House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s call to oust from the Capitol collection Robert E. Lee and 10 other statues she says are tainted by the Confederacy is the latest in a long line of attempts to blackball the South’s most storied general.
Lee has survived every attempt, but it looks like he may finally have met his match.
Virginia, which put Lee in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall collection as one of the two works allotted to each state, is now speeding to get him out through legislation establishing a commission to find a replacement.
“I have little doubt that the statue of Robert E. Lee will be removed from the U.S. Capitol in 2021,” said Delegate Mark Levine, a Democrat from Alexandria who helped lead the push this year in Richmond to withdraw Lee.
It will take that long for the commission to meet, agree on an alternative and have the General Assembly approve the decision, he said.
Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, would like the statue to be removed sooner.
Last week, she directed the chair of the House Administration Committee to have the Architect of the Capitol remove statues of Lee and 10 others who she said were men of “violent bigotry” because of their roles in the Confederacy.
“The statues in the Capitol should embody our highest ideals as Americans, expressing who we are and who we aspire to be as a nation,” she wrote. “Monuments to men who advocated cruelty and barbarism to achieve such a plainly racist end are a grotesque affront to these ideals.”
The statue of Lee has been controversial from the moment Virginia commissioned it in 1903 to be one of the state’s two entries in the Capitol collection. The hallowed halls have two spaces for each state and the District of Columbia.
Founding Father George Washington was a given, and he sits in a place of honor in the Rotunda. Lee topped a surfeit of towering Virginians — Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Marshall, George Mason, Patrick Henry — as Richmond’s choice, sparking a heated debate in newspapers of the day.
Veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic, the North’s troops, adopted resolutions demanding that Congress refuse to accept Virginia’s choice. Their complaints were enhanced by the portrayal of Lee in his general’s uniform to lead what had been an enemy army.
Others, including some Union veterans, called it “unseemly” to question Virginia’s decision. They saw the statue as a symbol of reconciliation and wondered why Congress could refuse it.
Perhaps curiously, from today’s standpoint, there was no talk of race. The debate was over the propriety of a onetime enemy earning a place in the symbolic home of heroes of the united nation.
Rep. John F. Lacey, born a Virginian but a congressman from Iowa at the time of the debate, wrote a letter predicting that the country would always wonder why Virginia chose Lee over other luminaries.
“If Virginia suffered from any poverty of great names and found difficulty filling the place it might be different,” he said.
The Lee and Washington statues were quietly placed in the Capitol in 1909, though it wasn’t until 1934 that Congress officially accepted the statues into the collection.
Since then, Lee has shown substantial staying power.
While plaques to his honor have been torn down from churches where he worshipped, and statues from Baltimore to New Orleans have been brought down, the version in the Capitol survives despite talk every few years of removing it.
During her first stint as House speaker a decade ago, Mrs. Pelosi moved the statue from the more prominent location in Statuary Hall — the original House chamber — down a floor to the Capitol Crypt.
In 2015, after a white supremacist attacked a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, calls to get rid of the Lee statue were revived.
In 2017, after violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, over another Lee monument, black lawmakers in Congress announced an effort to oust the Lee statue and other Confederate monuments. Neither push amounted to more than words.
Mrs. Pelosi backed the 2017 effort, but Democrats were in the minority at the time.
Now as speaker, she directed her representative on the oversight board to take steps to remove statues of Lee and 10 others.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said that decision rests with the states that placed the statues. Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican and chairman of the board that oversees the Architect of the Capitol, said it would take a change in law to give Congress the power to oust statues.
That appears to push the decision back to Virginia.
Mr. Levine first proposed ousting Lee from the Capitol in a bill in 2018. The assembly, at that time controlled by Republicans, ignored the legislation.
But Democrats won resounding victories in the state’s 2019 elections and claimed control of the state’s House and Senate. When they convened this year, Lee was a chief target.
Mr. Levine reintroduced his legislation but later yielded the point position to Delegate Jeion Ward, a Newport News Democrat and a black woman. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, signed her bill into law in April.
The commission must hold at least one public meeting and report back to the General Assembly. Its charge is to decide whose statue should stand alongside Washington’s — meaning it could leave Lee’s statue in place. Mr. Levine said that won’t happen because Mr. Northam and Democrats control the commission’s members.
“The majority of Virginians want him down. I won’t say consensus, because some don’t, but it’s one of the things we ran on as Democrats, is to take down these really ahistorical statues,” he told The Washington Times.
There is one way Lee’s statue might remain.
In the 1990s, the Virginia General Assembly retired its state song because a verse was deemed offensive to black residents. A commission was established to come up with a replacement song, but commissioners gave up after a series of disastrous proceedings. The state still doesn’t have a replacement song.
It’s not clear whether the statue commission would choose to replace Lee, and agreeing on a single person from Virginia’s history to stand alongside Washington could be tricky because there is no dearth of historically significant Virginians.
Four of the nation’s first five presidents were from the commonwealth, including Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence; Madison, dubbed the father of the Constitution; and Monroe, whose presidency was known as the “Era of Good Feelings.”
Marshall was perhaps the most influential chief justice ever, and Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights influenced Jefferson’s writing of the Declaration of Independence and served as a model for state and federal bills of rights.
Virginia may also want to move beyond the founding era to someone such as former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who broke the color barrier to become the first black person elected to a governorship in the U.S.
Mr. Levine said he thinks the commission will settle on someone, and “frankly I think it would be nice to see a woman or a person of color. That Statuary Hall is full of a lot of old white men.”
“Frankly, I can think of thousands of Virginians that would be better in that place than Robert E. Lee,” he said. “Do I think the statue is coming down by the end of 2021? Yes, I do. Do I know who will replace him? No.”
Lee’s statue isn’t the only part of Capitol Hill history to resist change.
Some Democrats have long wanted to remove the name of Richard B. Russell, a committed segregationist Democrat, from the oldest Senate office building.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, has twice promised to introduce legislation to rename the building after the late Sen. John McCain, first in the immediate aftermath of McCain’s 2018 death and then last year as a tweak to Mr. Trump, who was complaining about the late senator.
So far, there is no record of Mr. Schumer introducing any such legislation.