Harriet Tubman vs. John Hanson: Statuary Hall smackdown

Harriet Tubman has history on her side. But does she have the votes?

The famous abolitionist is locked in a historical steel-cage match with the increasingly forgotten patriot John Hanson — one that’s playing out not far from John Hanson Highway in Annapolis, where Maryland lawmakers, historians and activists have been debating whether to refresh the state’s history by dumping Hanson in favor of Tubman.

  • ( Sarah L. Voisin / THE WASHINGTON POST ) - John Hanson was a member of the Continental Congress and in 1781 was elected to be “President of the United States in Congress Assembled.”
  • ( Sarah L. Voisin / THE WASHINGTON POST ) - The bronze statue of patriot John Hanson, right, has been part of the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection for more than a century.

( Sarah L. Voisin / THE WASHINGTON POST ) - John Hanson was a member of the Continental Congress and in 1781 was elected to be “President of the United States in Congress Assembled.”

At stake: one of 100 marble pedestals in the exclusive if not always accessible National Statuary Hall Collection at the U.S. Capitol.

For the past 108 years, Hanson, a leading advocate of American independence, has been honored at the Capitol with a larger-than-life statue that the public almost never sees. Wearing a tricorn hat, waistcoat, breeches and other colonial-era clothes, the old Southern Marylander’s 7-foot, 3-inch bronze likeness peers down at lawmakers and legislative aides rushing through a restricted-access corridor outside the Senate chamber.

Hanson was a member of the Continental Congress and in 1781 was elected as “President of the United States in Congress Assembled.” But as time marches on, he slips deeper into the margins of history, his legacy imperiled even in his home state.

“I don’t even know who he is,” Leslie Rowland admitted from College Park, where she teaches mid-19th-century American history at the University of Maryland.

Now Hanson could be in jeopardy of fading even further into obscurity, with Maryland lawmakers considering a proposal to replace the former slave owner with a hero of the Underground Railroad.

Tubman, who was born into slavery in Dorchester County, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, would be the first African American and the 10th woman in the 100-member marble-and-bronze club that Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has called a “diversity embarrassment.”

“The collection reflects basically a white male view of history,” said Linda Mahoney, president of the Maryland chapter of the National Organization for Women, which has lobbied for the Tubman statue. “It’s time to update Maryland’s representatives in National Statuary Hall and take a different look at history. . . . Harriet Tubman is the ultimate icon, especially for women and African Americans. She’s an obvious selection.”

The bill, which was sponsored in the House by the chair of the women’s caucus and in the Senate by the chair of the black caucus, could face its first test in a Senate committee vote Tuesday.

Tubman has some prominent backers, including Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). But several lawmakers, including one of Hanson’s own descendants and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert), have argued vigorously against ousting the largely forgotten patriot, even if it’s to make way for a widely admired name-brand historical figure such as Tubman.

Racial and gender divide

The debate is fraught with potential land mines on race and gender. The key players for the most part have spoken cautiously about the bill, which has considerable support among women and African Americans, Mahoney said.

Will it be enough? Maybe not.

“There’s a certain part of the legislature that’s less forward-looking and progressive — good old boys who’ve been in power for so long,” Mahoney said.

Upon hearing of the comment, Miller was furious. “To talk about ‘good old boys’ is just nonsense,” he said. “This is not Mississippi. This is Maryland.”

“Unfortunately, it seems like a line is being drawn in the sand, and I don’t like that,” said Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton, a direct descendant of Hanson’s brother and a Democrat from Charles County, where John Hanson was born nearly 300 years ago, in what was then the British Province of Maryland.

The proposal is something like a historical Sophie’s Choice to Middleton. “This is really causing me a lot of heartburn,” he said. “In no way do I want to diminish Harriet Tubman. I’m very supportive of efforts to memorialize her.”

“But removing the statue of John Hanson takes away from the significance of who he was. He’s a very important part of our history — the first president of what became the United States.”

Most historians say that Hanson’s role as President of the United States in Congress Assembled was more akin to House Speaker than POTUS. Still, Middleton likens the proposal to removing George Washington from the collection.

Maryland legislators sent Hanson’s likeness to the Capitol in 1903, along with a statue of Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Virginia sent Washington and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The District is still lobbying for inclusion somewhere in the Capitol’s lineup of statues, which includes some, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s in the Rotunda, that aren’t part of the Statuary Hall collection.

The collection began in 1864 through an act of Congress, which invited the states “to provide and furnish statues, in marble or bronze, not exceeding two in number for each state, of deceased persons who have been citizens thereof, and illustrious for their historic renown or for distinguished civic or military service.”

In 2000, Congress empowered the states to swap out their earlier selections and reshape the statuary view of American history. Kansas replaced George Washington Glick (who?) with Dwight D. Eisenhower in 2003. In 2009, Alabama sent Helen Keller in place of Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry (who?) while California sent Ronald Reagan to replace Thomas Starr King (who?), whose descendants and supporters were aggrieved.

Moving history’s spotlight is a touchy process; somebody always feels slighted.

Settling on Hanson

Miller, who presides over the state Senate while standing next to a smaller version of the same Hanson statue that sits at the U.S. Capitol, acknowledged the need to memorialize Tubman in Washington. “She is a hero who belongs to the whole United States, not just the state of Maryland,” he said.

But the proposal to get Tubman into Statuary Hall at Hanson’s expense is “unacceptable,” he said. “John Hanson was a great patriot and an important part of Maryland’s history and of America’s history. He needs to be honored, not removed.”

When Miller’s predecessors in the statehouse took up the business of considering Maryland’s candidates for Statuary Hall more than a century ago, Hanson wasn’t even on the short list, according to an 1897 story in the Baltimore Sun. The nine in contention were: Charles Carroll; Roger B. Taney; Francis Scott Key; Thomas Johnson; John Eager Howard; Cecilus Calvert; General William Pinkney; William Smallwood; and Stephen Decatur.

Lawmakers settled on the selection of Carroll, who lived longer than any other signer of the Declaration of Independence. They they began to whittle the candidates for the second slot, focusing primarily on Johnson, the state’s first governor and a former Supreme Court justice, and Howard, a former governor and U.S. senator.

But Hanson’s dark-horse candidacy, promoted by the Maryland Historical Society, began to take shape, and eventually he won out — though he was nearly replaced in a committee vote by Key, who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“He was not exactly an overwhelming choice in the first place,” said Kenneth Cohen, a St. Mary’s College assistant history professor. Hanson was an important historical figure and worthy of inclusion in the collection, Cohen said — but the homogeneous composition of Maryland’s statuary delegation could stand to change.

“I don’t want to use the word redundant, but we have two Revolutionary political leaders representing Maryland, and you wonder if there were great Marylanders who did anything apart from the Revolution,” Cohen said. “Certainly there were. That should bear on their decision, which will be significant because it reflects how the representatives — and through them, the people of Maryland — remember their past. It matters because it reflects our public memory.”

Researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

 
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