It doesn’t take a political wonk to know that not all members of Congress are persons of sterling character or stellar intellect. But as our Constitution would have it, Representatives must face the public at least once every other year and voters can always hope that an inadequate candidate will be replaced by someone more suitable for the job. Deep in the recesses of the U.S. Capitol, however, are 100 Representatives who voters have never cast a ballot for and who can remain at their posts indefinitely.
They are the men and women of bronze and stone who dwell under the Dome at the behest of their state legislatures. Since the mid-1800’s, states have been authorized to select two notable persons to reside in Statuary Hall – persons “illustrious for their historic renown” or “worthy of national commendation.”
So, who would some of these remarkable persons be?
Virginia selected George Washington, of course, and New Hampshire has Daniel Webster. Montana picked Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress (a Republican, in case you’re wondering). In 2009 Alabama ousted Jabez Curry to make room for Helen Keller. Not bad company, so far.
But not every state has its Washington. Apparently, some have had to scrape the bottom of the notoriety barrel to dredge up someone of suitable stature. Take South Carolina, for example. In 1929, the state decided that Wade Hampton was sufficiently notable to grace the halls of Congress. Hampton, who served as Governor and then U.S. Senator, was a Confederate war hero who just happened to be an outstanding fundraiser…for the KKK. He was an ardent supporter of “Lost Cause” ideology, which holds that the Civil War was a war of aggression by the North against states’ rights and the Southern way of life. Which sounds noble until one remembers that the only right consistently defended by the Southern states was the” right” to own and exploit other human beings. Oh yeah. That.
Speaking of lost causes, one of Mississippi’s choice representatives in Statuary Hall is Jefferson Davis, a man who declared in the Chamber of the U.S. Senate that slavery is “nothing but the form of civil government instituted for a class of people not fit to govern themselves…just that kind of control which is extended in every northern State over its convicts, its lunatics, its minors, its apprentices.” Really? Are you sure that’s the man you want to hold up as “worthy of national commendation?”
But Hampton and Davis are ancient history, so what’s the harm? After all, we’re talking about statues. Relics. Artifacts of bygone days.
I recently met a man who proudly referred to himself as an “unreconstructed Southerner.” Unapologetic. Unrepentant. Unsorry for believing that his Cause was right to sacrifice 600,000 men to perpetuate a way of life sustained off the bloodied backs of other men who had the misfortune to be born in the wrong skin.
And so Wade Hampton and Jeff Davis and others like them continue to live in the Capitol. Their Cause may be lost, but it is not dead. If only they were remnants of a distant era. If only their sole purpose under the Dome was to serve as a reminder of man’s capacity for unspeakable brutality to other men.
If only bad ideas had term limits.