that administers the libraries of, you know, actual Presidents.) The other is of James Zachariah George, a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. One of Virginia’s two statues is of the aforementioned Robert E Lee.

In choosing these men to represent them in the national capital, Mississippi and Virginia are arguing that its greatest contributions to the United States are men mainly known to history for trying to divide them. That’s Virginia, the birthplace or home of eight US presidents, more than any other state – seven of whom the state apparently sees as less notable than the man who led an army in rebellion against it.

One of Alabama’s statues is of Confederate cavalry officer Joseph Wheeler. He is, in a particularly provocative touch, depicted in full Confederate uniform. South Carolina offers as one of its two favoured sons one Wade Hampton, a plantation owner and yet another confederate general who fought at Gettysburg, and financially underwrote some of the secessionist war effort. Alexander Stephens, Jefferson Davis’ Vice President, is one of Georgia’s picks. North Carolina offers a statue of Confederate Governor Zebulon Vance, whom I mention chiefly because he has a brilliant name.

Very few of these men could be considered outstanding individuals. Each one of those states has figures in its history who contributed vastly more to America than any of them. These men are not here to represent themselves or their talents: they represent the cause of secession in an attempt to maintain slavery, and regret at their failure in the war in which both these things were lost.

These statues, like the Confederate War Memorial in Durham, North Carolina, are largely examples of 1920s and ‘30s nostalgia for the ‘old south’. The statues of Zachariah George and Jefferson Davis, for example, were donated in 1931, rather than in the aftermath of the Civil War or during Reconstruction. They are the product of an era that culminated in the filming of Gone With The Wind, not the one that concluded with the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. Their installation was as much of an example of historical revisionism as their removal would be.

The ability, even the need, to replace the statues in Washington was built into the legislation that created the Statuary Hall. Perhaps its creators understood that the past only exists through the perceptions of the present, and renewal and revision were foreseen as part of the project from the very start.

Many states have chosen to honour that expectation by altering their choices as time has gone on. Kansas removed the statue of 19th century governor George Washington Glick in 2003 in order to honour Dwight D Eisenhower, the first and so far only President from the state. Michigan did the same in 2011 in order to honour Gerald Ford, its only president. (Unfortunately, it lost a statue of radical abolitionist Zachariah Chandler in the process.) California decided Ronald Reagan was more worthy than 19th century politician Thomas Starr King in 2009.

It’s not just about presidents, either. Ohio replaced a statue of a 19th century governor with one of inventor Thomas Edison as recently as 2016. In 2009, perhaps sensing the way the wind way is blowing, Alabama removed the confederate Jabez Curry and replaced him with Helen Keller.

The replacement of a male representative of a discredited cause with an extraordinary woman is a precedent other states would do well to take notice of. Of the 100 statues on display in and around the hall, around a dozen, depending on exactly how you count, are of Confederates and/or secessionists, all of them men. The total number of women deemed to have earned a place in the National Statuary Hall Collection?


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