CAN you name the two historical figures Washington state selected to stand in the Statuary Hall collection of the U.S. Capitol?
I couldn’t, until a tour last Friday. I suspect I’m in a comfortable majority. Washington, D.C., is far out-of-range and mostly out-of-mind.
But the statues that states send make a statement.
Virginia sent a George Washington statue, so long as Confederate general Robert E. Lee was also approved. Earlier this year, Iowa swapped former Interior Secretary James Harlan, who fired author Walt Whitman from federal employment for writing the “morally offensive” “Leaves of Grass” for a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Alabama, in 2009, exchanged a Confederate army officer for Helen Keller. Good trade.
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Since 1953, Washington has stuck with Marcus Whitman, the missionary doctor from Walla Walla, who died 36 years before the state was established. In 1980, it sent Mother Joseph, a Sister of Providence who helped build Seattle’s first hospital.
Two religious medical heroes from the pioneer era. They stand along a motley but prestigious gang, including Samuel Adams (Massachusetts), Ronald Reagan (California) and King Kamehameha I (Hawaii). Arizona is planning to add Barry Goldwater, to better represent the modern era.
As I looked around Statuary Hall, I wondered, are these the best we’ve got? Do they represent Washington today?
The Legislature could change statues, with approval by the Architect of the Capitol. Honorees must be dead and have been a U.S. citizen. They must be “illustrious for historic renown,” or have military or civic honor.
When I got back, I asked around for suggestions. Sens. Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Warren Magnuson were the political lions of their day. William O. Douglas was the longest-serving U.S. Supreme Court justice, albeit a flawed man. William Boeing would reflect the state’s engineering expertise — although would we have to share him with Illinois, now that his company’s headquarters skittered to Chicago?
University of Washington history professor John Findlay had a provocative suggestion: Billy Frank Jr. The Nisqually Indian fishing activist reshaped the state’s relations with tribes, through determination and charm. He died this year, and is worthy of memorial.
No offense to Whitman or Mother Joseph, but it’s been 34 years since the state changed its contingent in Statuary Hall. It’s time to hit refresh.
— Jonathan Martin
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).