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|Posted: Wed Jan 3rd, 2007 07:14 am||
Rev. Thomas Starr King
When Thomas Starr King first walked to the pulpit of the San Francisco Unitarian Church in 1860, the eyes of the congregation turned to this small, frail man. Many asked, "Could this youthful person with his beardless, boyish face be the celebrated preacher from Boston?"
King laughed. "Though I weigh only 120 pounds," he said, "when I’m mad, I weigh a ton."
That fiery passion would be King’s stock in trade during his years in California, from 1860 to 1864. Abraham Lincoln said he believed the Rev. Thomas Starr King was the person most responsible for keeping California in the Union during the early days of the Civil War.
California was headed into a crisis. At hand was a showdown between the free states of the Union and the slave states. California’s governor and most members of the state legislature were sympathetic to the Confederacy. The only effective voice against slavery, Sen. David C. Broderick, had been killed in a duel the year before.
Southern states soon abandoned the Union. The crucial question on the minds of many Americans was: Would California join them and deliver the state’s immense natural resources into the hands of Confederate President Jefferson Davis? Support for secession was strong in southern California, where the Confederate flag had flown over Los Angeles’s main plaza on the Fourth of July.
At that time the U.S. Congress was so convinced of a secessionist plot that it required Easterners to secure passports for travel to California. Justifying Congress’ fears was a secret paramilitary California secessionist organization of about 16,000 members, called the Knights of the Golden Circle.
On George Washington’s birthday in 1861, King fired an opening salvo in support of his country. He spoke for two hours to over a thousand people about how they should remember Washington by preserving the Union.
"I pitched into Secession, Concession and (John C.) Calhoun (former U.S. vice president), right and left, and made the Southerners applaud," King recalled. "I pledged California to a Northern Republic and to a flag that should have no treacherous threads of cotton in its warp, and the audience came down in thunder. At the close it was announced that I would repeat it the next night, and they gave me three rounds of cheers."
Speaking up and down the state, King visited rugged mining camps and said he never knew the exhilaration of public oratory until he faced a front row of men armed with Bowie knives and revolvers. His friend, Edward Everett Hale, who made a similar contribution to saving the Union through his moving story, "The Man Without a Country," said, "Starr King was an orator no one could silence and no one could answer."
King covered his pulpit with an American flag and ended all his sermons with "God bless the president of the United States and all who serve with him the cause of a common country." At one mass rally in San Francisco, 40,000 turned out to hear him speak. A group of Americans living in Victoria, B.C., sent him $1,000 for his work to preserve the Union. King was beginning to turn the tide.
In 1861, he threw himself into the gubernatorial campaign of his parishioner, Leland Stanford. King and author Bret Harte often accompanied Stanford on speaking tours. Stanford won an overwhelming victory and King sighed with relief.
Starr King immediately pitched in to help. Out of $4.8 million the commission raised throughout the U.S., King raised $1.25 million in California. About $200,000 came from San Francisco, a figure all the more impressive because of a series of natural disasters in the state, including a massive flood that turned the Sacramento-San Joaquín Valley into a vast lake and a drought that wiped out the wheat crop.
But King’s Herculean efforts had taken a toll. Only devotion to what he considered God’s will and "being mad" kept him going. On Feb. 28, 1864, he came down with diphtheria, then pneumonia. A few days later his doctor told him he had only a half-hour to live. King glanced at a calendar.
"Today is the fourth of March," he said. "Sad news will go over the wire today."
Across San Francisco, flags dropped to half-mast. The state legislature in Sacramento adjourned for three days of mourning after passing a resolution stating that King had been a "tower of strength to the cause of his country."
As King lay in state, wrapped in an American flag, a military honor guard stood by his casket. Twenty thousand people came to his church to pay tribute. Cannons boomed a memorial tribute and Bret Harte composed a eulogy, "Relieving Guard."
King’s body was buried in the front lawn of his newly completed church, where it remains today.
In 1913, the state legislature voted Thomas Starr King and Father Junipero Serra, the Catholic missionary, as California’s two greatest heroes and appropriated funds for King’s statue at the U.S. Capitol. In the 1960s, the state designated King’s church and tomb as a historical monument.
Adapted from an article written by William H. Wingfield for Real West Magazine, August 1972.
This week end the state legislature here in California decided Starr King was not important any more and has voted to replace his statue with that of Ronald Reagan . I really think they thought nobody would care. I care as do several of my Civil War community friends here in L.A. Orange County area. Ronald Reagan has other monuments . They should have left this one alone . I hate to think one day Father Serra might be replaced with Arnold.