Statement of Congressman Jamie Raskin about Monuments to Confederates and White Supremacists

The past is never dead. It’s not even past. — William Faulkner

Photo credit: Bill Green, Frederick News-Post

The chilling events in Charlottesville over the weekend have reminded Americans of the murderous dangers of white supremacy and racial terror in our land.

When Klansmen, neo-Nazi skinheads, and other white supremacists overtook Charlottesville to intimidate the city and demand reversal of its decision to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee, they intensified public debate over the propriety of placing and maintaining monuments to Confederate generals, white supremacist agitators and slave masters on public lands.

In 2017, monuments on public land glorifying Confederate traitors and racist ideologues should come down.

I believe that our government should spend resources to accurately record historical events and personages — the good, the bad and the ugly — in museums and schools, public universities and other educational contexts. Comprehensive historical memory is essential to democratic self-government and democratic progress. When government teaches about the history of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction — a history essential to understanding Virginia, Maryland and our country — it is acting in a proper and vitally important educational capacity.

But our government should never be in the business of glorifying and lionizing enemies of the United States, Confederate generals, racist ideologues and traitors to the Union. We should document and teach the particulars of our history and never sanitize or whitewash it, but we should celebrate and exalt only those leaders who have advanced (rather than undermined) the Constitutional ideals of freedom and equality for all.

There are undoubtedly hundreds of controversies coming now across the country over the political semiotics of different kinds of Civil War displays and monuments, and each one will have to be addressed on its own terms within its own institutional, political, moral and historical context.

In Maryland, there is a statue of Robert E. Lee on National Park Service land near the Antietam Battlefield. That statue should come down. It was erected originally on private land for obviously political reasons and it serves not an educational purpose today but, on the contrary, a subtle propaganda function. It continues to traffic in the romantic “Lost Cause” mythology of the Confederacy but does not tell the historical truth about Lee, who was not only a cruel slave owner, an apologist for the peculiar institution who said that slavery was “necessary” and good for the slaves, and a key traitor to the Union who oversaw the massacre of black Union soldiers, but also an unreconstructed white supremacist after the Civil War who opposed black voting rights and civil rights.

That statue of Lee was built by a private citizen for ideological purposes and it should be returned to the private realm if anyone wants it. It does not speak for America.

There is also a government statue of former United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney on the public grounds of the Statehouse grounds in Annapolis. As a State Senator for a decade, I could never understand why that statue was there. Unlike Robert E. Lee, who at least arguably had some finesse and prowess as a military general in his long fight against the Union, Taney was a jurist of run-of-the-mill competence who disgraced himself and the Supreme Court majority with his appalling opinion, hundreds of pages long, in the 1857 decision rejecting Dred Scott’s petition for freedom and ruling that an African American could never be a “citizen” within the meaning of the Constitution’s diversity jurisdiction clause so as to be able to avail himself of the federal courts. Taney found that, even if Dred Scott were right on the merits that he had been freed by virtue of being taken into free territory, he could not sue because the Constitution was designed irrevocably as a “white man’s compact,” African American slaves and their descendants had no rights that white men were “bound to respect,” and the whole Constitution and federal judicial system must be interpreted as a charter and system of perpetual white supremacy. There were several honorable dissenters from this dreadful decision, proving that there was nothing inescapable about Taney’s repressive legal reasoning.

Why should we in 2017 be celebrating this awful legacy? I agree with Maryland House of Delegates Speaker Michael Busch that it is time for the statue of Justice Taney to go. His involvement with slavery and white supremacy is simply definitive of his career and is, indeed, the reason that Confederate apologists and unreconstructed racists want to continue to honor him. This reason and historical inertia are not reason enough for us to retain the statue. The State should follow the wisdom of the City of Frederick, which honorably removed the statue of Justice Taney in front of the Frederick City Hall earlier this year.

