Legislators choose sides in Capitol statue debate

Bill would kick Hanson statue out for Tubman

Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011

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A proposal to replace a statue of Maryland revolutionary John Hanson in the U.S. Capitol with one of abolitionist Harriet Tubman has been met with swift resistance by members of the Maryland General Assembly, including several from Southern Maryland.

Every state has two statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection — Maryland currently features Hanson and Charles Carroll, an 18th-century statesman from Annapolis and a delegate to the Continental Congress. Both were submitted in 1903.

The bill would remove Hanson's statue and substitute one of Tubman, who was born into slavery in Dorchester County in 1822 but escaped in 1849 and went on to become a Union spy during the Civil War and a leader in the civil rights and women's suffrage movements in the 19th century. She is perhaps best known for making several trips to the South and rescuing dozens of slaves via the Underground Railroad.

The bill is sponsored by Del. Susan Lee (D-Montgomery) and Sen. Catherine Pugh (D-Baltimore), chairwomen of the women's and black caucuses, respectively, and has several supporters in both chambers.

Sen. Thomas "Mac" Middleton, a direct descendant of Hanson's brother, Alfred, said that Tubman deserves to be honored.

"She was one of the leaders in civil rights and Maryland should recognize her," Middleton (D-Charles) said. "But to substitute her statue for the John Hanson statue, I don't know if there's a clear understanding or recognition by the sponsors and co-sponsors of the bill of just how important a figure John Hanson was."

A Charles County planter born in 1715, Hanson became a leading revolutionary and was the first person elected president of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation, leading some to refer to him as the nation's first president.

"That's very, very significant," Middleton said. "It would be like taking down a statue of George Washington and saying we want to replace it with someone else."

The bill's text refers to Hanson's presidency as a "largely ceremonial role" and states that Annapolis would be a better place for his statue.

"What better place than the first president of the United States to be than the Capitol of the United States? It's inconceivable to me that they would put that statue somewhere else," Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller said. "He was a great Southern Marylander, a great Marylander and a great hero to the nation."

Miller (D-Calvert, Prince George's) also called Tubman a "hero to the nation" and said that a special category should be established in Statuary Hall for women and blacks who were not considered when states first were invited to contribute statues in 1864.

"But you don't erase history. You don't take down something and replace it with something else," Miller said.

Miller pointed to his successful push to get a statue of civil rights leader and former Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall built on the opposite side of the statehouse from one of Roger Taney, the fifth chief justice of the United States best known for authoring the majority opinion in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case of 1857, which ruled that blacks could not be considered citizens under the Constitution.

Marshall and Taney were born in Baltimore and Calvert County, respectively.

"We don't take down any statues — we add things, and if the appropriate personnel in the Capitol want to put up a statue of Harriet Tubman then the state of Maryland will contribute to that statue, but not in taking down one of our distinguished sons," Miller said.

John Hanson Briscoe, a direct descendant of John Hanson who served in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1962 to 1979 and his last six years as the chamber's speaker, agreed with Miller that Tubman deserves a statue but not at Hanson's expense.

Briscoe said he is not sure if he will head to Annapolis to testify against the bill — as an active retired St. Mary's County Circuit Court judge who still is recalled from time to time, he is supposed to abstain from partisan politics.

Briscoe served on the St. Mary's bench from 1986 to 2002.

"Under no circumstances would it be appropriate, and I would like to think the legislature wouldn't approve such a bill after all these years, like John Hanson did something wrong and doesn't belong there," Briscoe said.

Briscoe, of Hollywood, admitted that as a direct descendant he is biased, but he believes that the bill's authors were "very dismissive" of Hanson and his historical significance.

"I just can't understand why they're taking this tack," Briscoe said.