- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 12, 2005

After battling Republicans in elections throughout much of his nearly 50-year career, Irish-American politico and

Civil War hero James J. Shields may go another round with the Republican Party in a fight for his 112-year-old perch in the nation’s capital.

Illinois state Rep. Robert Pritchard, a Republican from Hinckley, set the stage for this rumble on Jan. 27 by introducing Joint Resolution 8 in the state House. The bill seeks to remove Shields’ statue from the Capitol in Washington to make way for a statue of native son and Republican icon Ronald Reagan.

Some Irish Americans in the state, though, have begun resisting any move to yield the place of honor of the long-dead Irish-born general, whose statue Illinois provided in 1893 for the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.

“My reaction [to the resolution] is not one so much pro-Shields, but anti-Reagan,” says J. Sean Callan, a Lake Forest, Ill.-based psychiatrist and author of “Courage and Country: James Shields, More Than Irish Luck,” a 512-page biography of Shields. “Reagan did nothing specifically for the state of Illinois. Shields did.”

With the resolution, though, Mr. Pritchard says in a phone interview, he wants to honor the only U.S. president born in Illinois. Mr. Reagan “achieved great things for democracy around the world,” he says.

Mr. Pritchard represents Illinois’ 70th House District. He says the idea for the resolution came from a constituent who spent last summer as an intern in the office of U.S. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, a fellow Republican from Illinois. The student’s duties included leading visitors on tours through the Capitol.

“He observed that a lot of people didn’t know James Shields, and [they] marveled that President Reagan wasn’t honored [there] as an outstanding Illinois citizen,” Mr. Pritchard says.

Shields, who died in 1879 at age 73, may have a particularly strong base of support in heavily Democratic Chicago, where Irish activists still hold considerable sway. Some, including Chicago native Pat Hickey and Dublin-born Mr. Callan, have closely examined Shields’ career.

“I’ve got my mick up about this,” Mr. Hickey says. Mr. Hickey, director of development for the city’s Leo High School, calls Mr. Pritchard’s effort an affront to Irish Americans and Catholics, and he has been working the phones on Shields’ behalf.

“To completely assign [Shields] to historical oblivion is a real injustice to the man’s life,” Mr. Hickey says. He points to Shields’ courage in starting his life anew in America after immigrating as a teenager, his distinction as the only U.S. senator to gain election from three states (Illinois, Minnesota and Missouri), and his valiant service commanding soldiers in both the Mexican War and the Civil War. Shields also was the only individual ever to challenge political rival Abraham Lincoln to a duel.

To this, Mr. Pritchard replies: “Reagan is of Irish descent, so this is certainly not an attempt to demean the contributions that Irish citizens have made to our history.

“[Shields] served the state and country very well. I think, though, 100 years is a good [enough amount of] time to honor an individual.” Mr. Pritchard says he still wants Shields’ statue to have a place of honor, but in the state Capitol in Springfield.

That attitude doesn’t placate Tom Boyle, vice president of Chicago’s Irish American Heritage Center, which has 1,900 members. “If you take a look at the history of James Shields, the man was an Irish immigrant for openers and went on to become a general in the Union Army. As somebody already put it to me, Ronald Reagan never held office in Illinois.”

Mr. Boyle also points out that although Mr. Reagan served in the Army during World War II, he never saw combat, but the highly decorated Shields was severely wounded twice.

As well, Mr. Boyle says, the Irish in the state are unlikely to embrace Mr. Reagan as one of their own. “I don’t know that the man was ever active in Irish affairs. … He never picked up the challenge to resolve the conflict in Northern Ireland.”

The statue of Shields, created by Leonard W. Volk, is in the Capitol’s Hall of Columns. It is part of the National Statuary Hall Collection, created in 1864 to honor people notable in each state’s history. The entire collection consists of 98 statues contributed by 50 states. Each state is allowed two statues, furnished by the states themselves. Nevada and New Mexico have provided one each. Illinois’ other statue in the collection is that of New York native Frances Willard, a noted 19th-century anti-alcohol crusader and the first woman to be so honored.

