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About Us » Who was Thomas Starr King?

Who was Thomas Starr King?

Our school bears a name that is one of the most luminous in the histories of both California and the United States. Thomas Starr King (1824-1864) was a Unitarian minister, orator, teacher, activist for social justice, and ardent patriot. During the Civil War, he gave hundreds of speeches and raised thousands of dollars to support efforts to keep California in the Union. During this time he also labored on behalf of the Sanitary Commission, an organization dedicated to the care of wounded and sick soldiers - it later became the American Red Cross. He was also a trustee of the College of California at Oakland, precursor of the University of California. Above all, he was a man whose monument in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park reads:




Thomas Starr King was born in New York City on December 17, 1824, the oldest child of Thomas Farrington King, a Unitarian minister, and Susan Starr, a woman of noted character and intelligence. When he was eleven, his family moved, first to New Hampshire, then to Charlestown, Massachusetts. There, Thomas became immersed in the rich cultural life of nearby Boston. He made plans to go to college, but the death of his father when he was only fifteen made him change his plans. He went to work in a store as a clerk and bookkeeper to support his mother and five younger siblings.

Despite having to work hard for a living, King continued his studies and began a campaign of self-improvement, preparing himself for the ministry he knew one day would be his. He read voraciously, especially on literature and philosophy. Other serious young men gathered around him, forming reading and discussion clubs. His dedication to learning paid off when at sixteen he became a teacher, becoming the principal of a grammar school only three years later. In addition to teaching and supporting his family during this time, King also taught himself French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, and German, as well as continued his independent literary and philosophical studies.

In 1843 he was appointed bookkeeper in the Charlestown Navy Yard. The increased income and study time rekindled his desire to become a minister. He remained entranced by the relationship between religion and humanism. In 1844 he wrote to a friend: "Have you ever reflected on the intimate connection between revelation and philosophy? By many they are put in contrast, set in opposition. Yet they mutually explain and reciprocally aid each other." Later that year the desire to find the answers to such questions, as well as the impulse to minister, led him to begin a preaching career.

For two years, King preached in various churches around Boston, all the while keeping his Navy Yard job and writing for theological magazines. Then, in 1846, he accepted an offer to become minister of his Charlestown church. Two years after that he became minister of the Hollis Street Unitarian Church in Boston. It was also in 1848 that he married Julia Wiggins, a woman of great mind and beauty. He grew in popularity as a preacher and as a public speaker, spending much of his time on the lecture circuit giving talks on a wide variety of subjects. Such was his reputation as a scholar that Harvard gave him an honorary degree in 1850. It was in the Hollis Street Church that King would begin promoting social causes with the zeal that would later make him famous. He spoke out against slavery, oppression, and poverty--all the social ills of his day. Moreover, he matched his words with action, organizing numerous charities and giving, as one friend put it, "not only of his means, but himself to their need."

All this mental and often physical labor exhausted King. Needing a change after eleven years in the Hollis Street Church, King accepted a position with the Unitarian Church in San Francisco. Thus, he purported to go out West and, as he put it, "see if I am good for anything." So it was that in April of 1860 King and his wife Julia stepped off a steamer and began their life in California. In his new home King would again apply himself to social causes; he would also write many moving descriptions of California's natural beauty. The College of California at Oakland asked him to be one of its trustees. He accepted, and fostered an unprecedented growth in the college's size and reputation.

However, all was not peaceful: in the East, the clouds of civil war were gathering, and when the storm broke, its effects were felt throughout the West. California especially would be a treasure house for the Confederacy if they could take it. The money from its gold fields, its vast agricultural resources, and the expansion of slavery into its many industries--all these could help propel the South to victory. Large portions of California's populace were Southerners, and many of her most powerful politicians were sympathetic to the Southern cause.

Thomas Starr King wasted neither time nor effort in working to keep California free and in the Union. He lectured and preached in hundreds of churches and town squares, many of them hotbeds of pro-Confederacy sentiment. Still, despite threats and intimidation, he over and over reminded Californians of their duty to their national flag, however torn it might be: "We will hurl back invasion; we will reclaim our geography; we will honor our fathers; we will unfurl in fresh battles the old flag that sheds from its flutter the electricity of a noble past � Liberty and Union, one and inseparable!" King spoke out against the rebellion at every opportunity, urging people to remain true to American ideals. He hated slavery, but then he hated the oppression of any people, North or South, East or West. Apart from speaking tours, he made an extraordinary effort to raise money for the Sanitary Commission, which aided the military hospitals in caring for and rehabilitating hundreds of thousands of wounded soldiers, as well as their families.

King was tireless and fearless in all his pursuits. In the end, it broke his health. The cares and exhaustion he had borne for four long years finally led to his coming down with a severe case of diphtheria and pneumonia. He died on March 4, 1864, without seeing the victory for which he had so incessantly labored. At the news of his death, the California Legislature adjourned for three days so members could attend his huge funeral parade. Ships of every nationality in San Francisco Bay lowered their flags to half-mast, as did many public and private buildings. San Francisco made an exception to its long-time ban on burial within city limits and allowed King's body to be placed in a sarcophagus on the grounds on the Unitarian Church, where it remains to this day; Thomas Starr King is still the only person afforded this honor. Across the country, sad memorials and eulogies appeared in almost every newspaper still loyal to the Union. His passing could not diminish his effect on the causes he loved. Others carried on his work, reminding themselves of King's words: "True patriotism does not accept and glory in its country merely for what it is at present, and has been in the past, but for what it may be. We are living for the future. It doth not yet appear what we shall be."

In 1927 Thomas Starr King was chosen, along with Father Junipero Serra, to represent California in National Statuary Hall. He was chosen for his love of freedom and justice, his compassion, his dedication to California, and for his commitment to education and culture. In 1931 a bronze statue of Thomas Starr King, by Haig Patigian, was unveiled in Washington, D.C. During the dedication ceremony, it was said of King: "To his faith in the Union, his incomparable eloquence, his ingenious activity, and his far-seeing charity, California offers her tribute of gratitude."

We at Thomas Starr King Middle School consider ourselves among the custodians of this great man's legacy, and have committed ourselves to keeping alive his name, his spirit, and his vision. We know in our hearts that Thomas Starr King was speaking to us as fellow educators when he said: "There is no more beautiful or impressive law of history than that by which the past genius, heroism, and patriotic devotedness are woven into the structure of a people, giving it character. The acts and spirit of a person's former years are not lost, but are represented in the face, the habits, the weakness, or the power of the person's mind and heart today."

Those wishing to know more about the life and work of Thomas Starr King are invited to contact our School Librarian for a list of resources and information.

-Joseph Staub
Thomas Starr King Middle School