A Free Country for White Men: The Legacy of Frank Blair Jr. and his Statue in St. Louis

A Free Country for White Men: The Legacy of Frank Blair Jr. and his Statue in St. Louis

An 1892 picture of a St. Louis biking club at the Frank Blair statue in Forest Park. Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay suggested in April 2015 that the time had come for a “reappraisal” of a Confederate monument standing in the city’s popular Forest Park, few St. Louisians knew that such a statue even existed in the area.[1] The same could be said for three other Civil War statues at Forest Park dedicated to Unionist figures. Statues of General Franz Sigel, President Lincoln’s Attorney General Edward Bates, and politician and general Frank Blair, Jr. all stand as testaments to St. Louisians who supported and defended the United States during the Civil War. When it comes to historical memory, Blair’s 1888 statue is the most fascinating for what it celebrates and what it ignores about his legacy. His statue demonstrates how public iconography often translates historical fact into flawed memories that hide as much as they expose about the past.

The text of Frank Blair’s statue states that:

This monument is raised to commemorate the Indomitable free-soil leader of the west; the herald and standard bearer of freedom in Missouri; the creator of the first volunteer Union army in the South; the saviour of the state from secession; the patriotic citizen-soldier, who fought from the beginning to the end of the war; the magnanimous statesman, who, as soon as the war was over, breasted the torrent of proscription, to restore to citizenship the disfranchised Southern people, and finally, the incorruptible public servant.[2]

As with many expressions of historical memory, this inscription glorifies the positive aspects of Blair’s legacy and plays up concepts like patriotism and loyalty. It represents what historian John Bodnar calls an “official” expression of memory, one that “relies on . . . the restatement of reality in ideal rather than complex or ambiguous terms. It presents the past on an abstract basis of timelessness and sacredness.”[3]

Growing up in a political family intimately connected with President Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party, Blair first entered the political world in 1852 as a Missouri state legislator and disciple of Thomas Hart Benton, the state’s legendary first Senator. Blair was initially a defender of slavery and a slaveholder himself. Like Benton, however, he was concerned about debates over slavery’s expansion into new western territories and the loose talk of secession, disunion, and civil war that often accompanied those debates. In one speech to his fellow legislators, Blair denounced radical proslavery agitation as the work of disunionists and lamented “unpatriotic appeals to sectional prejudices, feelings [and] interests.”[4]

Blair won a seat to Congress as a Benton Democrat in 1856. He opposed slavery’s westward expansion, but shortly after the election his attitudes towards slavery changed dramatically. Blair publicly identified as an antislavery politician and became a leading advocate of colonization in Missouri. He proposed a scheme by which all remaining public lands in Missouri would be granted to the state and sold for the use of purchasing the state’s slaves and transporting them to Central America. Like his proslavery adversaries, Blair was horrified by the specter of a large free black population within the country. Only emancipation followed by colonization would ensure economic growth in Missouri and the settlement of free white families in the west. In this belief Blair argued that he was reiterating “the sentiments of Washington, of Jefferson, and the best men of olden time.”[5]

U.S. General Frank Blair during the Civil War. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Blair championed the causes of free labor and colonization in speeches throughout the country. “The territories should be reserved for free white men or surrendered to the slaves and their masters,” he often thundered. “Freed blacks hold a place in this country which cannot be maintained. Those who have fled to the North are most unwelcome visitors. The strong repugnance of the free white laborer to be yoked with the negro refugee, breeds an enmity between races, which must end in the expulsion of the latter.”[6] Blair’s newspaper in St. Louis, the Daily Missouri Democrat, similarly stated in 1858 that he “stood before [voters] as the champion of free labor in Missouri—superiority for the white man—and that in so doing he maintained what was Missouri’s greatest interest, that which would inevitably develop all her great resources.”[7] Finding support for his positions within the Republican Party, Blair switched parties in 1860.

