- Photographer Saul Loeb captured an image of a pro-Trump rioter storming the US Capitol on Wednesday.
- Though the Confederate flag originated during the US Civil War, it never entered the Capitol building during that time.
- Behind the rioter in the photo, two portraits reflect the fractured nation of the country during the 1860s.
- To the man’s right is a portrait of Charles Sumner, an abolitionist. To his left is a portrait of Charles Sumner, a defender of slavery.
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As rioters stormed the US Capitol on Wednesday, photographer Saul Loeb managed to encapsulate the siege’s dark historical context in a single image. His photo shows a Trump supporter waving a Confederate flag in front of two portraits of Civil War figures in the Capitol Rotunda.
To the man’s right is a portrait of Charles Sumner, a former Massachussetts Senator who protested slavery. To his left is a portrait of John C. Calhoun, the seventh vice president of the United States, who was a staunch defender of slavery and the chief architect of succession during the Civil War.
The proximity of the two portraits calls to mind the fractured nature of US civil society in the 1860s – and the recent cleft that has widened in the lead-up and response to the 2020 election.
“What I find fascinating about that juxtaposition is its connections to violence, because of course [Sumner] was a victim of violence in the Capitol when he was attacked for having had made a speech critical of slavery,” Judith Giesberg, a Civil War historian at Villanova University, told Business Insider. “What that image should remind us of is that there’s a history of having violent political confrontations in Congress.”
Congress met on Wednesday for a joint session to oversee the counting of electoral votes. Around the same time, thousands of Trump supporters gathered in downtown Washington, DC to protest the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
Trump urged his supporters to head to the Capitol building, and with Congress in session, rioters stormed the Capitol, forcing the House and Senate to abruptly go into recess. Lawmakers, Hill staffers, and reporters took shelter in their offices before being evacuated. Protesters sat in Vice President Mike Pence’s chair in the Senate chamber, vandalized congressional offices, and looted items like podiums from the building.
Multiple police officers were injured in the violence and evacuated from the Capitol area. A woman was shot in an altercation with law enforcement and later died, MSNBC’s Pete Williams reported. Finally, shortly after 5:30 p.m. local time, the House of Representatives’ Sergeant at Arms announced the Capitol building had been secured.
The photo’s historical significance
The Confederate flag originated during the Civil War as a battle flag for the pro-slavery Confederacy, but historians say its significance as a political symbol emerged in the 20th century as a sign of resistance to racial integration. During the entire Civil War from 1861 to 1865, the Confederate flag never entered the US Capitol building.
“The flag’s significance during the Civil War has been grossly overstated,” Giesberg said. “We have projected our experiences backward.”
For a plurality of Americans today, the Confederate flag has come to represent racism in general, according to a January 2020 YouGov poll. It’s also a common sight at rallies for President Donald Trump, who has defended people’s decisions to fly the flag in public.
Giesberg said there’s a deep irony behind the rioter carrying the Confederate flag in front of Sumner’s portrait.
“It’s striking to see [Sumner] juxtaposed with this person who represents what he most was offended by and what he stood against,” she said.
All the more ironic, she added, is the fact that Calhoun’s portrait hangs to his left.
“Calhoun is perfect in this way, in so many ways, because this is a man who was no stranger to treason,” Giesberg said. “He had done more probably than anybody else in the country to rehearse the events that would lead to succession, starting in November of 1860.”
In July, the House voted to approve legislation to remove statues of Confederate figures, including Calhoun, from the Capitol building.
The decision was in part a continuation of Sumner’s legacy. In 1865, the abolitionist proposed that paintings hanging in the Capitol shouldn’t portray scenes from the Civil War. In particular, he objected to a bust of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, who ruled in 1857 that African-Americans could not be considered citizens.
Sumner “was certainly a vocal and resolute abolitionist,” Giesberg said. “He was uncompromising in his critique of slavery and for that he paid, ultimately, a very heavy price.”