On June 15, 1934, the United States House of Representatives passed House Concurrent Resolution No. 45, offically accepting the donation of two statues from the Commonwealth of Virginia. It was the final act -- almost an afterthought -- of a process that had begun over one hundred years before. In 1814, Congress had decided to fill the Capitol's Statuary Hall with statues of great Americans, two from each state. In 1903, after decades of apathy toward the idea, the Virginia legislature resolved to commission statues of George Washington and Robert E. Lee to send to the Capitol. The bronze likenesses of the two generals were presented (though not officially accepted) in 1909.
While this process is remarkable for its grinding bureaucratic pace, it also signifies an important development in the construction of national memory. The Capitol building, as the seat of the legislative branch of our government and a much-frequented tourist attraction, instantiates our American ideals. From its Greek revival architecture, recalling the world's first known democracy, to the paintings and statues of pilgrims, pioneers, soldiers and statesmen, the Capitol represents the United States in its proudest vision of itself. The statues in Statuary Hall carry even greater iconographic weight than other artwork in the building because of their prominent placement and the select nature of their group -- only two per state. (Like senators, they can boast of belonging to one of the most exclusive clubs in the world.) Considering the honorific importance of Statuary Hall, it is striking that the military leader of a rebellious section of the nation -- the man who was, in a certain sense, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans -- should have a place there. Robert Edward Lee ascended to that position 39 years after his death, and just 44 years after the end of the horrific war that the country made against itself, the war that he helped to direct. The story of his ascent is the story of American hero worship and the selective construction of our national memory.