Why not propose that Mr. Reagan’s statue replace that of Willard, given by Illinois in 1905, instead of Shields, Mr. Pritchard is asked.

“[Shields’] is the oldest. My philosophy is, at an appropriate time period, we should rotate our statues. We should bring Miss Willard back to Illinois [eventually], as well. Congress granted a process” for doing that.

Shields was born in Altmore, County Tyrone, in 1806 and immigrated circa 1822, settling in Illinois. He became state auditor, and this eventually led to the Democrat’s challenging Republican standard-bearer Abraham Lincoln for a duel in 1842, as he felt maligned by three letters in a Springfield newspaper accusing him of malfeasance.

Lincoln grudgingly accepted and, holding a 7-inch height advantage, chose cavalry broadswords as the weapons. Fortunately for posterity, cooler heads prevailed, and Lincoln apologized for his role in the letters. He and Shields later became friends, and Lincoln appointed Shields a brigadier general during the Civil War.

Mr. Reagan, the United States’ 40th president, was born Feb. 6, 1911, to Nelle and John Reagan, a shoe salesman, in Tampico, Ill. He grew up in Dixon, Ill., and graduated from the state’s Eureka College in 1932. The former president’s great-grandfather emigrated from Ballyporeen, County Tipperary. Mr. Reagan died June 5, 2004, at age 93 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Mr. Pritchard’s resolution states about Mr. Reagan: “During his presidency, he worked in a bipartisan manner to enact his bold agenda of restoring accountability and common sense to government which led to an unprecedented economic expansion … his commitment to our armed forces contributed to the restoration of pride in America, her values and those cherished by the free world, and prepared America’s Armed Forces to win the Gulf War; his vision of ‘peace through strength’ led to the end of the Cold War and the ultimate demise of the Soviet Union, guaranteeing basic human rights for millions of people.”

Many Irish-American supporters of a united Ireland were repelled by Mr. Reagan’s warm friendship with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whom many Irish blame for presiding over the death of 10 Irish Republican Army and Irish National Liberation Army hunger strikers in 1981.

When the little-known National Statuary Hall Collection was established July 2, 1864, an advocate for its creation, U.S. Rep. Justin S. Morrill, asked rhetorically: “To what end more useful or grand, and at the same time simple and inexpensive, can we devote [the Chamber of the Capitol] than to ordain that it shall be set apart for the reception of such statuary as each State shall elect to be deserving of in this lasting commemoration?”

Mr. Pritchard’s resolution, if passed by the state House, would require approval by the state Senate and Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, a Democrat. The measure had one co-sponsor as of March 4, fellow Republican David Reis. Passage is far from certain, as the Democrats hold majorities in both the House and Senate. The current legislative session ends May 27.

The process for replacing statues was set out in a federal law passed in 2000, despite Morrill’s purpose of a “lasting commemoration.” Only one state to date has availed itself of the law; Kansas replaced a statue of postwar Gov. George Washington Glick, a Civil War veteran of the 2nd Kansas Infantry, with one of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Five Union generals (Shields; Francis Blair, Missouri; James Garfield, Ohio; Philip Kearny, New Jersey; and Lew Wallace, Indiana) and four Confederate generals (Wade Hampton, South Carolina; Joseph Wheeler, Alabama; Robert E. Lee, Virginia; and Edmund Kirby Smith, Florida) are represented in the collection, along with Jefferson Davis of Mississippi; his vice president, Alexander Stephens of Georgia; and Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, President Lincoln’s first vice president.

“Shields has vanished from the face of American history,” although not from American politics, laments Mr. Callan, the Shields biographer, who notes the great difficulty he had in learning about Shields even in Shields Township, where Mr. Callan lives.

Mr. Callan recalls unflattering attention Shields garnered five years ago, during the successful Senate campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York. Some pundits compared her move to New York before her campaign to Shields’ shifting of his residence while gaining election to Senate terms for three states.

Mr. Callan says this analogy was unfair, as Shields didn’t relocate to better position himself for office. Turning the argument around, he refers to Alan Keyes, recently defeated Republican Senate candidate in Illinois. “Talk about carpetbaggers, Keyes is from Maryland.”

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