New Orleans’ decision to remove their Confederate monuments has put other American cities on notice that it’s time to either take down their own Confederate monuments or, by default, to defend what they stand for. That puts the District in a tough spot. Not only do we have a Confederate monument, it memorializes one of the very worst of a very bad bunch.
The Brigadier General Albert Pike stands at 3rd and D Streets NW, near Judiciary Square. Pike was a Massachusetts native who spent the years before the Civil War out West, fighting in the Mexican-American War and working as a self-taught frontier lawyer. To give you an idea of the kind of guy he was, he switched political parties, from Whig to Know-Nothing, when the Whigs hesitated to support slavery. When the Civil War broke out, this Massachusetts native joined the Confederacy. This was Pike’s first – but not last – act of treason. (Pike was one of few men in history to be accused of treason by two different governments, and escape with his head.)
Due to his experiences in the West, Pike was appointed Confederate envoy to Native Americans. In return for supporting the South in the Civil War, Pike negotiated many generous treaties with various tribes, all of which were promptly broken as soon as the war was over. Pike didn’t see much action in the war – he was technically a brigadier general, but the commission was meaningless – and when he did, his regiment of Native Americans ignored his orders and scalped Union prisoners. When it was clear the South was going to lose the war, Pike deserted. (Act of treason #2.)
After the war, President Andrew Johnson pardoned Pike, and in 1870 Pike settled in DC. In the years between the end of the war and his relocation to DC, Pike lived in Memphis, Tennessee, where he worked as a newspaper editor (in editorials, he vehemently opposed black suffrage) and co-founded the Ku Klux Klan (!!!). Though many Pike defenders claim there’s no conclusive evidence linking Pike to the KKK, the scholarly record is unambiguous. Most damning is the 1905 work of historian Walter Fleming, “Ku Klux Klan: Its Origin, Growth, and Disbandment.” Fleming interviewed founding members of the Klan for his book, and contemporary scholars consider it one of the most authoritative works about the Reconstruction Era. Fleming was also a committed racist, so his book wasn’t meant as an attack, but as a historical record. Citing original KKK documents, he identifies Pike as the “Chief Judicial Officer” of the original chapter of the KKK. Pike was also a Freemason, and Fleming alleges that Pike helped formulate the KKK’s bizarre initiation rituals and hierarchy, which seem clearly inspired by the rites of Freemasonry.
It’s this last membership – Freemasonry – that got Pike his statue. The Freemasons paid for Pike’s statue, and his library and death mask are held in the Freemason temple on 16th Street. The statue’s engraving conveniently omits any mention of his Confederate or Klan past, describing Pike only as “AUTHOR, POET, SCHOLAR, SOLDIER, JURIST, ORATOR, PHILANTHROPIST, AND PHILOSOPHER.” Nor does the 1898 act of Congress authorizing the statue mention his questionable history. Some have theorized that Congress received false or incomplete information about Pike, which could be one path to having the statue taken down.
There have been appeals to have the statue removed before. In 1992, a DC Councilman named William Lightfoot introduced a resolution to have the statue demolished. Protesters dressed the statue in the white hood and robes of the KKK, and even the Post chimed in on the anti-statue side. The statue’s defenders could only offer tepid defenses: in one public hearing, a lawyer against removal said that yes, “Pike was racist, and didn’t believe blacks should have the right to vote” – but still deserved a statue. Another defender, historian Shelby Foote, didn’t dispute Pike’s KKK past, but claimed it was “irrelevant.” If we had that debate today, we all know it would turn out differently. So why don’t we?