If you ever took a school trip or vacation to Washington, D.C., you probably visited National Statuary Hall on the main floor of the U.S. Capitol. For nearly 150 years, visitors have strolled by statues depicting two prominent people from each state.

The two Mainers standing guard are William King, the state’s first governor, and Hannibal Hamlin, Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president. King’s statue was added to the collection in 1878; Hamlin’s in 1935.

Do they best represent Maine? As Maine nears its bicentennial in 2020, the Legislature has raised that question. Earlier this year, it told the Maine Arts Commission, the Maine Historic Preservation Commission and the Maine State Museum Commission to study the replacement of either or both statues in Statuary Hall. Their report to the Legislature is due on Jan. 15.

This fall at the University of Maine at Augusta, I asked my students in an upper-level course called History of Maine to consider the issue carefully. After weeks of reading and writing about Maine’s lively past (and compiling a weekly list of possible choices for Statuary Hall), 36 students voted on their final recommendations. Each student nominated two people.

Their top two choices: U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1995) and Joshua Chamberlain (1828-1914), a Civil War hero and four-term Maine governor. Smith received 16 nominations; Chamberlain, nine. The three runners-up were mental health reformer Dorothea Dix (1802-1887), eight nominations; child peace activist Samantha Smith (1972-1985), five nominations; and pioneer Maine guide Cornelia T. “Fly Rod” Crosby (1854-1946), five nominations. Hamlin won three; King, two.

The class was the ultimate focus group on this issue. The course is entirely Web-based, so my students this semester live in Westbrook, Holden, Monticello, Boothbay Harbor, Augusta, Freeport, Farmington, Bangor, Belfast, Calais, Waterville, Portland, Lee, and elsewhere. Their ages (self-disclosed, not required) range from 20 to 40-plus. Most have jobs: Maine Air Guard, office cleaning, health care, a community librarian, a former bank branch manager, ed tech, intern at Old Fort Western in Augusta, counselor at an outdoors camp, soccer coach, police officer. In many cases, the students are parents.

There are rules for Statuary Hall. You have to be dead to be considered. Each statue must depict a real person. And each statue is the gift of a state. The students did not assess cost or sculptors, just historical merit.

My UMA students nominated a range of characters, including Portland’s prohibitionist Mayor Neal Dow; Down East Revolutionary War hero Jeremiah O’Brien; Gov. Percival Baxter (of state park fame); railroad promoter John A. Poor; and Molly Spotted Elk, Penobscot Nation actress and dancer.

Some prominent Maine people did not do well in the voting. Nobody nominated L.L. Bean. The late Sen. Edmund S. Muskie received just one nomination. But there are consolations: James G. Blaine (zero nominations) and Thomas B. Reed (one nomination) were House speakers from Maine who live on in the Capitol via portraits in the Speaker’s Lobby. And since vice presidents are presidents of the U.S. Senate, a bust of Hamlin is on display in the Senate wing.

Many students favored a statue that would celebrate a group or a Maine type: fisherman, woodsman, all Wabanaki peoples; the people of Millinocket, the children who worked in Eastport’s sardine canneries. Statuary Hall doesn’t allow that.

One of my students pointed out the irony in her nomination statement: “Although Maine celebrates the common folk, they get ignored when it comes to recognition for the development, growth and resources Maine has seen.”

I was not surprised by the interest in both Margaret Chase Smith and Chamberlain, and to some extent in “Fly Rod” Crosby. But Dix and Samantha Smith did surprise me. Dix was born in Hampden, but spent most of her career away from Maine, serving as a mental health reformer and Civil War-era superintendent of nurses. Smith won lots of attention when she wrote in support of peace to the Soviet leader Yuri Andropov in 1982, then wound up invited to visit Moscow. She was killed in a plane crash in 1985.

Still, I detected a common thread in these top choices: pride in Maine people who reached beyond the parochial, the local: Chamberlain at Gettysburg; Margaret Chase Smith delivering her “Declaration of Conscience” speech on the Senate floor; “Fly Rod” Crosby promoting the Maine woods nationwide; and Samantha Smith, a Maine child seeking peace on an international stage.

Pretty good choices, it seems to me.

Tom McCord teaches American history at the University of Maine at Augusta.

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