Op-Ed: It could be the end of the Jersey boys’ era in National Statuary Hall

Fred B. Adelson | February 15, 2021 | Opinion
Assembly takes ‘first major step’ to have Alice Paul and Harriet Tubman sculptures replace Philip Kearny and Richard Stockton
Credit: Architect of the Capitol
Details from statues of Richard Stockton (left) and General Philip Kearny. The statues are in the National Statuary Hall Collection.

The traumatic events that unfolded on Jan. 6 at the U. S. Capitol brought sobering media attention to “our temple of American democracy.” Video footage of intruders with banners and flags traipsing through Statuary Hall put a dramatic spotlight on the historic space. Less than three weeks later, the House impeachment managers solemnly proceeded through Statuary Hall to deliver the charge of “incitement of insurrection” to the Senate, again bringing visual notice to this dignified setting.

Statuary Hall is an imposing semicircular space that served for nearly 40 years since 1819 as the Corinthian-columned chamber for the House of Representatives. In 1857, the legislative body moved from its neoclassic amphitheater-like surroundings to a new assembly room in the south wing where the House of Representatives still holds its sessions. During the Civil War, Rep. Justin S. Morrill of Vermont proposed that the vacated Old Hall be used as a gallery for sculpture of accomplished citizens from all the states. A few months later, on July 2, 1864, Morrill’s idea to create a symbol of national pride was signed into law, declaring:

“. . . the President is hereby authorized to invite each and all the States to provide and furnish statues, in marble or bronze, not exceeding two in number for each State, of deceased persons who have been citizens thereof, and illustrious for their historic renown or for distinguished civic or military services such as each State may deem to be worthy of this national commemoration.”

It is easy to have forgotten the individuals who represent the Garden State. They are Richard Stockton (1730-1781) of Princeton and General Philip Kearny (1815-1862) of Newark/Belleville. The two portrait sculptures are works by Henry Kirke Brown, although the marble figure of Stockton was completed by the sculptor’s nephew and adopted son, Henry Kirke Brown-Bush. Kearny’s image is cast bronze from a design that dates to 1873. Brown had spent several years studying in Florence and Rome before he returned to the United States and eventually set up his studio near Newburgh, New York. New Jersey donated both sculptures to Statuary Hall in 1888, two years after Brown’s death.

Richard Stockton, a lawyer and representative to the Continental Congress, was one of the five signers of the Declaration of Independence from New Jersey. His family home, called Morven, still stands in Princeton. Combining naturalism and classical tradition, the sculptor presents Stockton wearing 18th-century garb and standing relaxed with a sense of vitality and self-assuredness as if he had just left the signing ceremony at Independence Hall.

Philip Kearny proudly wears his 19th-century military outfit and holds a ceremonial sword appropriate for a major general in the U. S. Army. As a Civil War hero, Kearny lost his life at the Battle of Chantilly in Virginia. The sculptor accurately depicts Kearny’s mustache and goatee to give added verisimilitude to the life-size bronze portrait. Kearny’s statue remains in the original hall, while Stockton has been relocated to the lower-level crypt due to the limited space with the addition of states to the Union in the late 1800s.

The replacement process

In 2000, Congress authorized a process that enables each state to replace statues that had been part of the Statuary Hall collection. Last February, Sens. Linda R. Greenstein, Nilsa Cruz-Perez and Dawn Marie Addiego introduced legislation to the state Senate to replace the Philip Kearny sculpture with one of Alice Paul (1885-1977), the suffragette from Mount Laurel. Opposition to remove Gen. Kearny was raised around Hudson County, where he remains a beloved son. By contrast, despite his important political accomplishments, Richard Stockton was a slaveowner. Thus, a proposal to have Paul replace Kearny, not Stockton, seemed a bit curious. This past August, a revised Assembly bill (A-4503) went further to include the removal of Richard Stockton — to be substituted by Harriet Tubman (circa 1820-1913), the abolitionist and emancipator, who had lived and worked in Cape May during the early 1850s funding her mission to free slaves.

So, after 133 years, the Jersey boys’ gig may be coming to an end. On Jan. 25, Assemblywoman Carol A. Murphy (D-Burlington), chief sponsor of A-4503, made a formal request to post the legislation for hearing in the State and Local Government Committee. Revised and augmented from the earlier bill, the current legislation proposes to remove both Philip Kearny and Richard Stockton and substitute them with Alice Paul and Harriet Tubman. It is the first major step to move forward on the change. The proposed bill states: “It is important for New Jersey to highlight different icons over time in the National Statuary Hall.” It will also give added recognition to prominent individuals of “extraordinary contributions” from South Jersey.

According to federal law, the bill asks the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress to approve the replacement of both figures. If so, a bipartisan state committee will be formed to oversee the selection of a sculptor or sculptors and determine funding for the statues and their installation in the U. S. Capitol. New Jersey would be the only state represented exclusively by women in Statuary Hall. It also sets up the possibility to provide formidable commissions for New Jersey-based artists.

The recommended sculptures to honor Tubman and Paul would join an impressive collection that only began to recognize female achievement in 1905 with Illinois’s sculpture of Frances Willard. Since then, just eight other sculptures of women have been installed, and yet another three have been approved and will soon join the ensemble. The National Statuary Hall Collection is looking more and more like “we the people.”