The Capitol’s Confederate Past Is Still Present

Arlington National Cemetery, confederate monument

Arlington National Cemetery's Confederate monument

Photo credit: Tim Evanson

WASHINGTON — Eleven Confederate statues still stand tall in the Capitol. Let the ghost of the "Lost Cause" be gone for good as the nation undergoes a wrenching racial awakening.

Oh, no, says Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. He refuses to "airbrush the Capitol."

Call me a Yankee, but I have no love for men who praise men who took up arms against the United States and shed the blood of 750,000 on both sides of the Civil War. If they were dashing rebels — "rebby boys" — the Confederacy itself was a crime against humanity.

Statues take up public space and also cross into our psychic space. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., understands this point perfectly. "This is a perfect time for us to move those statues," she declared.

However, senators say today, she can't make that decision.

Don't they know the past can oppress us with whispered, weighted and coded messages when utterly wrong figures are honored for throngs of visitors to see?

Gen. Robert E. Lee gives a history girl flashbacks to Gettysburg. The Confederacy's president and vice president, Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, also haunt the halls of American democracy's house. These openly racist men — and traitors — tried to tear this nation in two. They almost succeeded but for President Abraham Lincoln, who never lost a fight in this life.

Days ago, I asked Pelosi if the Senate was willing to work with her to remove the statues. "Public sentiment is everything," she said, "because other times, people may think, I never go there anyway." The first female Speaker makes no secret of her desire to breathe Confederate-free Capitol air.

But the chairman who oversees statues, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., told me Tuesday he has not even responded to the Speaker's letter urging removal. That's the lull where the Confederate statues live another day.

They call the Senate the "plantation," and not for nothing. Verandas and fine rich food abound, served with fresh lemonade in summer and sugary ice tea all year round.

At times, it feels like the Civil War never ended in surrender, with South Carolina's John Calhoun, who invented states' rights as a way to save slavery, glaring from the wall.

McConnell speaks in a Kentucky drawl. Blunt, keeper of the statues, represents a former slave state. During this crisis on racial police violence, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., held up passage of an anti-lynching law.

For a white male Southerner to block such a historic step was not a good look. The scene made one Northern senator feel raw. But the Senate is in no hurry to change. In fact, it's split into red and blue states, along the lines of the Civil War.

Fancy that, 155 years later, we're still in a "house divided" under the Capitol dome.

Stephens of Georgia put it plainly in a speech on the Confederacy: "Its cornerstone rests upon the truth that the negro is not equal to the white man." Slavery is a "natural condition."

White supremacy and slavery caused untold misery among people of color, in cotton fields under the lash and often separated from families forever. Young Frederick Douglass, born in bondage, never saw his mother again — a scar that never healed.

Slavery ruined the character and work ethic of rich, white Southerners who developed a taste for the caste system.

I ran into Lee in marble, the Virginian in riding boots. So, I stayed a while to talk across time. A black maintenance worker walked by. I asked, "Did you know he was the slave master of Arlington?" A well-kept secret.

Lincoln seized Lee's grand plantation and started burying soldiers in the front garden to literally water it in Union blood. A career Army officer trained at West Point, Lee betrayed his nation and military when he turned down Lincoln's offer to take a command. Lee's rolling acres are now Arlington National Cemetery.

Lee was the dark antebellum past; Lincoln, who freed 4 million enslaved people, was the man of the future. Let's not live in a divided house anymore.

Jamie Stiehm can be reached at To read her weekly column and find out more about Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, please visit


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