Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Ohio contemplates new sculpture for Capitol collection


Thomas Edison(1847-1931): The inventor of the light bulb, phonograph, and other innovations taken for granted today also has ties to Michigan and New Jersey. He eventually bought his boyhood home in Milan, Ohio, to preserve it. It is now the site of the Edison Birthplace Museum.


COLUMBUS - Ohio Gov. William Allen fought the policies of President Abraham Lincoln, opposed the Civil War, and tolerated the institution of slavery.

For his time in the mid to late 19th century, his views reflected those of many Ohioans, and he was a popular Democrat.

Some 150 years later? Not so much.

After more than a century of Allen standing in the National Statuary Hall in Washington as one of two commemorations of Ohio, the state wants to make a change. It is considering potential replacements, among them two from northwest Ohio - genius inventor and Milan native Thomas Edison and Toledo abolitionist James M. Ashley.

"This shows how decisions can reflect the politics of the moment - people who are very famous at one point in history but are not well-known a century later. Allen is a great example of that," said Andrew Cayton, a University of Miami professor who teaches the history of 18th-century North America and the British Empire.

"Every state had two statues," he said. "[President James] Garfield had just been assassinated. He was a Republican, so to balance things, they needed a leading Democrat. Allen was the most famous and best-liked leader of the Democratic Party in Ohio in the second half of the 19th century. Here was someone who was very famous at the moment who just doesn't seem as significant 150 years later."

Allen's views against the war and Lincoln between the time he served in Congress and as Ohio's 31st governor were a reflection of what at least part of Ohio was thinking at the time.

"Allen represented a sizable population of the state," Mr. Cayton said. "Many were southern or of southern descent. There was a lot of sympathy for the Confederacy or against the Union. Many were ambivalent about emigration of African-Americans north. At the time, a lot of people hated Abraham Lincoln. He was seen as a wide-eyed radical for ending slavery."

But today, when many - Mr. Cayton among them - argue that Lincoln was the nation's greatest president, Allen has fallen out of favor or, at best, into obscurity. Even his Ohio home of Chillicothe, where an elementary school is named in his honor, hasn't rallied to his defense at the Statehouse.

A bipartisan House-Senate committee, led by Sen. Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills), has been holding hearings across the state, gaining insight into such Ohio notables as Edison, the inventor of the light bulb and phonograph; Dummy Hoy, the Cincinnati Reds player who would become the most famous deaf professional baseball player; Presidents William McKinley, William Howard Taft, and Ulysses S. Grant; Ashley, the Toledo congressman who championed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery; Tecumseh, the Shawnee leader who fought a young United States during the War of 1812; Olympic athlete and Ohio State University track star Jesse Owens, and suffragette Harriet Taylor Upton.

"It should be somebody who embodies what we think is good in Ohio," Mr. Wagoner said. "We have a great tradition in innovators, great leaders in civil rights, politics, and the military. People who walk by that statue should know that that person is associated with the positive qualities of Ohio."

Since a 2000 law opened the door, several states have updated their representations in Statuary Hall, which is in the U.S. Capitol. California this year replaced the image of Thomas Starr King, a minister who helped to sway the state to the Union side in the Civil War, with one of President Ronald Reagan.

Michigan has begun the process of replacing Zachariah Chandler, a late 19th century U.S. senator and a secretary of the Interior, with President Gerald Ford.

Such is the distaste these days for the stances of Allen that the Ohio House and Senate voted to establish the National Statuary Collection Study Committee to recommend a replacement for him. Ultimately, the General Assembly will have to sign off on the committee's choice.

In addition to Mr. Wagoner, the six-member committee includes two other northwest Ohioans: Sens. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) and Karen Gillmor (R., Tiffin).

Two notables already have been scratched from the list - at least as a duo. The committee hosted a hearing last month to hear a pitch for the Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur, the Dayton natives whose historic but brief flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C., ushered in the era of air travel.

Their groundbreaking aircraft graces the back of Ohio's commemorative quarter, but National Statuary rules require that its statues depict one person. Who could decide which Wright is right for Ohio?

For Don Gfell, owner of the Sights and Sounds of Edison store in Milan, there could be only one choice to replace Allen. His store, which specializes in antique Edison Phonographs, is a couple of blocks from the museum marking the birthplace of Thomas Alva Edison.