Blair worked to keep Missouri in the Union after the first Southern states seceded, became a trusted confidant of President Abraham Lincoln, and served as a general during the war. Although Union victory kept Blair’s beloved country together, the legal status of four million African American freedpeople remained an open question. Alarmed by the Republican Party’s support for black citizenship and voting rights during Reconstruction, and unchanged in his racial prejudices, Blair switched back to the Democrats. He also strongly opposed Missouri’s rewritten 1865 constitution, which greatly restricted the rights of former Confederates and contained an “ironclad oath” requiring teachers, lawyers, clergy, and other professionals to promise that they had not been disloyal during the war. The disenfranchisement of a large number of white Southerners, combined with eventual enfranchisement for black men, was too much for Blair.[8]

When the Democrats selected Blair as Horatio Seymour’s Vice Presidential candidate for the 1868 presidential election, he engaged in demagoguery that made the party’s campaign one of the most racist in American history. In a national speaking tour, Blair warned that voting for Republican candidate Ulysses S. Grant would lead to oppressive rule by “a semi-barbarous race of blacks who are worshipers of fetishes and polygamists.” Equally worrisome to him was the idea of politically empowered black men who would sexually “subject white women to their unbridled lust.”[9] The racism of Blair and the Democrats almost worked. Grant won the popular vote by only 300,000 votes, largely owing his victory to newly enfranchised African Americans who overwhelmingly supported him.

The front cover of a popular song during the 1868 presidential campaign. “The White Man’s Banner: Seymour and Blair’s Campaign Song” by M.F. Bigney and Thomas von la Hache. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Frank Blair’s complex legacy symbolizes the difficulty in providing an accurate representation of a historical person or event through the erection of a public statue or monument. As an expression of “official” memory, the inscription on his Forest Park statue rightly celebrates his opposition to slavery, his efforts to secure Missouri for the Union, and his patriotism. But it conveniently leaves out the fact that he was a “standard bearer of freedom in Missouri” for whites only. And in celebrating his effort “to restore to citizenship the disenfranchised Southern people” during Reconstruction, the inscription ignores Blair’s simultaneous opposition to citizenship rights for black Southerners.

Public iconography can (but does not always) raise awareness of historical people and events that are worth honoring today. And as Frank Blair’s story suggests, many historic figures who engaged in honorable actions are also full of their own contradictions, prejudices, and shortcomings. Removing Frank Blair’s statue is not necessarily the best course of action moving forward, but iconography alone will not enhance a society’s understanding of history or make them care about the past. A revised text inscription could help, but ultimately the effort to educate Americans about figures like Frank Blair must start in the classroom and the museum, not the public square.

[1] Francis G. Slay, “The Confederate Monument in Forest Park: It’s Time for a Reappraisal,” Slay, April 21, 2015, accessed July 7, 2017, https://archive.mayorslay.com/from-fgs/confederate-monument-forest-park. Current Mayor Lyda Krewson followed Slay’s suggestion and expressed her wish that the monument be removed. The city then recently struck a compromise agreement with the Missouri Civil War Museum to relocate the statue to that museum until a suitable location can be found. But with the Confederate monument now removed. See Sarah Fenske, “Confederate Monument Will Go to Civil War Museum,” Riverfront Times, June 26, 2017, accessed July 7, 2017, https://www.riverfronttimes.com/newsblog/2017/06/26/confederate-monument-will-go-to-civil-war-museum-in-legal-settlement.

[2] “The Francis P. Blair, Jr., Statue in Forest Park,” The Civil War Muse, accessed July 6, 2017, http://www.thecivilwarmuse.com/index.php?page=frank-blair-statue.

[3] John Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 13-14.

[4] Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Missouri, at the Extra Session of the Seventeenth General Assembly (Jefferson City: James Lusk, Public Printer, 1852), 519-521; William E. Parrish, Frank Blair: Lincoln’s Conservative (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998), 47-51; Louis Gerteis, Civil War St. Louis (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001), 56-58.

[5] Parrish, Frank Blair, 68; “The Canvas,” Daily Missouri Democrat, July 5, 1858.

[6] Parrish, Frank Blair, 71.

[7] “Public Speaking at Laclede Station,” Daily Missouri Democrat, July 2, 1858.

[8] “Constitution of 1865 – Drake Constitution,” The Civil War in Missouri, accessed July 8, 2017, http://www.civilwarmo.org/educators/resources/info-sheets/constitution-1865-drake-constitution.

[9] Stewart Mitchell, Horatio Seymour of New York (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1938), 23.

Nick Sacco

Nick Sacco is a public historian working for the National Park Service as a Park Guide at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri. He recently had a journal article about the Grand Army of the Republic published in the Indiana Magazine of History entitled "The Grand Army of the Republic, the Indianapolis 500, and the Struggle for Memorial Day in Indiana, 1868-1923" (December 2015). Nick also runs a personal blog about history, "Exploring the Past," at https://pastexplore.wordpress.com/.

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