Monday, June 27, 2022By:
Hi y’all! Before I begin, I want to acknowledge that there were some Supreme Court decisions this week that you may find distressing, as I do. That said, I am saving a full discussion of the Supreme Court term for next week after the final decisions are released. You can find my thoughts there.
Instead, I thought I would talk about what is definitely my favorite thing to do as a Capitol Hill intern: giving tours of the U.S. Capitol Building. The Capitol is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful buildings in the world with an incredibly rich and complicated history. I am a big fan of nuance, and they’re are perhaps few subjects that require a more discerning eye than American history. The Capitol is a perfect example of that.
I give tours to constituents who request them through our office. Part of the reason I like giving tours so much is because I actually get to meet constituents face to face. I’m not from the district our office represents, or even Illinois, so the only times I really get to speak with constituents is through phone calls and Capitol tours. On the phone, people are often very animated, sometimes rude, and occasionally suspicious about sharing their information. That, combined with not being able to discuss policy openly, means that I usually just listen to constituents on the phone without much ability to build rapport or connection. While that has its merits, I much prefer the direct face-to-face interactions I get to have when I give tours to constituents. Tours give us something in common: an interest in the building. Once you have that, it doesn’t take much more to build a relationship that reminds you who you work for.
Okay, now that the obligatory “here’s my experience with this thing” section is out of the way, I’m just going to talk about the building because it. Is. Fascinating. If you don’t care about the building, feel free to skip ahead, but I think it’s worth thinking about.
Every tour is a bit different in path and content depending on who gives it, but my tour starts in the Capitol Visitor Center. There’s not much interesting about the CVC (I mean, relatively speaking), except for the statues it contains. The statues are a theme of my tour, so I might as well get you started here. Each state gets to send two statues to the Capitol for display. It can generally be anybody (seriously, Arkansas will soon have a statue of Johnny Cash in the Capitol), and they can be withdrawn or exchanged at any time. About 30-something statues are in the old House of Representatives chamber now called Statuary Hall, but the rest are scattered around the building, including the CVC. A few notable statues in the CVC: Jack Swigert, Apollo 13 astronaut from Colorado; Helen Keller, deaf-blind social advocate from Alabama; and Sakakawea, Native American explorer from North Dakota. There is also a replica of the Statue of Freedom that sits on top of the Capitol rotunda.
After the CVC, my tour goes to the Old Supreme Court chamber. Much of the furniture in the room was actually used by the Supreme Court when it was housed in the room from 1810-1860. This room was where a number of important decisions were made, including Dred Scott v. Sanford, in which Chief Justice Roger Taney informed Dred Scott that as a Black man and a slave, he had no rights to citizenship in the United States, and therefore no standing for suit in court. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Chief Justice Taney actually told that to Dred Scott’s lawyers, because as a Black man, Dred Scott was not allowed in the building. A bust of Roger Taney currently sits in the Old Supreme Court chamber.
After the Old Supreme Court Chamber, my tour goes to the Crypt just beneath the Capitol rotunda. The Crypt and the rotunda serve as the symbolic center of Washington, D.C. The stone at the center of the Crypt marks the division between the four quadrants of the city. There is a myth that George Washington is buried underneath the Crypt, but there is an empty tomb where Congress intended that he be buried after his death (despite his wishes to be buried in Mount Vernon). There is a statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Crypt that is missing an ear. This was the style among statue artists at the time who wanted it to be known that they carved from an actual rock, so they left a little of the original rock in place. Right across the Crypt from Abraham Lincoln, the President who emancipated slaves, is a statuary hall statue from my home state, North Carolina. The statue is Charles Aycock, who made a name for himself as a fierce advocated for racial segregation in the early 20th century after Reconstruction.
After the Crypt, my tour goes upstairs to the rotunda. For a sense of scale, the Statue of Liberty could fit inside the rotunda with about 60 feet to spare. There is a lot to talk about with the rotunda, most notably the historically inaccurate (and in many cases offensive) depictions of Native Americans in the various paintings around the room, the painting depicting the history of the United States from colonization to the Wright brothers first flag wrapping around the entire dome, as well as some legitimately historic paintings depicting the signing of the Declaration of Independence and George Washington resigning his commission. There is also a women’s suffrage monument and a federally commissioned statue of Martin Luther King. The statuary hall statues in the rotunda are almost exclusively presidents, with one exception: Alexander Hamilton, the first Treasury Secretary of the United States and future Broadway icon. The Presidents in the rotunda include Washington, Garfield, Eisenhower, Reagan, Jackson, and, of course, the only President never elected to national office, Gerald Ford.
After the rotunda comes the Old Senate Chamber, which also served as the Supreme Court chamber from 1860-1935 when they got their own building across the street. This is the room where Plessy v. Ferguson was decided, which enacted the legality of the “separate but equal” principle, effectively allowing for another century of de jure segregation after the conclusion of the Civil War. Plessy was an 8-1 decision. The lone dissenter was Justice John Marshall Harlan, also known as the Great Dissenter for his 30-something years of dissenting on the bench. As it happens, on June 30, Ketanji Brown Jackson will be sworn in as the first Black female Associate Justice on two Bibles: a family Bible, and John Marshall Harlan’s Bible.
Finally, we reach Statuary Hall, the former House of Representatives chamber. A number of Presidents served as Representatives in this chamber, including Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Pierce, and John Quincy Adams. John Quincy Adams actually died on a sofa in an adjoining room to Statuary Hall after collapsing on the floor. That sofa is still in that room. It has since been reupholstered. A few of the more interesting statues in this room to me: Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy from Mississippi; Alexander Hamilton Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy from Georgia; Zebulon Vance, former Governor and Confederate general from North Carolina. Alexander Hamilton Stephens statue, who as a reminder seceded from the union so he could own Black people, contains the inscription “Statesman - Author- Patriot”.
So, what’s the takeaway? History is messy. The history represented by the Capitol is messy. In addition to stunning artwork and architecture, we continue to honor the legacy of some seriously questionable people in our nation’s Capitol with statues placed immediately next to the chambers where our laws are made. I’m not saying these statues should be destroyed or anything, especially as someone who believes in taking a deep and discerning look at our history, good and bad. But maybe the leader of the literal rebellion against the United States doesn’t need a statue 50 feet from the current House of Representatives chamber? If we were Germany, would we put a statue of Adolf Hitler in the bundestag? I believe it is incumbent upon each of us, whether you work in government or not, to think about how we understand our history and reflect on what it means to us today. We can’t change the decisions made in the Old Supreme Court chamber or the laws made in the Old Senate Chamber, but we shouldn’t make the same mistakes we made then. We should acknowledge our shortcomings and failures, but we shouldn’t honor them. That’s the theme of my tour. I hope you enjoyed it :)