"If Edison makes it as one of the 100 people in Statuary

Hall, without reservation I would say that he would be the best-known worldwide," said Mr. Gfell, a museum vice president and trustee. "There's no better time, with regard to global society, to have someone who represents business, industry, and humanity, and who has been named [by Life magazine as] the most important individual in terms of contributions to humanity over the last thousand years.

"If you stand for success, who better to represent you?" he asked.

Mr. Gfell has an image in mind for the sculpture - Edison between age 65 and 70, standing with his favorite invention, the phonograph.

Some 180 miles south of Toledo, a high school class in Washington Court House has championed the cause of James M. Ashley, a Pennsylvania native who became a newspaper editor in Portsmouth, Ohio, and then studied law in Toledo.

Arguably the antithesis of Allen, Ashley traveled with the wife of fellow abolitionist John Brown on the date of Brown's 1859 hanging for treason for leading the raid on a federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, a pivotal moment in history as momentum turned against slavery. Ashley wrote about the event for newspaper readers in The Blade.

Later, as a congressman representing the Toledo area, he sponsored the 13th Amendment of the Constitution abolishing slavery and stood in the way of congressional attempts to legitimize the practice to appease the South.

"Since we are taking a great Ohioan down because of his views toward the African-American community, why not put up someone who legally did the most for them?" Washington High School senior Trevor Patton asked the state committee.

"Yes, Lincoln is known for being the president during the abolishment of slavery, but James M. Ashley is the one who put it on paper, on the floor, and ultimately into the hearts and lives of the families of Africans-Americans from then until forever," he said. "If this doesn't deserve proper recognition, well, then I don't know what does."

Paul LaRue, a Washington High School history teacher, said the largely unknown Ashley came up frequently during a 2006 project on Emancipation Day.

"We make no claim to Ashley," he said. "That's what makes our bid stand out. We're not rooting for a hometown hero. I've taught history 25 years, and I had never heard of this dude. He wasn't somebody we talked about in history classes. I do now.

"His contributions were so significant," he said. "Our argument is that he is the opposite of Allen, a person every Ohioan can be proud of. There are other choices of people who've had 10,000 different recognitions. We make the argument that this is fitting for Ashley because he doesn't have a lot of recognition."

Ashley was the great-grandfather of Thomas "Lud" Ashley, who followed his ancestor's lead by representing Toledo in Congress from 1955 to 1981. But unlike his ancestor, the younger Ashley, now living in Leland, Mich., is a Democrat.

Lud Ashley was unaware of the bid to put his great-grandfather in the National Statuary but said he deserves the honor for unrelenting resolve to see the end of slavery.

"He went down to the White House to see Lincoln, and there was a list of votes that needed to change in order for the 13th Amendment to survive," Mr. Ashley said. "Promises were made for future employment, because anyone who changed their vote on this measure from 'aye' to 'nay' wasn't going to be re-elected.

"Votes were changed," he said. "It sounds like politics as usual, but if you wanted votes to change, there had to be some consideration for the livelihood of the person committing political suicide.

"Then Lincoln was shot, and [James Ashley] went back to the White House," the younger Ashley said. "Promises had been made, and [new President Andrew] Johnson was aware of this. When Ashley spoke to him directly, Johnson said, 'Promises were made, but not by me, and they won't be kept by me.'

"That's what set off a passionate hatred for President Johnson," Mr. Ashley said.

Statuary rules require Ohio to pick up the tab for creating the statue, its pedestal, and inscription, and any Washington ceremony marking the occasion. The federal government would relinquish ownership of Allen's statue to Ohio.

Mr. Wagoner said options include bringing Allen back to the Statehouse or to Chillicothe. The committee has established a nonprofit organization to raise private funds to cover the costs. Mr. Wagoner vowed no taxpayer funds would be expended.

Ohio's statues of Allen and Garfield were sculpted by Cincinnati native Charles Henry Niehaus, who is also known for McKinley's Tomb in Canton. Having sculpted statues for Kentucky, Michigan, Indiana, and Kansas, Mr. Niehaus, at eight, has more sculptures in the National Statuary collection than any other sculptor.

Contact Jim Provance at:


or 614-221-0496.

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