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Forgetting History, California Style

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In a few weeks, Thomas Starr King is slated for what Leon Trotsky called the dustbin of history. His statute -- which has stood in the U.S. Capitol since 1931 as one of two allotted to represent California -- will be moved out and replaced with a seven-foot-high likeness of Ronald Reagan. That's a shame.

The sponsor of the 2006 legislation that directed the switch, Republican State Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time: "To be honest with you, I wasn't sure who Thomas Starr King was, and I think a lot of Californians are like me." That, also, is a shame.

A Unitarian preacher who emerged from the intellectual ferment of New England in the middle of the 19th century, Starr King took the pulpit of a San Francisco Unitarian church in 1860. Only 36 years old, short and slight, the transplanted New Englander proved to be a powerful orator and quickly became a statewide force.

In 1861, with Californians deciding whether to remain in the Union during the Civil War, Starr King leapt into the race for governor of one of his parishioners, future railroad magnate and university founder Leland Stanford. Stumping the state, the preacher was an important part of Stanford's victory and the state's decision to remain in the Union.

During the war, Starr King labored tirelessly to raise money for the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which cared for wounded soldiers throughout the war. The Golden State contributed one-fifth the the commission's budget during the war. At only the age of 40, Starr King succumbed in 1864 to diphtheria and pneumonia.

Californians have every right to be proud of President Reagan (though he was a native of Illinois, not the Golden State). Paying public tribute to citizens with high achievements is an important part of our communal life. I am still tickled to fly out of Thurgood Marshall Airport in Baltimore.

But the removal of Rev. Starr King in favor of Reagan is entirely unnecessary. We have a bounty of Reagan monuments around the country, and in Washington, DC, including:

  • Reagan Washington National Airport, gateway to the Nation's Capital
  • The massive Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center on Pennsylvania Avenue
  • The largest Reagan statue ever raised, which stands 15-feet high in Covington, Louisiana
  • Statutes at Reagan's presidential library in California, and also in public spaces Warsaw, Poland and Budapest, Hungary

Indeed, if a Reagan statue is to your taste, you can buy one for your home.

Throwing the Unitarian minister over the side in favor of Reagan marks an act of national forgetting, not remembering. Unitarians are accustomed to being overlooked in the nation's history. Few Americans know that four of our presidents were Unitarian (both Adamses, Fillmore, and Taft), while several others (Jefferson, Lincoln) professed views that closely resembled those of Unitarians.

We need to remember all of our history, not just a handful of presidential personalities, particularly in the Capitol Building itself.

For now, California is not removing its other statue in the Capitol, which portrays Junipero Serra, the Spanish friar who founded missions in California in the 1700s. Devotees of Serra should not rest too easy. Californians may soon want to replace him with someone more relevant, better known today, like Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger or Steve Jobs of Apple. It would be easier than remembering who Father Serra was.