What’s the issue? Which figure from Missouri history – Thomas Hart Benton or Francis Preston Blair Jr. – will have to make way for a statue of Harry Truman in Washington, D.C.?

How does it affect me? People in Eastern Jackson County and elsewhere have given money for the Truman statue with the understanding that it will be placed in the U.S. Capitol.

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Although plans are well advanced for a statue of President Harry Truman in the U.S. Capitol and fundraising is nearly complete, Missouri’s six Republican U.S. representatives have reopened a question that could cloud those plans.

Which statue will Truman replace?

“Obviously I would prefer not to have any controversy over our only president,” said U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, who for about three years has publicly led the drive to find funding and get the statue made and installed.

Each state is allowed two statues to honor famed citizens, and since 1899 Missouri’s have been Thomas Hart Benton and Francis Preston Blair Jr. The Missouri General Assembly in 2002 approved replacing Blair with Truman.

The federal government lets states switch statues but won’t pay for them. States are on their own for that. Two years ago, Cleaver said it appeared likely that the General Assembly would OK half of the money, but that fell through.

More than $300,000 is needed. Truman Library Institute, the museum’s private, non-profit partner, has been raising it from individuals, corporations and foundations. That has taken about a year, and the institute’s executive director, Alex Burden, last week said this might be most well-received fundraising that the institute has undertaken.

An artist has to be commissioned and the artwork created, but the tentative plan is still to have the statue in place by early next summer.

“We thought we were moving along. We’ve gotten contributions from Republicans and Democrats alike,” said Cleaver, whose district includes Independence and Kansas City.

But in June, Congressman Sam Graves wrote to Gov. Eric Greitens, asking that the Blair-or-Benton question be reopened. The other five Republican members of Congress from the state also signed the letter. It’s not clear if Greitens has responded to that letter or taken other action, and the governor’s office last week did not answer that question. Ultimately, a switch would require new legislation from the Missouri General Assembly.

Cleaver said the issue came up in a recent meeting of Missouri’s entire House delegation – the six Republicans plus Democrats Cleaver and Lacy Clay – and he said Republicans told him the Truman statue won’t go forward unless it’s Benton, not Blair, who is replaced.

Did all of this come out of left field, Cleaver was asked.

“I was stunned,” he said.

 

19th century leaders

Both Blair and Benton were leading political figures in the early decades of Missouri statehood. Benton worked for Missouri’s admission to the Union, was its first U.S. senator and served in the Senate for 30 years.

He had served under Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812 and was an ally of Jackson as president a generation later in struggling to hold the states together and preserve the Union. Benton opposed slavery, and that ultimately cost him his Senate seat. (He’s also the namesake of his nephew, the well-known artist.)

Benton also is described as friend and mentor to Blair, who served in Congress and opposed slavery. Blair supported Lincoln in the election of 1860 and had a key role in keeping Missouri in the Union when the Civil War started. He was a Union general, commanding a division at Vicksburg and marching with Sherman across the South at the war’s end.

To Cleaver, it’s a clear choice. Benton is a figure many more Missourians remember and revere.

But in an email, Graves spokesman Wesley Shaw wrote that “in Sam’s opinion, Francis Blair is a much more historically significant figure to the state than Thomas Hart Benton.”

Cleaver said the Republicans have said Blair should be recognized as the founder of the Republican Party in Missouri, though the Graves letter makes no mention of party considerations.

That question also is complicated. Blair was a member of the Free Soil Party, opposed to the expansion of slavery. He favored the gradual emancipation of slaves and expelling them from the country.

Then in 1856, he was elected to Congress as a Republican. He left Congress to serve in the war but after the war left the Republican Party over the policy of Reconstruction, the manner in which Southern states were reintegrated into the Union. In 1868, he was the Democrats’ nominee for vice president, running with Horatio Seymour. (Ulysses S. Grant won.) Blair served briefly in the U.S. Senate, as a Democrat, in the 1870s.

 

Will of the people

In his letter, Graves, whose district is mostly in northern Missouri but also parts of Independence and Blue Springs, points out that the General Assembly first acted in 2002 – 15 years ago.

“During this timeline a lot has changed. … Clearly this effort has lacked enthusiasm,” he writes, asking the governor to “reconsider the removal of the Francis Blair statue from the United States Capitol.”

“Regardless of the current timeline,” Graves spokesman Shaw wrote in his email, “a move of this historical significance to the State of Missouri should (reflect) the will of the public, and we can no longer guarantee that's the case. Any potential changes should recognize the bipartisanship that has been central to Missouri's political history, and most of all, have the support of the citizens of Missouri and its representatives in Jefferson City.”

The state’s two U.S. senators – Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Claire McCaskill – in late June issued a statement in support of the Truman statue but took no position on Benton or Blair. (Blunt and McCaskill also have a bill to name Union Station in Washington for Truman.)

Cleaver has said it’s Missouri pride that led him to this issue. Truman is Missouri’s only president, and the statues of other presidents at the Capitol – Washington, Jackson, Garfield, Eisenhower, Ford, Reagan – are in a highly visible spot, the Capitol Rotunda. Officials have said their understanding is that Truman would go there too.

The Blair statue, on the other hand, is said to be hard to find in a relatively obscure spot at the Capitol.

Cleaver points out that the marble Blair statue, once returned to Missouri, could get a prominent spot at the Missouri Capitol building in Jefferson City if that’s what Republicans want.

“It has to be brought back to the state Capitol,” he said.