Opposing A Marker Acknowledging Slave Labor

Ken AshfordCongress, History, RaceLeave a Comment

The United States Capital Building, its wonderful dome, and the Statue of Freedom that sits atop it, were built by slave labor.

Yeah, I know.  Bit of national shame and embarassment.

Tuesday evening, the U.S. House of Representatives sought to redress that grievance in some small way with a resolution acknowledging the role slaves played in the Capital's construction.  The purpose of the resolution, according to its text, was to direct "the Architect of the Capitol to place a marker in Emancipation Hall in the Capitol Visitor Center which acknowledges the role that slave labor played in the construction of the United States Capitol."

A casual observer of national politics might watch the 24 hour news or read blogs and come away thinking that everything that happens in the halls of Congress turns into a divided partisan bicker.  But in fact, Congress tends to agree a lot on a lot of things, especially relatively minor things like the slave labor resolution.

And indeed, the resolution passed 399-1.

Of course, one wonders what was in the mind of the sole congressman who voted against it.  His name is Rep. Steve King (R-IA).

So why did he do it?

Well, his first explanation was this (I'm paraphrasing): (1) Congress had already changed the name of the Great Hall in the Capital Visitor's Center to Emancipation Hall in honor of all them slaves — ain't that enough???? and (2)  Congress has been reluctant to plaster "In God We Trust" on every portico, doorknob and urinal in the Capital building.  So his vote was to defend religion.  (His actual words were:

"The architect of the capitol has been for years trying to eradicate any sign of faith or Christianity from the capitol itself and from the historical documents that flow from it," King says. "…I'm out of patience with these kind of maneuverings.")

But in an interview with Radio Iowa yesterday, King, after he established his "I'm no racist no really I'm not" bonafides, offered a new explanation for his vote, complaining that the slave labor resolution wasn’t a “balanced depiction of history”:

KING: I would just add that there were about 645,000 slaves that were brought to the United States. And I’m with Martin Luther King, Jr. on this. His documents, his speeches – I’ve read most of them. And I agree with almost every word that came out of him. Slavery was abhorrent, but it was also a fact of life in those centuries where it existed.

And of the 645,000 Africans that were brought here to be forcibly put into slavery in the United States, there were over 600,000 people that gave their lives in the Civil War to put an end to slavery. And I don’t see the monument to that in the Congressional Visitor Center, and I think it’s important that we have a balanced depiction of history.

Riiiiight.  A balanced depiction of history.

How many monuments are there in Washington D.C. which acknowledge slavery? ZERO.

How many monuments are there in Washington D.C. which acknowledge the contributions of those who fought in the Civil War?  Enough to fill a book… including the Grant Memorial just outside the Capital Building itself.

But setting that aside, a marker noting that the Capital was actually built by slaves seems highly related to the, uh, Capital Visitor Center — the place which provides visitor information for people who want to learn about the Capital Building.  On the other hand — while the deaths of Civil War soldiers bears historical importance, I'm not quite sure what those deaths have to do with the Capital building itself.

And finally, King wants to honor the "over 600,000 people that gave their lives in the Civil War to end slavery".  Someone needs to tell him that about 360,000 of the 618,000 war casualties actually died to end slavery.  The other 258,000 or so died to preserve it.  Just sayin….