History is Present

Facing Legacies: A Photo from inside the U.S. Capitol

Yesterday’s insurrection at the US Capitol has stunned and angered us. We are still struggling to find the words to articulate our own thoughts and feelings, since none seem sufficient.

The museum is offering resources for educators, parents, and caregivers here, and linking across our social media to historians who have written about issues related to election violence and insurrection in the Civil War era and teachers who are grappling with this moment in the classroom.

But one photograph from the scene yesterday stopped us in our tracks. 

In it, we see a man strolling through the Capitol with a modern version of the most well known Confederate flag. (You can read more about that flag here). 

Though Confederates are still honored in the National Statuary Hall in the same building, this is a breathtaking scene.

But it makes tragic sense.

A man holding a large Confederate flag in a room of the United State Capitol. He is wearing a sweatshirt over a vest and blue jeans. He seems to be addressing someone off camera. He is in-between two portraits, one of John C. Calhoun and one of Charles Sumner.
Supporters of US President Donald Trump protest in the US Capitol Rotunda on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. – Demonstrators breeched security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the 2020 presidential election Electoral Vote Certification. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

The flag’s use has changed over time. Battlefield emblems for soldiers and treasured relics of society women; later, the banner of segregationists and logo of southern rockers. It has meant different things to different people. 

Yet it has one meaning that it continually returns to: with very few exceptions, it has always been a rallying point for White resistance to advances in multi-racial democracy in the United States. 

A deeper dive into the photograph reveals even more heartbreaking irony.

To the left is a portrait of John C. Calhoun, the one-time Vice President and long term United States senator from South Carolina. Calhoun laid the intellectual groundwork for the Confederacy that he would not live to see. He developed the concept of state sovereignty that Confederates claimed to honor when they seceded from the nation, and pioneered the description of slavery as a “positive good.” 

“Let me not be understood as admitting, even by implication,” he said, “that the existing relations between the two races, in the slaveholding states, is an evil. Far otherwise; I hold it to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be, to both, and will continue to prove so, if not disturbed by the fell spirit of Abolition.” 

What Calhoun regarded as the “fell spirit of Abolition,” was embodied by the Senator from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner, the man in the portrait to the right. Sumner spent his career devoted to the destruction of what he called the “Slave Power.” In doing so, he developed a theory called “Freedom National,” in which the growing United states must grow as a free, not a slave, nation. After a particularly provocative speech on the floor of the Senate in 1856, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks beat Sumner nearly to death with a cane.

"Southern Chivalry – Argument versus Club's" A lithograph depicting the caning of Charles Sumner by South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks. Brooks is raising a bloodied cane over a befallen Sumner. Sumner is holding up a quill pen over his bloodied forehead looking at Brooks.
A lithograph depicting the caning of Charles Sumner, 1856. According to eyewitnesses, he repeatedly hit Sumner’s head with the massive gold knob, instead. via the Boston Athenæum

Yet the Freedom National theory remained viable. The Republican Party included it in its 1860 platform, and upon Abraham Lincoln’s election, secessionists took their states out of the Union rather than be subject to it. 

Sumner, too, survived and returned to Congress as one of the so-called “Radical Republicans” that insisted on a Reconstruction policy that aggressively pursued racial equality and the expulsion of former Confederates from national political life. 

He had another vision as to who could represent the south. “The time has passed for argument,” Sumner said in 1870. “Nothing more need be said. For a long time it has been clear that colored persons must be senators.” 

Thus the tragic irony, then, that on the day after Georgia honored Sumner’s sentiment and elected Raphael Warnock its first-ever African American United States Senator, the eternal emblem of John Calhoun’s condemnation of racial equality casually floated beneath the portraits of the two men.  

We often argue that the past is a foreign country, but just as often, we are grieved to see that it is remarkably present.