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Published: 9/17/2006

California diminishes its shining Starr

It's not quite fair to accuse the California legislature of tinkering with history, but what the lawmakers did earlier this month came awfully close. They wiped one of the giants of the state's past out of history, or at least out of Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.

Since 1931 a statue of Thomas Starr King, a Unitarian and Universalist minister who was an ardent advocate of the Union during the Civil War, has stood in the Capitol, amid a collection that includes such other figures as Henry Clay, Samuel Adams, John C. Calhoun, Ethan Allen, Robert E. Lee, Marcus Whitman, and Robert M. LaFollette.

This month, the legislature in Sacramento voted to remove Starr King from the hall, which includes two figures from each state, and to replace him with Ronald Reagan.

To be sure, Mr. Reagan is an important figure and I am wagering that he and Theodore Roosevelt will be remembered as the only original thinkers among Republican presidents of the 20th century. (Lest you think that reflects partisan bias on my behalf, I think Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt were the only two originals among 20th-century Democratic presidents.)

But there are plenty of reminders of Mr. Reagan in the national capital region, including a horrific, gaudy federal building (which stands in contravention to everything he believed about the optimal size of government) and an airport (which is a risible reminder of his decision to fire the air traffic controllers in 1981).

Mr. Reagan will not be forgotten by history, try as some Democrats may. Starr King is in danger of falling off the edge.

That's not surprising, given how disposable a society we are, throwing so much away, and by this I am referring not only to the way we pack our hamburgers and package our high-tech implements, themselves destined for the bin in a few seasons' time. We also fill the dustbin of history, and the latest litter inside of it is Starr King.

"Is he suddenly chopped liver?" asked Kevin Starr, a University of Southern California professor widely regarded as California's greatest historian, when I told him what the legislature had done. "When you're building up a frontier commonwealth, deeply ethical public and religious figures are extremely important, and from that point of view he enlarged the definition of what it means to be a Californian. He helped transform California from a frontier to a province."

Starr King is worthy of being remembered, even if you have never heard of him. He moved to California in the crowded year of 1860, taking over the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco in an era when there was no counterculture because there was no culture at all. And darn few cultured people, either.

He was small for a giant (he stood barely 5 feet tall and, truth to tell, looked like a wimp), and running a church in the San Francisco of those days was, well, no church picnic. "He represents an infusion of high-minded New England culture into frontier California," says Mr. Starr, the USC historian.

The clergyman dedicated himself to electing Abraham Lincoln and then to preserving the Union, prompting Winfield Scott, the commander of the Union Army, to say that he "saved California to the Union."

All this occurred before the Unitarian and Universalists themselves had their own union, but Starr King was ordained by both churches, a pathfinder in this aspect as well. "The argument can be made," says John D. Hurley, spokesman for the Unitarian Universalist Association, "that the outcome of the Civil War could have been different if the vast resources of California, both the natural resources and the financial resources growing out of the gold fields, had made their way to the Confederacy rather than the Union."

He was present at the creation of the new California - both Leland Stanford, later elected governor, and Bret Harte, a pillar of the pantheon of American letters, were among his parishioners - and of the new environmentalism that gripped California, then and now.

Two mountain peaks are named for him, one in the White Mountains (he wrote a book on the legends, landscapes, and poetry of the White Hills, as they formerly and more accurately were called a century ago), the other in Yosemite (which he thought was the natural world's equivalent of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, a comparison that shows a strikingly supple and inventive mind).

He was, too, an early avatar of voluntarism. Starr King was a leading supporter of the United States Sanitary Commission, a landmark volunteer group of women that once was described as "that great artery, which bears the people's love to the people's army" and that organized food services, ran hospital ships, and is credited with cutting the disease rate of the Union Army by half. So well did Starr King succeed in raising money for the commission that California provided about a quarter of its entire contributions.

Hardly anyone knows his name today, confusing it with Star King, a science fiction figure, and Sky King, an iconic television cowboy with a versatile airplane named the Song Bird, a fetching niece named Penny, a ranch called the Flying Crown, and an unforgettable theme ("Out of the clear blue of the Western sky comes Sky King").

But that is precisely the point. Removing him from Statuary Hall renders Starr King only more obscure, diminishing him rather than celebrating him. Ronald Reagan, who respected history and above all loved a great Western story, might even have agreed.



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