Matthew Landis

this is my serious face

I did a Social Media fast. Here's what happened.

The week before Easter, my writing buddy and possible catfish, Dave Connis, suggested we disconnect from the two most time-consuming social media platforms: Twitter and Facebook. We did it for different reasons, had different experiences, and decided on different strategies moving forward. Here’s my side.

Why: Because I had a sneaking suspicion that I looked to Social Media to fill some hole in my life, but deep down I knew it wasn’t really working.

I probably check Twitter two hundred times a day with one overriding purpose: validation. Could be a new follower, a “heart” on something (supposedly) hilarious I said, or a mention—anything to let me know what I so desperately hope to be true: that people think I'm awesome. That I am funny, desired, sought after. That what I am doing with this whole writing thing matters and makes me important. Validation.

But I wondered: If Twitter could do that, why wasn’t it actually doing that for longer than 10 seconds? Meaning: Why did the small bits of validation which resulted from my perpetual Twitter checking not result in any long term validation—a peace, or sorts? More worrisome was this question: Why did I actually feel more anxious the more I was on Twitter? I realized these are all good questions for my therapist, but they were more important questions to directly ask myself. Maybe they’re important questions to ask yourself/your therapist too. I’m sure the answers will differ, as you and I probably struggle with different strains of whatever this is, but it might help to expose some things. For me, it was a deep and abiding insecurity I hoped Twitter would abate, but which it in fact exacerbated. So I decided to take a break.

The experience: Like the sweet relief of a long hoped for bowel movement.

It was almost as if my soul was craving to be starved from Twitter, which might not actually make any sense. But it’s true: the relief was undeniable. It rushed in when I deleted the app and grew over the next ten days. Yeah, I felt unconnected, but within a day I realized that the connection didn’t really matter for the overarching narrative of my life. I’m not saying Twitter is inconsequential—though it’s fo shizzle less consequential than we’re all making it. I’m saying that the place it had in my life was suddenly exposed to be unimportant. More specifically, the fast exposed Twitter as an obstacle to real peace. To go Biblical on you, when I stopped looking for meaning in this thing that couldn't deliver, my anxiety over how funny/awesome/likable people think I am dropped significantly. I didn't waste as much mental space crafting (supposedly) clever tweets whose reception I later agonized over. My phone in general competed far less with my family, incessant puppy filter Snapchats of my daughter aside. I'm only human. 

Avoiding Facebook gave me another type of relief: a break from my cringingly shameful condescension. While fasting, I couldn’t fall into my default mode of “judge the crap out of pretty much everybody” for posting things that I’d never post out of fear people would judge the crap out of me. That is to say: I was unable to project my natural insecurities onto others because I wasn’t giving the worst version of myself repeated opportunities to do so. And yes, I missed out on some cool stuff that probably happened to my friends, but to be completely honest, I didn’t feel like I missed a thing. I felt free. 

Moving forward: I will attempt to occasionally swim in the Social Media ocean instead of purposefully drowning myself in it. 

I can’t avoid Twitter or Facebook forever, and I don’t think I need to. I also can’t dismiss the positive things the platforms can bring: without Twitter, I’d have never met Dave. Yes, he/she is probably a fifty-eight-year-old Norwegian expat having a hilarious time catfishing me from his/her basement apartment in Denver, but the friendship has given us a space to share the ups and downs of an industry that is, at times, the very definition of soul crushing. I rely on that, and I have it because of Twitter. 

My plan is kind of aggressive: to check Twitter/Facebook once a day, for no longer than it would take a moderately in shape person to run a mile. Eight minutes, say. Maybe nine. I’m sure this will ebb and flow as life happens, but it’s a necessary step for now. I just can’t continue on like I was because the fast proved something I can't ignore without becoming the very definition of a fool: that which I seek to make me whole often leaves me a little more hollow. 

And now, I’m off to binge Daredevil Season 2 on Netlfix.

Deifying the Founders Actually Lessens Their Legitimate Greatness

I grew up thinking Jefferson was pretty much a god. I mean, of course I did, because in middle school I learned that he authored the Declaration all by himself—a gigantic deal, as it’s arguably our country's most important document behind the Constitution. In high school I visited the Capitol and gaped at his monstrously domed memorial. In college I pilgrimaged to Monticello and reverently strolled through his plantation and nearby university. To say that I put Jefferson on a pedestal would be to say that the Arctic was cold: an almost fatally hilarious understatement.   

