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15 years in the making, Truman likely to get a statue in the U.S. Capitol

For 118 years, Missouri has been represented in the U.S. Capitol’s esteemed Statuary Hall by two statues of slavery opponents from the 1800s: Francis Preston Blair Jr., and Thomas Hart Benton (the politician, not the painter.)

That’s likely to change, according to U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill, who issued a rare joint news release a few days ago to declare, in effect, that they’re wild about Harry S. Truman and optimistic his statue will soon bump Blair’s.

The effort to get a full-sized statue of Truman in Statuary Hall began well before McCaskill, a Democrat, or Blunt, a Republican, were even in the Senate.

Fifteen years ago, the Missouri General Assembly voted to replace Blair’s statue with one of Truman, setting in motion a nine-year process that resulted in a 2011 agreement between then-Gov. Jay Nixon and the U.S. Capitol’s official architect, who oversees the art allowed in much of the historic building.

Since then, the Truman Library Institute has come close to raising the needed $350,000 to pay for the creation of Truman’s statue and place it in Statuary Hall. (There already is a bust of Truman in the Senate wing of the Capitol.)

The institute’s executive director, Alex Burden, said a sculptor has yet to be selected, but preference will be given to artists with Missouri ties. He said he expected it will be at least a year before the statue is completed, noting that the design must be approved by the Capitol.

Why Truman?

Aside from the fact that the 33rd president is the only one from Missouri, Burden noted that historians generally have ranked Truman among the nation’s top presidents. His key accomplishments include his efforts ending World War II and overseeing the rebuilding of Europe with the Marshall Plan.

Sen. Benton, left, and Gen. Francis Preston Blair Jr.
Credit Mathew Brady | Library of Congress | US National Archives
Sen. Benton, left, and Gen. Francis Preston Blair Jr.

Truman will join three other presidential statues — Ronald Reagan (California), Gerald Ford (Michigan) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (Kansas) — in the historic hall. Each state is allowed two statues of famous citizens.

It’s unclear what will happen to the statue of Blair, who was a St. Louis lawyer and a slavery opponent. He was elected to the U.S. House in 1852, lost his seat in the 1858 election but won it back in 1860. He became a major general for the Union forces and is credited with helping to keep Missouri out of the Confederacy.

Blair was an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for vice president in 1868 but was chosen by the state legislature for the U.S. Senate in 1871. He lost the seat in an election in 1873 and became ill that same year. He died in 1875.

Blair was a close friend of Benton, the great-uncle of the artist who painted murals in the Missouri Capitol. Benton was one of Missouri’s first members of the U.S. Senate and was an outspoken opponent of slavery.

He lost his seat in 1850 because of his anti-slavery views, historians say. So far, there’s no talk that Benton’s statue will lose its place in the U.S. Capitol.

Will the long-sought move be sidelined?

But that could change.  About two weeks before McCaskill and Blunt issued their endorsement of the Truman statue, Missouri's six Republican members of the U.S. House sent a joint letter to Gov. Eric Greitens and Republican legislative leaders, asking them to review the plan. At issue, the letter said, was the plan to remove Blair's statue out of the U.S. Capitol.

The signers included U.S. Reps. Ann Wagner of Ballwin and Blaine Luetkemeyer of St. Elizabeth. Both of their districts include part of the St. Louis area.

In the 15 years since the General Assembly first backed the Truman statue, "a lot has changed,'' the congressional letter said. Left unspoken is that the fact that when the 2002 vote was taken, the Missouri House was under Democratic control.

Because action has been so slow, "clearly this effort has lacked enthusiasm,'' the letter said. "...Given that, we ask that you reconsider the removal of the Francis Blair stature from the United States Capitol."

So far, Greitens and state lawmakers haven't signaled any plans to revisit the decision that would put Truman's statue in Statuary Hall.

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

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Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.
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