Of Washington’s iconic buildings, the United States Capitol is, with the exception perhaps of the White House, the most famous and historic. When Thomas Jefferson commissioned it in 1792, he planned a far more modest undertaking than the structure we recognise today. However, the remaking of a seaboard nation into a continental empire following the acquisition of the American West through purchase, treaty and conquest spurred the transformation of the Capitol into a monument of imperial proportions. Recognising this symmetry between building and nation, Abraham Lincoln ordered construction to continue through the American Civil War. The structure itself charts nineteenth-century America’s growth.
As the seat of the American government and a historic building, Congress has opened much of the building up to tourists and constructed a new visitor’s centre to accommodate them. This makes the Capitol an interesting case study in public history.
Each state is invited to donate two statues of important figures to greet visitors and showcase their history. One of the brightest and most eye-catching statues is that of King Kamehameha I, who united the then independent Kingdom of Hawaii into a single country in 1810. No doubt the Hawaii State Legislature meant to naturalise the incorporation of Hawaii into the United States. But Kamehameha helped found an independent kingdom – not the state that the Federal government created after annexing Hawaii at the behest of a junta of American corporate interests in the late nineteenth century. Devoid of this historical context, I wonder whether the exhibition blurs the boundaries between two very different polities, implying that indigenous societies and states naturally segue into white power structures without conflict or alternatives – something that the Hawaiian government would not intend to suggest.
Also striking to students of nineteenth-century America are the statues of more controversial figures: John C. Calhoun, one of America’s foremost advocates of slavery and Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, men who fought a rebellion against the United States government to counter a perceived threat to the South’s ‘peculiar institution’. Most of these statues were donated in the early twentieth century, a time when white Americans sought unity in their recent past, and rejected as divisive attempts to address the legacy of slavery. Remembering these men as true Americans a century ago meant forgetting what the Civil War had been fought over – and eliding the racial injustice they fought to perpetuate. Scholars of Civil War memory still battle this narrative today, and given the enduring role of Confederate symbolism in constructing southern and American identity, the struggle over how we remember the conflict – as the recent anniversary of the Gettysburg Address reminds us – remains deeply important.
I asked our guide whether the statues drew any complaints; she told me that they did, but Congress’s stance was to defer to the judgement of their state donors. But Congress’s representation of its own past is anything but dispassionate. Visitors are invited to view an exhibition of Congress’s history – dangerously exciting for a historian of American political culture – and a video purporting to give us the history of American democracy. Between them, they tell a familiar narrative: that the Founding Fathers bequeathed to America a democracy that inevitably expanded to include unpropertied white men, white women and finally African-Americans. American democracy has progressed according to the grand plan drafted by Jefferson et al, through to the American present. Even the Civil War only appears as a small blip in a triumphal narrative, receiving a brief mention against a backdrop of endless ‘landmark legislation.’
Historians of nineteenth-century America know there was – and is – no grand plan to expand democratic rights. Americans attempted to restrict Catholic, unpropertied and immigrant voting before and after the Civil War. In 1867 Congress chose to enfranchise African-American men, and use the army to defend black voters from the original Ku Klux Klan, a century before the Voting Rights Act, but in the 1870s legislators reneged on that promise. Democratic rights have contracted as well as expanded through U.S. history.
But without the understanding that democracy is contested – that it can expand and contract – is it any surprise that the American government can so retreat from it so easily? The Supreme Court recently gutted the Voting Rights Act on the grounds that the legislation had succeeded. Disenfranchisement was over; the grand plan was progressing. In reality, though, this has sparked contests which will lead to the curtailing of suffrage. I submit that the teleological narrative Congress has presented is not only false, but by denying that we can choose the state of our democracy, also dangerous.
The Capitol visitors’ center had the opportunity to challenge its visitors and showcase how American people built their democracy, warts and all, often in the face of adversity. Perhaps that would be a more honest, stimulating and useful narrative.
Charlie Thompson is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Sheffield. He is currently on an AHRC fellowship at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., where he is researching debates over centralization in the antebellum United States.