Captured in a bronze likeness, Robert E. Lee stares off into the distance. He seems deep in thought — perhaps mulling an alternate history of victory in which the general who led the Confederate Army emerges victorious.
The statue, still standing today in the U.S. Capitol building, is part of the National Statuary Hall Collection of 100 sculptures of founding fathers and luminaries from all 50 states. The statue, sculpted by Virginia artist Edward Valentine, depicts Lee wearing his Confederate uniform and carrying a hat in hand, signs of the humility and noble surrender that Lee loyalists claimed were his greatest trait and accomplishment. In 1909, Valentine’s memorial to Lee joined sculptures to other historical movers and shakers in the Hall.
But Senator Weldon B. Heyburn, an Idaho Republican, would have none of it. The following year, in January 1910, Heyburn let loose with a hell-raising speech that, according to newspaper reports of the time, called the placement of the general’s statue in the Capitol a “desecration” and compared Lee to an infamous suspected traitor from another time.
“Do you think that those men in Congress on the 2nd of July 1864 [when passing legislation that created the Statuary Hall] ever contemplated for a moment that any state, under any condition, at any time, would place the statue of Benedict Arnold in that hall?”
A man whose physical girth that would rival future President William Howard Taft’s (whose size inspired a presidential “urban legend” about getting stuck in the White House bathtub), Heyburn never lacked for opinions. He championed Western states and railed that the federal government should not have the power to establish protected national forests — an argument that played well with mining interests he often represented as a lawyer even while in Congress. He resisted child labor laws and shorter workweeks, charging that regulation would gut free enterprise. But even as his pet issues conflicted with many tenets of the Progressive period — during which many Americans looked to the government to tackle social ills in a rapidly changing country — Heyburn was a main sponsor of the Pure Food and Drug Act that laid the groundwork for today’s Food and Drug Administration.
During his decade-long congressional career, Heyburn became one of the Senate’s best-known contrarians — and the most voluble opponent of anything that hinted of sympathy for the Old South.
In various addresses, Heyburn, an attorney and Pennsylvania Quaker descendant who allegedly heard the cannon fire from Gettysburg as a youth, railed against the Lee statue’s placement in the Capitol’s hallowed halls. These remarks displayed what a fellow Idaho legislator euphemistically called his fluency in the “language of conflict.”
In his comments, Heyburn urged Virginia to consider some of its other historical figures instead: “In sending us figures for the ‘National Hall of Fame,’ I would advise you to not to overlook your Marshalls, your early Lees, your Monroes, and your Henrys.” In other words, chose any other patriotic native son than Lee, who had left his position in the U.S. Army to take a Confederate command.
Heyburn’s soliloquy was interrupted only by interjections from Arkansas Sen. Jeff Davis (not to be confused with the Confederacy’s first and only president). In a moment that presaged contemporary ways to discredit a politician, Davis asked, “Did the senator ever fight in the war?” To which Heyburn — who was too young to enlist during the Civil War — fired back: “That is the stock retort of a cheap reporter.”
Heyburn hammered home his consistent distaste for any use of federal property or funds for Confederate commemoration. veterans for a national reunion. Later, on February 8, 1910, he protested the lending of government-owned tents to Confederate veterans and took a swipe at the Lee statue again in a booming 40-minute oration:
“I ask you in the interest of loyalty and harmony to say to the people who have sent this image to come and take it away. Take it away and worship it, if you please. But don’t intrude it upon the people who do not want it. Take him home — place him in the most sacred spot; give him your dearest place in your local temples. But for God’s sake, don’t again start this spirit out of which the terrible troubles of the past arose.”
Lee was, in Heyburn’s mind, “an example that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and thousands of millions of dollars.”
Heyburn was nothing if not consistent in his demands. Heyburn interrupted once a band playing “Dixie” at a rally, yelling “This is a Republican meeting. We want no such tunes here” and effectively shutting down the gathering. He argued that the images of the Confederate flag shouldn’t even be allowed on U.S. mail. And Heyburn introduced a resolution empowering the Secretary of the Treasury to question why the Newport News, Virginia, customs house was scheduled to close the next day on Robert E. Lee’s birthday. He cited a newspaper article that asked why a public office would be closed for something that wasn’t a federal holiday (it was a state holiday) and especially any birthday of a Confederate officer. And he followed that in July 1911 with a spirited rejection of a measure to fund a monument to the Confederate navy in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
He was quintessentially hard to debate and rather hard to like, said even his Republican colleagues. “He shall be known as the Great Reconciler,” quipped one journalist sarcastically. Southern newspapers (and some Northern ones) derided him as the “last of the dodos” and his anti-Confederate speeches as braying or yelping, and they charged that Heyburn was little more than a biased blowhard who was reigniting extinct sectional tensions and torching national reconciliation. This despite the fact that white Southerners and groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy were busy literally building the Lost Cause narrative of regional victimization and black disenfranchisement on the American landscape with monuments from Richmond to Stone Mountain, Georgia.
