From House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office comes word of an event to be held in Statuary Hall, one of the US Capitol’s grandest chambers. Under a law dating from 1864, each state may be represented in the Capitol by statues honoring two of its (deceased) citizens who were “illustrious for their historic renown.” Ohio is about to add a new statue to the collection: a bronze likeness of Thomas Edison, larger than life and holding an incandescent light bulb — arguably the greatest invention of the greatest inventor in American history.
Edison’s statue will replace that of William Allen, an Ohio Democrat who served two terms in the US Senate (1837-1849) and was elected governor in 1873. Ohio’s other statue is of James Garfield, the nation’s reluctant 20th president.
Allen’s statue has been in the Capitol since 1887, but by modern standards he’s become an embarrassing anachronism. He was a slavery-supporting “peace Democrat,” and an outspoken opponent of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Ohio’s legislature decided in 2006 to recall Allen’s statue, and launched a statewide campaign to pick a replacement. More than 90 candidates were proposed; of those, 10 finalists were selected and put to a public vote.
The winner was Edison, who was born and spent his childhood in the town of Milan, Ohio. The Wright Brothers came in a close second; Olympic runner Jesse Owens was third. Among the other finalists: Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Cincinnati abolitionist who wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”; Judith Resnick, a NASA astronaut who died aboard the space shuttle Challenger; Albert Sabin, the medical researcher who developed the oral vaccine that effectively wiped out polio; and Harriet Taylor Upton, a national leader in the fight for women’s suffrage.
Look closely at those seven names, and you may notice something striking. None was a politician. Of the 10 individuals Ohioans considered as replacements for Allen, only three were elected officials: two congressmen (one from the 19th century, one from the 20th) and President Ulysses S. Grant.
Ohio isn’t the first state to swap out a politician’s statue for one of a non-politician. In 2009, Alabama took back its sculpture of Jabez Curry, a 19th-century congressman and diplomat, and sent instead a statue of Helen Keller. Two years ago, Iowa decided it would rather be represented in Statuary Hall by Norman Borlaug — the Nobel laureate and agricultural scientist whose “Green Revolution” has saved millions of human beings from starvation — than by the forgettable James Harlan, a politico from the 1850s. North Carolina recently approved a measure to replace its statue of former Governor Charles Aycock with a likeness of evangelist Billy Graham (though no change can occur during Graham’s lifetime).
Could this be the beginning of a trend?
Americans constantly proclaim their disdain for politicians, yet from sea to shining sea the landscape is littered with monuments to government officials: office buildings, bridges, airports, libraries, courthouses, avenues, schools, post offices. We live amid an endless inventory of political idolatry, all reinforcing the fallacy that the public sector is the locus of American glory. Of course there have been heroic politicians. But altogether more numerous in politics have been the mediocrities, the panderers, the frauds, and the bums.
Fewer tributes to the political class would make a refreshing change, above all in Washington, where the fumes of government machinery are emitted 24/7. More states should emulate Ohio, Iowa, and the few others that have chosen to be represented in Statuary Hall by men and women who achieved great things in the private sector — in science and philanthropy, in the arts and in business, in entertainment and exploration.
Here’s a proposal: Let at least one of each state’s two statues in the US Capitol honor a noteworthy citizen who was not a government functionary. Wouldn’t it be fine if Massachusetts were represented by (say) Alexander Graham Bell or Leonard Bernstein? If New York were to honor Lou Gehrig or the brilliant physicist Richard Feynman? If Delaware commissioned a statue of E. I. du Pont, who founded one of America’s eminent corporations, or of Bishop Richard Allen, the father of the African Methodist Episcopal Church?
Capitol Hill’s politicians need constant reminding that politics does not make the world go round. Ohio has the right idea: more Thomas Edison, less William Allen.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.