Friday, June 22, 2012

Lighten Up Congress: Let Frederick Douglass Into Statuary Hall

The content below was written for Washington City Paper's blog on June 7, but never published, mostly because I didn't get to the edits fast enough in time for the post to be relevant. (Illness will do that.) So, here is my sardonic editorial. 


D.C., as we all know, has no voting rights in Congress. Now it seems Congress is also hesitant to allow even another D.C. delegate in the building, even if he's made of bronze. As National Journal reported earlier this week:
A five-year fight to get abolitionist Frederick Douglass inside the Capitol has apparently ended in an impasse, with the life-size statue of the 19th-century hero left standing in a District of Columbia government building about four blocks off the Hill.
As the article mentions, petitions to for the U.S. Capitol complex to display the statue of Frederick Douglass, as well as for Pierre Charles L'Enfant---the architect and civil engineer who designed the city of Washington, D.C.---have been rejected by the Architect of the Capitol's office because current law states:
the President is hereby authorized to invite each and all the States to provide and furnish statues, in marble or bronze, not exceeding two in number for each State, of deceased persons who have been citizens thereof, and illustrious for their historic renown or for distinguished civic or military services such as each State may deem to be worthy of this national commemoration;
Maine Rep. Justin S. Morrill proposed the National Statuary Hall, which became law in 1864. According to the Architect of the Capitol's website, the hall eventually became so crowded with statues that Congress had to pass a resolution in 1933 that allowed for the statues to be relocated to other parts of the Capitol complex; that resolution was made law in 2000.  One motivation for relocating some statues stemmed from structural concerns: The chamber could not support the weight of all the statues.

In the 1800s, it may have made sense to exclude non-states from the hall: In 1864, There were 35 states in the U.S., and there was likely some assumption that the territories in the middle of the country might one day become states. At the time, excluding statuary representation made some sense, since these territories were sparsely populated, their functions were ever-changing (Oklahoma was an Indian territory), and so were their boundaries (for example, the Dakota Territory included North and South Dakota, Wyoming, and parts of Idaho and Montana). There was also room to speculate the unlikely possibility hat some territories could become independent republics, as Texas once was and as California once considered. Time and migration would sort those issues out.

But D.C. is unlikely to become an independent republic, and its boundaries are not likely to change (except through retrocession). Though laws prohibiting a statue representing D.C. likely parallel the laws that prohibit D.C. from having representation in either chamber of the legislative branch, despite having a population larger than the state of Wyoming, in this instance all we are asking for is a statue.
We understand, Congress: D.C. is just a pawn on your little chess board. However, for two hundred years that pawn has had an identity and a culture---one that has had an impact on the greater nation.

We could be asking for a statue of Chuck Brown or Duke Ellington, both of whom have made significant contributions musically. We could be asking for a statue for Gene Davis, Ken Noland, Alma Thomas, or Anne Truitt, all of whom have had some impact on the history of fine art. Heck, given the popularity of the place, we might find justification for a statue of Chili Bowl founder Ben Ali. Instead, we're asking to be represented by a man who escaped slavery and became a prominent abolitionist arguing for equal rights as well as for women's suffrage. Though Morrill argued for "the reception of such statuary as each state shall elect to be deserving," 150 years later can't we see past the language and accept that Morrill argued for a hall of statues representing great Americans? Last time I checked, the citizens of DC were also Americans.

Let D.C. be represented by a statue of Frederick Douglass. You don't even have to give him a provisional vote in committee. In fact, he'll do what you wish Eleanor Holmes Norton would do: Be off in a corner somewhere being quiet.

1 comment:

MoDews said...

Justin Morrill was a Representative of Vermont not Maine. Mr. Rice of Maine was on the Committee of Public Buildings and Grounds and introduced the actual resolution for statuary.