Non-states inch closer to US Capitol’s Statuary Hall Collection

The District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands are one step closer to being represented in the US Capitol. Voting-rights advocates shouldn’t get their hopes up, however.

The US House of Representatives on Monday passed a bill that would allow the non-states to place one statue apiece in the US Capitol as part of the Statuary Hall Collection. According to the 1864 legislation that created the collection, the honor of placing statues in the Hall has is expressly reserved for the states themselves, which, however, are allowed to contribute two statues.

As with virtually all attempts to increase the non-states’ visibility in Congress, the statue issue has not been without controversy. In 2010, with the failed DC Voting Rights Act still a fresh memory, California Representative Dan Lungren (R) opposed District Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton’s (D) bill that would have placed two DC statues in the Capitol, suggesting the move was an attempt to confer “quasi-state status” on the city. The objection here, of course, was that adding two DC statues to the Statuary Hall collection would have given the city equal billing with the states, and therefore set the city on the path to full House voting rights, anathema to today’s Republican Party.

But Lungren isn’t firmly opposed to admitting statues from DC and the non-states into the collection outright; he only opposes conferring symbolic equality on the non-states by admitting their statues to the Capitol. After all, Lungren did introduce the bill that cleared the House today, noting on a previous occasion that statues are important to his constituents.

The House passed similar legislation to Lungren’s bill nearly two years ago, just before the dissolution of the 111th Congress in December 2010. But the Senate, not unexpectedly, let the matter die by not taking up the bill.

Should President Obama sign the bill into law after Senate passage–still an uncertainty–the non-states could move statues into Hall immediately. As far as I know, DC is the only non-state that has actual statues ready to deploy, and it looks like abolitionist Frederick Douglass would have the honor.

Douglass was chosen in 2006 after the city held a contest to select two historical figures to represent the city. The vote itself wasn’t without controversy, however, as the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities ultimately passed over jazz musician Duke Ellington–runner-up to Douglass in the vote–and instead commissioned a statue of French architect and Revolutionary War veteran Pierre L’Enfant, who in the early 1790’s drafted the initial plans for the design of the District of Columbia (Ellington, however, was later immortalized on the District’s quarter as part of the State Quarter program).

But with only one statue allowed under the legislation passed by the House, Douglass is no doubt the wiser choice. His efforts to end slavery in the United States aside, Douglass actually meets the Statuary Hall requirements that all persons immortalized be former citizens of the localities they represent. I could be wrong, but I don’t think L’Enfant ever actually resided in the District of Columbia–he was kicked off the DC planning project  after only a few months after it began and left what would become the District well before the city was incorporated in 1801. L’Enfant died penniless in 1825 on a farm outside the city in Chilium, Maryland.

If anyone knows what statues Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands would contribute to the collection, please let me know!

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