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December 13-19, 2006

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Stiff Competition

It's a tale of two statues as Ronald Reagan battles Starr King for a pedestal in posterity

By David Templeton


Call it the battle of the bronzed.

Ninety-nine bronze and marble statues that currently call Washington, D.C., home may gain a new neighbor soon and, metaphorically speaking, say goodbye to a long-standing member of the club. The statue of minister-orator Thomas Starr King is about to be booted from the National Statuary Hall to make room for a brand-new effigy of--wait for it--former president Ronald Reagan. The change will be made some time in 2007, unless a growing movement to demand a public discussion of the issue grants the Rev. King a reprieve.

While there are those who will take a "who cares?" approach to the matter, a growing number of historians are encouraging the public to ponder the fragile significance of those historical figures we choose to represent our state. For some, the stampede to honor Reagan in any and every way possible (he already has an airport, some highways and a great big ship named after him) is taking place at the expense of all Californians, who should be allowed to have some say in the matter.

"A lot of people are upset because we feel that history is being trivialized with this statue decision having been made so casually, without any kind of public input," says Senator Debra Bowen, D-Marina del Rey, who was just elected to the post of secretary of state. Bowen has asked Gov. Schwarzenegger to request that further action be halted until some sort of public conversation can take place.

"Starr King has been representing California since 1931," says Bowen. "He was almost single-handedly responsible for keeping California from seceding during the Civil War. California--and arguably the rest of the country, too--would be a very different place if we had seceded from the Union. He also raised unprecedented amounts of money for wounded soldiers, and his writings about Yosemite had a lot do with it eventually becoming a National Park. Why shouldn't there be more discussion before this man is shown the door? It should be our choice as citizens, which historical figure best represents us."

As Bowen points out, there was barely any discussion in the state Legislature when that initial door-showing decision was made.

The motion was brought up in the waning seconds of the Legislature's summer session, late in the evening of Aug. 31. With no warning and nothing in paper filed in advance, the measure was presented by state Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, R-Murrieta, who proposed that the statue of King be removed from the Statuary Hall and replaced with one of Reagan. Only a few senators in attendance had any idea who Thomas Starr King was, though some of the legislators were familiar with the National Statuary Hall--some had even been there.

But almost no one knew the details: that the gallery was established in 1864 to honor important historical figures from every state in the Union; that it contains two sculptures from each state, for a current total of 100 statues; that, ever since 1931, California's two rigid representatives have been the Rev. Thomas Starr King and Father Junipero Serra; that recent changes now allow any state to request that one or both of its statues be altered or replaced.

With no time to think about it and no information beyond the fact that they'd heard of Reagan and didn't know much about the other guy, the state Senate discussed it for less than 30 minutes before voting to approve the measure, with the only "no" vote cast by Sen. Bowen.

"The process was the antithesis of democracy," Bowen says, "and it is disrespectful to not let us have a discussion about it. [Sen. Hollingsworth's move] is not a procedural mechanism usually used to make these kinds of discussions."

A close look at the current residents of the Statuary Hall shows a motley mish-mash of the famous and the forgotten; the figures each state chooses say a lot about that state and how it wants to be viewed. For example, the state of Utah has, as its unmoving representatives, Mormon founder Brigham Young (no surprise there) and the inventor of the television, Philo T. Farnsworth (whose statue was created by James R. Avati, the son of the famous late illustrator James Avati, who lived in Petaluma for the last part of his life). Many of the others are fairly obscure. Quick! Anyone know anything about Maine's Hannibal Hamlin?

Though Bowen was the only dissenting vote, she is far from alone in her desire to put the brakes on the statue swap, and to call attention to the forgotten man who seems to be losing the instant recognition seal-of-approval.

"This decision is a travesty. The story of Starr King is a glorious story, and it's such a pity that his reputation has faded so much," says historian Glenna Matthews of UC Berkeley. Matthews is writing a biography of Starr King, and was, in her words, "floored" when she heard of the state's decision to bounce King from his place of honor. "This decision should never have been made so casually," she says. "By rushing this through without the proper period of time to look at it, history is being trivialized."

At a recent meeting of the Western History Association, she collected supporters for a letter to the governor asking for more time to consider the decision, and hopefully to allow the public to weigh in. "Even if we can't talk the governor into not pursuing this legislation, we're hoping to make enough of a stink to raise some public consciousness, because this man was a very, very important figure in the history of our state."

Thomas Starr King, for the record, was born Dec. 17, 1824, in New York City. A self-educated theologian and the son of a respected minister, King entered the ministry at the age of 20, taking over his father's post at the First Unitarian Church of Charlestown, Mass. By the 1850s, King had become one of the most celebrated and well-known preachers in New England.

In 1860, on the eve of the American Civil War, he took over the helm of the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco, and though a newcomer to California--which, while deeply divided, seemed certain to join with the South in seceding from the United States--he began speaking enthusiastically and persuasively in support of Abraham Lincoln and the Union. He organized the Pacific Branch of the Sanitary Commission, a precursor to the Red Cross, and raised over $1.5 million for the cause.

King's speeches before the African-American community of California, in which he hoped for a future world in which Americans of different races would live in harmonious co-existence, makes him one of the country's earliest proponents of racial equality and multiculturalism. He died of diphtheria in San Francisco on March 4, 1864, a casualty of the relentless cross-country lecturing he'd pursued in support of Lincoln, who dubbed King "the orator who saved the nation."

"In short," sums up Matthews, "the things that Starr King cared most about--the environment, freedom of speech, the democratic process, positive racial diversity--are all things that Californians have time and time again made clear that they support. He's the perfect representative of this state."

That's a matter of opinion, surely, and what Matthews, the scholars, and Bowen all want is for the people of California to be able to share their opinions before a final decision is made.

"I don't object to making a change in the gallery," Sen. Bowen insists. "What I object is doing it in a way that doesn't allow Californians a voice in the discussion. We all deserve a voice, and we all deserve a chance to be heard, because we are all a part of this thing called democracy. That's the very hallmark of what Thomas Starr King stood for."


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