America’s continual journey to “form a more perfect Union,” is often uneven. As Winston Churchill famously said, “Americans will always do the right thing, only after they have tried everything else.”
We are still sorting out issues of race, particularly as it relates to slavery, the Civil War and Jim Crow. Our progress is self-evident, but the vestiges of generations of separate, but unequal, remain.
Some of those symbols are glaring.
For example, the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall contains statues of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, and Alexander H. Stephens, the vice-president. Georgia donated the Stephens statue in 1927 and Mississippi donated the Davis bronze likeness in 1931.
Davis was charged with treason against the United States, though he was never tried. On Christmas Day in 1868, President Andrew Johnson issued a general pardon for all those who fought for the Confederacy.
Stephens delivered the infamous “Cornerstone Speech” in 1861 where he argued “the great truth is that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”
Stephens was charged with treason after the war. After a short imprisonment, the Georgia Legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate, but the Senate declined to seat him. He later won election to the House of Representatives and eventually became Governor of Georgia.
One of West Virginia’s two statues at the Capitol is of John Kenna. He fought for the Confederacy and after the war served terms in the West Virginia House and Senate. *
These three are among a host of individuals from the Confederacy whose statues stand in supposed distinction in the United States Capitol.
The often-heard argument is that these men are part of our country’s history. Yes they are, but that does not mean they should be venerated by placement in posts of honor and distinction.
That is why the House of Representatives on Tuesday advanced a bill that calls on the joint committee with oversight of the National Statuary Hall Collection “to remove all statues of individuals who voluntarily served the Confederate States of America from display in the United States Capitol, and for other purposes.”
The bill passed 285-120 with every Democrat and 67 Republicans in support. All members of West Virginia’s delegation—Republicans David McKinley, Alex Mooney and Carol Miller—voted against the bill.
McKinley said what statues are placed in the hall is a matter for the states, not Congress. Mooney agreed that it is a decision for the states and not “Nancy Pelosi and the ever-changing standards of political correctness from the left.” Miller said the legislation was a “messaging bill that Democrats pushed to try to gain political points.”
Elements of their criticisms are valid. The statues are donations from the states and the House did not follow the regular order of business with hearings or markup in the Committee on House Administration. Democrats knew the bill would put many of their Republican counterparts in what they believed was an awkward position.
However, the U.S. Capitol is, more than any other government building, the epicenter of our democracy. One of the many inscriptions in the Capitol is from former Massachusetts Senator Rufus Choat: “We have built no temple, but the Capitol. We consult no common oracle but the Constitution.”
That very document charges us with striving toward perfection. Removing statuary from the Capitol that idolizes leaders and participants in the rebellion against the United States would be yet another step toward that lofty goal.
*(The other West Virginia statue at the Capitol is of Francis Pierpont, a Union loyalist who served as the first and only Governor of the Reorganized State of Virginia—later West Virginia—upon secession from Virginia.)