September 3, 2012

Book of the Month:

Glenna Matthews, The Golden State in the Civil War: Thomas Starr King, the Republican Party, and the Birth of Modern California

Review by Joshua Paddison

In 1913, California's state legislators voted to install a statue in National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol representing an "honored" person from its past. Each state had the right to install two statues in the "marble senate," and for its first the state legislature made what today seems a surprising choice: Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King. State senator Herbert C. Jones explained that King "did more than any other man to keep California in the union when the civil war broke out."

Glenna Matthews's new book The Golden State in the Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2012), the best and broadest biography of King so far published, helps us understand why the minister loomed so large in the public memory of California. Matthews shows that, while it was probably impossible that the state would have joined the Confederacy, King's religious, political, and environmental writings and speeches indelibly shaped the cultural climate of nineteenth-century California.

Born in 1824, King spent his formative years in Boston. When King was fourteen his father, a Universalist minister, died, forcing him to quit school to support his family. However, his voracious intellect and spiritual longings eventually led him to become a Unitarian clergyman, and he found mentorship from a who's-who of New England thinkers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Parker, Horace Greeley, and Frederic Henry Hedge. An ardent abolitionist (though "not consistently antiracist," in Matthews's words), King soon gained a reputation as a stirring speaker on the New England lyceum circuit (p. 234).

Offered posts at Unitarian churches in both Cincinnati and San Francisco in 1859, King opted for San Francisco, undaunted by the fact that it was the only Unitarian congregation west of Missouri. In California at the outbreak of the war, King lectured so often and forcefully on behalf of the Union that he became what Matthews calls a "larger-than-life figure" in the state (p. 92). Attested one onlooker in 1861, "He is a most brilliant orator, his language strong and beautiful. He is almost worshipped here" (p. 92). King moved between different pockets of California's diverse society, preaching in a variety of Protestant churches and for audiences both black and white.

Matthews makes it clear that it was not only King's oratorical skills but his personal connections to other celebrities (not just Boston intellectuals but local literati like Jessie Benton Fremont and Bret Harte) that propelled his fame. Matthews argues that King served as a "cultural broker" between the west and the northeast, promoting the beauty and importance of California to New England readers while introducing Trancendentalism and Boston-style literary salons to San Francisco (p. 132).

King's brand of Unitarian theology--what he called "spiritual Christianity"--emphasized the potential of the natural world to inspire awe, humility, and communion with God. For the Boston Evening Transcript, he wrote a series of appreciations of California's varied landscapes, praising especially the "sweetness and beauty amid the threatening awfulness" he found in Yosemite Valley (p. 139). These writings would influence later generations of Yosemite chroniclers, especially John Muir.

Matthews situates King's experiences within the larger saga of California during the Civil War, devoting chapters to the growth of the Republican Party, various military engagements, and how California gold helped support the Union, among other topics. However, the chapters that focus directly on King are, to me, the freshest and most compelling. It's unclear why Matthews elected to drop him from her narrative as often and for as long as she does.

King died from a combination of exhaustion, pneumonia, and diphtheria in 1864, and his death sent California into mass mourning. "Some 20,000 people thronged the church and its vicinity as King lay in state," notes Matthews (p. 232). It was perhaps California's first celebrity funeral, and his early demise (he was 39) must have helped spread his legend.

Interestingly, the California legislature ended up putting another spiritual leader in the National Statuary Hall alongside Thomas Starr King: Franciscan missionary Junípero Serra. However, in 2009 the state legislature replaced King's statue with that of former governor and president Ronald Reagan. Donald Ritchie, historian of the U.S. Senate, remarked at the time, "I've rarely met a Californian who knew who [King] was." Reagan and King were both Republicans, though I don't know how much else they shared.

Editor’s note: Have you read this book? What do you think about it? Join the conversation and leave your thoughts in the comments! If you have a suggestion for a future book of the month, or if you would like to review a book for the book of the month series, please contact us. Next month, Konden Smith reviews Reid Neilson’s Exibiting Mormonism: The Latter-day Saints and the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (Oxford University Press, 2011).

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