“Though I weigh only 120 pounds, when I’m mad, I weigh a ton,” Thomas Starr King said. Bancroft Library/UC Berkeley

Thomas Starr King: the minister who helped keep California in the Union

“As the heart is kindled and ennobled it pours out feeling and interest, first upon family and kindred, then upon country, then upon humanity. The home, the flag, the cross, these are the representatives or symbols of the noblest and most sacred affections or treasures of feeling in human nature.”
— Thomas Starr King

California was riven by debates over slavery during its formative years as a state.

In 1859, the trading of insults between the pro-slavery California jurist David Terry and U.S. Sen. David Broderick, an abolitionist, led to a duel and Broderick’s untimely death. That same year, the governor signed a bill to bisect California with supporters eager to introduce slaves into the lower part of the state. It failed only because the U.S. Congress was too preoccupied by the Southern secession crisis to take it up.

During the presidential election of 1860, all four members of California’s congressional delegation campaigned for the pro-slavery Democrat, John C. Breckinridge.

Into this uncertainty stepped a Unitarian minister in San Francisco named Thomas Starr King, born in December 1824.

King held a strong belief in equality and he embarked on a statewide lecture tour, speaking in churches, town squares, and mining camps, about the patriotic duty to preserve the Union. A delicate man, standing just 5’2″ and weighing about 120 pounds, he encountered hostile crowds and death threats. But his oratory, as one contemporary author put it, “held within it all the sweetness of the harp when struck by a master hand, all the power and solemn grandeur of a great cathedral organ.”

As pro-Union sentiment gradually swept California, Abraham Lincoln credited King with keeping the state in the Union.

Within a few years, King was dead at the age 39. The rigors of his speaking tour were said to have left him exhausted and he was overcome by diphtheria then pneumonia. On his deathbed, he turned to his wife and told her he could see the future. “It already looks grand, beautiful,” he said. “Tell them I went lovingly, trustfully, peacefully.”

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A decade ago, California Republicans orchestrated a move to replace a statue of Thomas Starr King at the U.S. Capitol with a sculpture of Ronald Reagan. Historians were appalled. Daily Beast | McClatchy

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