In 2023, the United States Military Academy will remove 13 Confederate symbols on its West Point campus. They include a portrait of Robert E. Lee dressed in a Confederate uniform, a stone bust of Lee, who was superintendent of West Point before the Civil War, and a bronze plaque with an image of a hooded figure and the words “Ku Klux Klan.”
Art displayed in the United States Capitol building in Washington, DC, still includes images of 141 enslavers and 13 Confederates who went to war against the country. A study by the Washington Post found that more than one-third of the statues and portraits in the Capitol building honor enslavers or Confederates and at least six more honor possible enslavers where evidence is disputed.
A bill recently signed by President Joseph Biden will finally replace a bust of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney who in the 1857 Dred Scott decision wrote that the nation’s founders never intended African Americans be considered citizens of the United States. In that decision, Taney and the court majority ruled that slavery could not be banned in any part of the country.
Confederate honorees in the Capitol building include Jefferson Davis, a United States Senator who became President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, a member of the House of Representatives who became Vice-President of the Confederacy, and John C. Breckinridge, a former Vice-President of the United States who became Secretary of War in the Confederate cabinet.
Deciding what to do with some of the images poses problems. Many of the enslavers were Presidents of the United States including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, and John Tyler. Some of the documented enslavers, Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson, and Rufus King, freed the people they enslaved and became opponents of slavery. Others like Daniel Webster and Samuel Morse defended the institution of slavery but did not personally own enslaved people.
Each state places two statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection and twenty-three states have at least one statue celebrating an enslaver or Confederate. Both New York statues honor enslavers. Robert Livingston, who served on the committee that wrote the Declaration of Independence, enslaved 15 people. Livingston also owned brothels in Manhattan were he may have prostituted enslaved Black women. The other statue depicts former United States vice-president George Clinton. Clinton, who was also a Governor of New York State, enslaved at least eight people.
In June 2020, after the police killing of George Floyd, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan announced the statue of Philip Schuyler would be removed from in front of the state Capitol building. Philip Schuyler was a general during the Revolutionary War and a U.S. Senator. He owned two large estates in the Albany area with at least 40 enslaved Africans. Schuyler was also the father of Alexander Hamilton’s wife and gave the couple enslaved people as gifts. Over two years after the statue was supposed to be removed, it remains in place.
A number of the enslavers and supporters of slavery honored in the United States Capitol building also have portraits or statues at New York City Hall. They include George Clinton, Christopher Columbus, Henry Clay, Samuel Morse and Alexander Hamilton.
The New York City Hall Portrait collection, with more than 100 paintings by major 18th and 19th-century American artists, includes other highly questionable individuals. Director-General Peter Stuyvesant of the Dutch New Netherland colony was the largest private slaveholder in the colony and a notorious anti-Semite. James Duane was a delegate to the Continental Congress, the first post-Revolutionary War Mayor of the city of New York, and according to the 1790 federal census, he was a slaveholder.
Morgan Lewis was a member of the State Assembly and Senate, State Attorney General, and a Governor of New York. The 1790 census shows his family owned eight enslaved people. Alexander Macomb, a prominent merchant and landowner was the third-largest slaveholder in New York City. Richard Varick, New York’s mayor from 1789-1801 was a slaveholder.
As United States Secretary of State, Edward Livingston demanded that Great Britain return freedom seekers who had escaped to British held territories. Mayor Philip Hone dismissed anti-slavery abolitionists as fanatics and blamed them for causing the Civil War. Three-time Mayor William Havemeyer’s family fortune was based on trade in slave-produced commodities.
Another scoundrel in New York City history who is represented in the New York City Hall Portrait collection was Fernando Wood. Wood was mayor from 1855 to 1857 and 1859 to 1861. In his 1861 state of the city address, he proposed that the city of New York secede from the United States along with the Southern states to protect its financial operations. After the Civil War, while in Congress, he led opposition to the 13th Amendment permanently ending slavery in the United States.
[Editor’s Note: Since publication of this story one historian has raised questions about Robert R. Livingston’s profiting from he sex trade, although his brother John R. Livingston was clearly connected. You can read that analysis here.]
Illustrations from above: A portrait of Robert E. Lee at West Point Academy; New York State Capitol building’s Hall of Governors; and a portrait of Fernando Hall in New York City’s City Hall.