Although Heyburn was the sole vote against the resolution to allocate federal funds for the Confederate reunion tents, he was not alone in his concerns that sending a Confederate – even a long-dead one made of bronze and stone – to the Capitol was heralding the side that began the Civil War. Kansas’ Congressional delegation threatened to submit a statue of John Brown, the slain anti-slavery radical who tried to siege Harper’s Ferry, if Lee literally got a pedestal on the Capitol grounds, an idea that had been the source of political squabbles since Senator John Ingalls suggested it in the 1880s.
Dozens of chapters of the Grand Army of the Republic— a fraternal order of Union veterans — complained about the Lee statue throughout the spring of 1910; one Massachusetts post sent a resolution that “it would be an insult to the memory of the men who gave their lives for this country, and the Union veterans who survived the war, and who cherish a love for the flag they fought under, to place the statue of Robert E. Lee, in the full uniform of a rebel general, in the Hall of Fame.”
However loud the objections, Lee’s statue remained. Today, Statuary Hall itself is a room just south of the Capitol Rotunda on the spot of the old hall of the House. Lee stood there until 2008, when it was moved to the Crypt, a room beneath the Rotunda, which despite its ghoulish name, is a major stop on visitor tours . The Lee statue is still a part of the National Statuary Hall Collection, along with 99 other prominent Americans including presidents, actor Will Rogers, the 17th-century Pueblo Indian leader Po'Pay. Other Confederates in the collection include: Jefferson Davis (Mississippi), Alexander Stephens (Georgia), and 10 others. There are no African-Americans represented in the National Statuary Hall Collection, though a statue of Rosa Parks — not an official part of the collection because it wasn’t submitted by a state — now stands where the Lee statue once stood.
Heyburn’s intense speeches and opposition may have done him in. He collapsed during a speech on the Senate floor in 1912 due to a heart condition, and never returned to health or his office.
Senate colleagues toasted the deceased Heyburn in March 1913, continually referencing his bulldog tenacity. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts cited the fearlessness of Heyburn's Quaker ancestors — not retiring, quiet pacifists — saying, "You might question his opinion. But you could never doubt his courage."
Only one Southerner, Democratic Senator John Thornton of Louisiana, chimed in with a remembrance, and a carefully worded one at that. Thornton came to the Capitol holding the widely shared opinion that Heyburn had an axe to grind against the South. In his remarks, he recalled that the Idaho politician was "not a hater of the Southern people," but was merely emphatic about not plumbing government coffers to valorize men of the Confederacy.
"He always objected to the expenditure of public money to commemorate in any way the valor of Confederate soldiers and sailors, and even to the return of captured bonds that had been issued during the Civil War by any of the states opposing the Southern Confederacy. And this is why he acquired the reputation of being hostile to the South, a reputation that has outlived his life. ... And now that he is dead, I am glad to be able to pay tribute to some of the characteristics of Sen. Heyburn that I unreservedly admired,” he ended in a decidedly middle-of-the-road eulogy.
Amid today’s monument controversies—including the forcible tearing down of such a statue in Durham, North Carolina, this summer—there are increasing calls to reconsider the inclusion of Confederates in Statuary Hall and what stories the “hall of heroes” tells in its carvings. Like all statues in the collection, the Robert E. Lee sculpture was commissioned by a state and would have to be replaced by that same state, Virginia, after approval by its governor and legislature.
Such a move would also force a reconsideration of what historical figures we consider worthy of memorializing—a point that Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, the 2016 Democratic vice presidential candidate, made this August in comments on CBS’ political talk show, “Face the Nation.”
“You get to pick two people to represent the entire scope of your state. Virginia has George Washington; that’s an obvious one. But since 1909, number two is Robert E. Lee,” said Kaine. “I think a state with Pocahontas, a state with Doug Wilder (the grandson of a slave, Korean War-decorated combat veteran, first elected African-American governor [in the nation]) — in 2017, is it really Robert E. Lee that we would say is the person who we want to stand for who Virginia is? I’m not sure it is.”