Tubman deserves a place in Statuary Hall

Our view: Replacing the statue of John Hanson in the U.S. Capitol serves not to dishonor him but to recognize the breadth of Maryland's role in history

February 23, 2011

We mean no disrespect to John Hanson, a Colonial-era planter from Charles County whom most Marylanders haven't heard of, much less most Americans. He was a dedicated champion of American liberty from Great Britain and served in a variety of political posts during the Revolution and its aftermath, culminating in a one-year term as the first president of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation. But the idea of replacing him as one of Maryland's two representatives in the U.S. Capitol's Hall of Statuary with Harriet Tubman is a good one.

Hanson shares Maryland's allotment of two statues with Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and arguably the most important figure in the state during the era. No one is considering him for removal from the hall. That means our state's contribution to this depiction of our national heritage is limited to two white men, one significantly more prominent than the other, who represent the same aspect of Maryland's history. Hanson's replacement with Tubman would be justified simply on the grounds of providing a fuller depiction of the state's role in our nation's evolution, without attempting to parse which of them is the greater historical figure (although a case can easily be made that she at least matches and perhaps exceeds him on that score).

Tubman was born about 100 years after Hanson as a slave on a Dorchester County plantation. She endured harsh conditions and cruelty, and as a young woman, facing the risk of being sold away from her family, she escaped, traveling by foot and at night, to freedom in Pennsylvania. During the years prior to the Civil War, she made more than a dozen trips back to the South to lead more than 70 slaves to freedom. She served as a nurse and later a spy during the Civil War, and later in life became an advocate for women's suffrage. Along with Frederick Douglass, she was among Maryland's most prominent figures in the struggle to abolish slavery.

Maryland historically has not done enough to commemorate Tubman, but as the 100th anniversary of her death approaches in 1913, that is starting to change. The state plans to open a visitors center near her birthplace (the precise location of which is unclear), and all four U.S. senators from Maryland and New York, where Tubman eventually settled, are now sponsoring legislation to create national parks in both states to honor her legacy. Installing the first African-American and only the 10th woman in the hall would draw attention to those existing efforts to commemorate Tubman's life — and, not incidentally, further the tourism and economic development goals that were part of the justification for the state's investment.

The Tubman proposal, which is being spearheaded by Del. Susan Lee of Montgomery County and Sen. Catherine Pugh of Baltimore but is supported by many others, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, faces powerful opposition from two state senators who, like Hanson, hail from Southern Maryland: Thomas F. "Mac" Middleton, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. The idea, Mr. Miller says, is "completely unacceptable." They and others see the matter as dishonoring Hanson, not honoring Tubman.

Some Hanson backers say they'd like to see Maryland push for Congress to allow the state a third statue. There would be some symmetry to that, since one state has three, Virginia, which has statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee (though the third is not considered part of the official collection). Allowing Maryland a third statue for Tubman would give the two states each two of the nation's founding fathers and a third statue from opposite sides of the Civil War. But it's also extremely unlikely, given that other states have been taking advantage of the opportunity to replace older, lesser-known historical figures with more recent and prominent ones. Kansas, for example, swapped in Dwight Eisenhower for a 19th century governor, and California put Ronald Reagan in as a replacement for a Civil War-era preacher.

That is how it should be. Each state's contribution to the nation's history is not fixed at a particular time, and there is no reason, once a statue is erected in the Capitol, that it should never be replaced. Maryland is too diverse a state, with too important a role throughout the nation's history, to have its contribution to Statuary Hall forever frozen in the person of two men of similar circumstances who lived at the same time and contributed to the same cause. Hanson was worthy of recognition, but so is Tubman, and so, someday, might be others — Thurgood Marshall, for example, would be an excellent representative of Maryland's role in the 20th century.

Hanson has had a good run. He has been in the hall for 108 years. It's time for someone else to get a turn.

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