Cleansing the Capitol of blemishes of American history could be a hard task.
As Democratic leaders threw their support Thursday behind a proposal to take down any statue connected with the Confederacy, President Trump wondered where they would draw the line.
Sen. Cory A. Booker, the New Jersey Democrat who called for culling the Confederacy, did not say what should be done about Richard Stockton, a slave owner who is one of his state’s contributions to the Capitol Collection.
Nor did Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s office respond to a question about whether his office should be renamed from the Robert C. Byrd Rooms — as homage to one of his predecessors as the Democratic leader, who was at one time a KKK member.
At least a quarter of the 100 state statues that are part of what is known as the Statuary Hall collection commemorate slave owners. Others were major figures in the segregation movement. One actively sold Indians into slavery. Others were implicated in Indians’ forced conversion to Christianity.
The U.S. Capitol has served as a museum to history as well as a living embodiment of the nation’s ideals, but those purposes have come into conflict after bloody clashes in Virginia spurred on by a push to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a local park.
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“The Capitol is a place for all Americans to come and feel welcomed, encouraged and inspired,” said Mr. Booker, a possible 2020 presidential contender. “Confederate statues do the opposite.”
“They are, unequivocally, not only statues of treasonous Americans, but are symbolic to some who seek to revise history and advance hate and division,” he said. “These statues belong in a museum, where they are put in the proper historical context.”
Mr. Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, echoed Mr. Booker’s call for change. They said it was one way House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and other Republican leaders in Congress could distance themselves from objectionable elements of the political debate.
“The Confederate statues in the halls of Congress have always been reprehensible,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “If Republicans are serious about rejecting white supremacy, I call upon Speaker Ryan to join Democrats to remove the Confederate statues from the Capitol immediately.”
In a series of tweets Thursday, Mr. Trump said it was “sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” and he wondered how far the cleansing would go.
“You can’t change history, but you can learn from it,” he said. “Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson — who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!”
Sen. Luther Strange, Alabama Republican, was among those who lined up behind Mr. Trump, saying “you can’t erase history” and warning that removing statues is a slippery slope.
“Where does that end? Do you start taking away books that people find offensive?” Mr. Strange said. “[It’s] just a path that seems very dangerous to me in this country.”
Mr. Booker’s plan, which hasn’t been written yet, would call for taking down only Confederate statues. His office said those who fought for the Confederacy were supporting a treasonous cause that resulted in American blood spilled.
But it’s unclear how far that will go. Several statues at the Capitol are of men who joined the Confederate armies as teens and went on to more notable careers. Whether their statues will run afoul of Mr. Booker’s rules remains to be seen.
Among them is a statue of Joseph Wheeler of Alabama, a U.S. Army cavalryman who eventually became a Confederate general. He went on to a distinguished career in Congress, pushing for reconciliation of the North and South, and rejoined the U.S. Army as a general to fight in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War.
John E. Kenna is depicted in one of West Virginia’s statues. He joined the Confederate Army at 16, toward the end of the war, and went on to become a prominent lawyer and eventually a member of Congress. His “brilliant career” was cut short by his death at age 45.
Edward Douglass White, represented in one of Louisiana’s statues, would go on to be part of the Supreme Court majority that enshrined the “separate but equal” doctrine that underpinned segregation.
The statue of Charles Brantley Aycock, a major segregationist figure, is already headed for the door. North Carolina’s government in 2015 approved legislation to replace his statue with one of the Rev. Billy Graham.
The last major round of cleansing at the Capitol occurred after the 2015 Charleston church shooting, by a man who posted photos of himself with a Confederate flag. In the wake of the shooting, South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from a memorial on its state Capitol’s grounds. Lawmakers in Washington demanded the expulsion of state flags that still paid homage to the Confederacy.
The House complied, pulling down flags from a hallway between the Capitol and an office building and replacing them with prints of each state’s commemorative coins.
It is a different story in a tunnel on the Senate side, where state flags that incorporate the Confederate battle flag emblem — including Mississippi and Georgia — continue to hang from the ceiling despite pleas from Democrats and civil rights groups.
The Senate also commemorates Byrd, the late Democratic leader from West Virginia who served in Congress for more than 50 years, but who was a KKK member as a young man. The office suite assigned to Democrats’ Senate leader is officially named the Robert C. Byrd Rooms, thanks to a 1989 resolution.
Mr. Schumer’s office did not responded to an email asking whether he would seek a change — though the New York Democrat did release a statement saying “it is critical that we work towards the goal of Senator Cory Booker’s legislation” to oust Confederate statues.
Under the current system, each state chooses its statues, and Congress largely refrains from interfering.
Outside of Washington, the momentum is clearly on the side of cleansing.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, called this week for a statue of former Supreme Court Justice Roger Brooke Taney to be removed from the front lawn of the State House in Annapolis. He said it was wrong to glorify the author of the landmark Dred Scott decision, which ruled that those of African ancestry couldn’t become U.S. citizens. Mr. Hogan previously said the statue should remain.
Baltimore has removed Confederate monuments in the days since Charlottesville, and the mayor of Richmond, Virginia, announced that he was redirecting a commission to consider removing statues of Confederate figures that decorate one of the city’s main thoroughfares.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, said it was time for other statues in the state to be relocated to museums.
Activists took matters into their own hands in North Carolina, pulling down a nearly century-old statue of a Confederate soldier in North Carolina. Seven people have been arrested for that action.
The anger goes beyond Confederate leaders. Bishop James E. Dukes of Chicago’s Liberation Christian Center — responding to Mr. Trump’s question about Washington — called on the city to rename Washington Park and to remove a statue of the first U.S. president over his ties to slavery.
• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.