Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"The Apostle of Liberty" and The Gipper

Thomas Starr King

Ronald Reagan
under the rotunda
For most of the 20th century, California was represented in the United States Capitol's National Statuary Hall by the likenesses of Father Junipero Serra, and the Unitarian preacher Thomas Starr King. King, as much as any one figure and much more than most, helped keep California in the Union (the state's popular vote totals were close among the top three candidates in 1860: Lincoln: 38,733, Douglas: 37,999; Breckinridge: 33,969). Thomas Starr King was a dedicated anti-slavery campaigner who helped put Leland Stanford in the governor's office, and who traveled the state giving fiery orations in defense of the Union. According to one source, "King covered his pulpit with an American flag and ended all his sermons with 'God bless the president of the United States and all who serve with him the cause of a common country.'" 

Alas, King's contributions to the state of California, and to the maintenance of the union, are no longer celebrated as they once were (though you can follow the Thomas Starr King Appreciation Society on Facebook, with its 110 members, hike two mountains named for him, and admire his namesake tree at Yosemite). In 2006 the California state legislature voted to recall King's statue from the National Statuary Hall and replace it with one of Ronald Reagan, a former Des Moines radio broadcaster. There was no public discussion about such a monumental change. No debate about whether John Muir, or Joe DiMaggio, or Earl Warren, or Jerry Garcia might have been more appropriate.  

The statue of "the orator who saved the nation" eventually found a new home in the Civil War Memorial Grove of Sacramento's Capitol Park. According to the Capitol Museum, the grove was planted
beginning in 1896 to the east of the capitol with saplings collected from Manassas, Harpers Ferry, Savannah, Five Forks, Yellow Tavern, and Vicksburg, and ultimately 34 other battlefields. The brainchild of GAR ladies from California and Nevada, the grove was intended to honor soldiers from both sides of the conflict, and was the first monument on the capitol grounds. 

Thomas Starr King's tomb, Starr King Way and Franklin, San Francisco
If it were up to me, I would have recalled Serra's statue from Washington (even if he is one miracle away from sainthood), and left King's -- Serra died in 1784, 66 years before California statehood. I was not consulted. Interestingly, the Californians of 1927 who voted to include King as one of the two most notable representatives chose a man who only lived in the state for four years. He arrived in San Francisco on the eve of the war in 1860, and died in March of 1864. 

King Statue, Sacramento

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