Thomas Starr King deserves better

Jack Cheevers is an Oakland writer finishing "Act of War," a book about North Korea's capture of the U.S. Navy spy ship Pueblo in 1968.

It’s never pleasant watching politicians try to manipulate history. Whether it’s an ex-president blocking release of incriminating White House tapes, the Russian government closing a KGB archive to foreign researchers or Japanese officials forcing a school textbook author to excise references to World War II-era atrocities, the public’s ability to learn the truth about historic events is hobbled.

The imminent removal from the U.S. Capitol of a statue of Thomas Starr King, a charismatic San Francisco minister and orator credited with helping keep California in the Union during the run-up to the Civil War, hardly qualifies as a major crime against history. Yet the successful effort by California Republicans to replace him in the National Statuary Hall Collection with a larger-than-life sculpture of Ronald Reagan is troubling nonetheless.

King has adorned the statuary collection, a sort of national hall of fame, since 1931. In a June 3 ceremony, a 7-foot-tall figure of Reagan will replace King’s bust, which will be shipped to Sacramento for display in the state Capitol.


Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona), who says the Gipper inspired him as a boy, orchestrated the move to bump King. No doubt the congressman and other Republican stalwarts feel they can honor their hero by strewing the land with as many smiling likenesses of him as possible.

But although Reagan arguably has been sufficiently memorialized (with an airport, a museum, highways, courthouses, post offices, state office buildings and parks named after him, and his own postage stamp), King needs all the exposure he can get.

Fair-haired and small-framed, the Unitarian Universalist minister arrived in San Francisco in April 1860, a year before the Civil War erupted and as the state was embroiled in the slavery issue.

Californians had banned slavery in their 1849 Constitution, partly from moral revulsion but mostly because gold miners didn’t want to compete with slave labor. But many transplanted Southerners viewed California as ideal for slaves and hoped to split off Southern California and turn it into a slave state. Meanwhile, wealthy Southern California landowners, angry at state taxes, wanted to break away and form their own separate republic.

Such tensions boiled over in 1859, when David S. Terry, the pro-slavery former chief justice of the California Supreme Court, shot and killed U.S. Sen. David Broderick, a noted slavery opponent, in a duel near San Francisco’s Lake Merced. That same year, the Legislature passed a bill to cut California in two. Advocates of slavery supported the division, thinking it would ease the introduction of slaves into the lower part of the state. (Unnerved by John Brown’s bold raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry and other signs that the national slavery debate was spinning out of control, Congress rejected the idea of splitting California.)

During the presidential election of 1860, all four members of California’s congressional delegation -- including U.S. Sen. William Gwin, who owned several Mississippi plantations -- campaigned for the pro-slavery Democrat, John C. Breckinridge. Indeed, Abraham Lincoln won California by a hair, beating another Democrat, Stephen A. Douglas, by fewer than 750 votes out of about 120,000 cast.

King was deeply agitated by talk of California being bisected or seceding. He embarked on a statewide speaking tour, preaching against disunion with a voice that, in the words of one observer, “held within it all the sweetness of the harp when struck by a master hand, all the power and solemn grandeur of a great cathedral organ.”

The 140-pound minister wasn’t always well received, encountering some hostile crowds and death threats.

After the Confederate attack on Ft. Sumter in South Carolina in 1861, pro-Union sentiment swept California. The Legislature pledged loyalty to Washington, and tens of millions of dollars in gold were shipped east, playing a crucial role in equipping and feeding the federal army.

King was hailed as “the orator who saved the nation.”

With the war underway, he again hit the hustings, raising money for the United States Sanitary Commission, which supplied nurses and medicine to wounded soldiers. He collected $1.5 million, about one-fifth of the money gathered nationwide. Exhausted from his relentless travails, he returned to San Francisco and, in 1864, succumbed to diphtheria and pneumonia at age 39.

Ronald Reagan is a giant of American history, and his memory needs no further burnishing.

Thomas Starr King is a colossus of California history, and he deserves better than to be tossed out the back door like yesterday’s hash.