Does Missouri really want to commemorate a racist in the nation’s Capitol?

The statue of Francis Preston Blair in the National Statuary Hall collection
The statue of Francis Preston Blair in the National Statuary Hall collection aoc.gov

Let’s begin this tale of Washington statutes and Missouri political intrigue with the good news.

Officials of both parties at the state and federal level are eager to place a statue of the state’s only president, Harry Truman, in the U.S. Capitol’s esteemed Statuary Hall. The president who presided over the end of World War II, helped create the United Nations and integrated the armed forces is more than worthy of such an honor.

Congressman Emanuel Cleaver’s office reports that the Truman statue should be completed by May 2019.

Things get a little more complicated — and partisan — when it comes to a related issue. Each state can be represented by no more than two statues. So Missouri lawmakers must decide which of the two existing statues of Civil War-era politicians should get the boot. Will it be Thomas Hart Benton, the 30-year senator and great-uncle of the famous Kansas City artist? Or Francis Preston Blair Jr., credited with keeping Missouri out of the Confederacy during the Civil War?

Both statues have been in place since 1899. The two were close friends.

In 2002, the General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution stipulating that the Truman effigy would replace Blair. Then-Gov. Bob Holden signed the resolution into law, and that led to a 2011 agreement between then-Gov. Jay Nixon and the U.S. Capitol’s official architect. The state’s two senators, Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt, have signaled their support for the move.

But last year, things changed. The five Republican members of Missouri’s U.S. House delegation sent a letter to Gov. Eric Greitens suggesting that he “reconsider the removal of the Francis Blair statue from the United States Capitol.” The members didn’t specify a motivation for saving Blair — other than to note that the process of getting a Truman statue was taking a long time.

“Clearly this effort has lacked enthusiasm,” the members wrote.

Asked this week about why the push to keep Blair, U.S. Rep. Sam Graves admitted to some political motivations. In a statement, he said that there’s “no question” that Truman should have a statute in the Capitol. But Graves noted that Blair was the founder of the Republican Party in Missouri. “I am a strong believer,” Graves added, “that our state representation in the Capitol should remain bipartisan.”

The decision as to which statues represent the state resides with the legislature. In March, the GOP-controlled state Senate began consideration of a resolution to boot Benton. A hearing’s been held, but the chamber has yet to vote.

But there’s a problem. A big one. The history books suggest that Blair held seemingly contradictory beliefs. He was both a slavery opponent and virulent racist. When he accepted the Democratic vice-presidential nomination in 1868, he referred to blacks as “an inferior and semi-barbarous race.” Their party’s motto that year: “This is a White Man’s Country: Let White Men Rule.”

On the campaign trail, one history book suggests, Blair talked about his fear that African-American men would “subject white women to their unbridled lust.” Yale historian David Blight has branded the 1868 campaign “one of the most explicitely racist presidential campaigns in American history” due to Blair’s rhetoric.

Graves and Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler did not respond to questions about Blair’s racist statements.

Benton also was flawed. He was a slave owner who later came to oppose slavery. Given all this, it’s clear to us that Blair must go, and we’ll let lawmakers argue it out about Benton. Truman can’t get into Statuary Hall soon enough.