There are many distinguished Marylanders we could be honoring in Annapolis instead. One obvious choice is the great Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave on the Eastern Shore, escaped to freedom, and became the nation’s leading abolitionist orator and agitator, a brilliant Radical Republican political thinker, and an early feminist and champion of the rights of all Americans. Another obvious choice is the great Harriet Tubman, who also was born a slave and suffered terrible violence because of it but rose up to become a prominent abolitionist, freedom-fighter, talented armed scout and spy for the Union Army and heroic leader and designer of the Underground Railroad. Like Douglass, she continued after the Civil War to fight for civil rights, social progress and women’s rights. The General Assembly has already ordered statues of these Maryland heroes and one or both could easily be re-purposed to the outdoor area.

If we want to honor a truly great Maryland judge from the Civil War period, the most compelling choice is the almost-forgotten but incandescently brilliant and honorable Hugh Lennox Bond. Born in Baltimore, Bond was named the first Judge on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals by President Ulysses Grant in 1870 and, in that capacity, authored numerous decisions affirming the rule of law against KKK terrorism in the Mid-Atlantic States and freeing orphaned African American children in Maryland from peonage and disguised slavery. Before the Civil War, Bond was a passionate and fearless abolitionist and a strong leader of the Union Party throughout the conflict. He was renowned as a philanthropist and a visionary humanitarian who did not allow his whiteness to define the limits of his political and ethical commitments. Building a memorial to the little-honored Judge Bond would rectify an historical injustice and demonstrate the key role Marylanders have played in advancing human rights under our Constitution and federal system.

Even the U.S. Capitol still displays busts and statues glorifying confederate traitors, which I discussed earlier this year. The most striking case is the bust of John C. Breckenridge that sits to this day outside the Senate chamber. While Breckenridge served as Vice-President from 1857–61 and as a United States Senator, he was stripped of these titles by the Senate and convicted of treason by the Senate on December 4, 1861, after he defected to the Confederate rebellion against the United States. Under section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment, Breckenridge was retroactively barred from any title of honor. (He could not have enjoyed the continuing title or honor of being addressed as “Vice-President” while he lived, as Dan Quayle and Al Gore do today.) The Architect of the Capitol’s decision to restore Breckenridge was made posthumously with a heroic bust, celebrating him with the very honor of “Vice-President” which both the Senate’s treason conviction and the Fourteenth Amendment emphatically deny to him. This is not a matter of partisan politics. Breckenridge was a Democrat convicted of treason against the United States, which is the only crime defined in the Constitution.

Capitol Hill buildings are filled with statues exalting enemies of the Republic. These statues include Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy (Statuary Hall); General Robert E. Lee in what appears to be a Confederate uniform (Capitol Crypt); Edmund Kirby Smith, the last Confederate general to surrender and also in uniform (Capitol Visitor Center); Wade Hampton, III, a Confederate general (Capitol Visitor Center); and John C. Calhoun, who died before the Civil War, but was the leading apologist for the slavery-plantation system (Capitol Crypt).

Davis, Lee, Smith, and Hampton were leaders of a violent rebellion to enforce slavery and destroy the Union. Over half a million American soldiers died to defeat them. These statues might have been more understandable had they depicted these Confederate leaders as civilians in a posture of defeat and reconciliation, but they are not representations of reconciliation. The presence of these heroic-style statues is a daily desecration of the memorials throughout the Capitol to the Union dead who died fighting their treason. It is also likely to be taken as an insult by the descendants of enslaved African Americans, who would remain enslaved if Davis, Lee, Hampton, and Smith had won.

If the Capitol grounds were a designated and limited First Amendment public forum for artistic speech, then the presence of these Confederate statues would be constitutionally protected. But that framework was thrown out the window earlier this year when Speaker Paul Ryan and the House leadership censored a high school student’s painting and transformed all of the art on the Hill into government speech.

None of these issues is easy in a pluralist constitutional democracy but the ghosts of the Civil War and white supremacy still haunt us as a people, and we must make these decisions best we can, with clarity of purpose and courage. Any private citizen can build a monument and memorial to whomever he or she wants on private property. But, on public property with public resources, the dividing line must be between serious education about our history, which is never bad, and glorifying and lionizing Confederate traitors to the Union and architects of white supremacy, which is never a good idea and always a desecration of our highest values as a people.

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