And then I went to grad school.

Suddenly, Jefferson became more complex. I learned that other colonial legislatures had declared their independence from England prior to Jefferson’s document, and that he didn’t write it alone (a committee helped edit, including Adams and Franklin, followed by a further Congressional hack job).[1] I uncovered a self-promoting Jefferson, who masterfully participated in making sure posterity remembered his Declaration.[2]  I encountered a profoundly hypocritical Jefferson, seen most annoyingly in his elusive habit of playing hide and seek with his conscience (among these, bemoaning the evils of slavery while perpetuating the practice).[3] And I discovered a plantation owner whose estate was not the benevolent rural picture created by historians who were blatantly burying primary source material that highlighted the Founder’s crueler side.[4]

I wouldn’t say that I was devastated; I was just really disappointed. I’d deified this guy—or rather, he’d been presented to me as deity. And I liked that narrative. It was attractive and comfortable and supremely regal. I inhaled it. I washed it down and asked for seconds. The only problem was that flaws riddled this narrative. But that just created another problem, because the haters—modern observers who gleefully, albeit correctly, decry Jefferson’s glaring faults—also ignored his deserved accolades.[5] That is to say, the backlash of hard truths that tore down Jefferson’s god-like status inevitably downplayed what originally caused my misguided worship in the first place—further muddling his legacy. Ironically, deifying Jefferson actually ended up lessening the Founder’s legitimate brilliance.  

Take this hilarious example: in his mid-twenties, Jefferson fell for his best friend’s wife. He was crushing hard. So hard that he brazenly and repeatedly propositioned her over the course of several years. At a house party he secretly slipped a love note into the cuff of her dress sleeve; at another party, he pretended to feel ill, raced to her bedroom, and tried to bargain his way inside.[6] Let that sink in for a minute. These aren’t the actions of someone who belongs in the Founder Pantheon; they’re embarrassing plot points in the Real Housewives of Colonial Williamsburg.

But I think we’d all agree that to whitewash Jefferson based upon this instance—which we can also all agree was pretty devious—misrepresents him. The story only proves that Jefferson could be a scoundrel. I’m on board with that; I get it. I’m well aware that morality is not a prerequisite for statesmen (Google 'philandering U.S. Presidents' for a complete list). And I agree that examples like this help expose the silliness of deification. After all, deities don’t go around starting illicit affairs (except the Greek and Roman ones, who seemed to rather enjoy it).

But if, in warring against deification, we downplay Jefferson’s accomplishments—that too presents a misleading portrait of the Founder. After all, he did some pretty monumental things. Things like penning The Virginia Statutes for Religious Freedom that would become the forerunner of our much-loved First Amendment.[7] Things like authoring a bill to establish free public education for girls and boys.[8] Things like founding the University of Virginia.[9] Things like revolutionizing gardening techniques and American cuisine.[10] Things that have profoundly changed the political, educational, agriculture, and dietary landscape of this nation.

Since Jefferson was neither deity nor demon, let’s treat him as neither. Let’s treat him as a human, because doing so will a) allow us to fully appreciate his accomplishments and b) still mollify our inherent bloodlust for pointing out others’ hypocrisy. To use Jon Meacham’s summation of another much-maligned president, Andrew Jackson, “Not all great presidents were always good.”[11] This also applies to Jefferson, I think. He possessed astounding intellect across various spectrums, but he was also a hapless hypocrite who formulated mind-numbing excuses to avoid terrible truths. Why does that surprise us? We’re no different. Just because we haven’t tried to lure our best friend’s wife into an illicit affair (hopefully you haven’t, and if you currently are, stop it) or railed against slavery while practicing slavery, doesn’t mean that we’re not of Jefferson’s stock: human stock. Stock deeply flawed. Stock that habitually refuses to practice what we preach. Stock capable of great good, but also great evil.

I get that our acute cynicism, sharpened by enlightened modernity, justly won’t let this hero cult stuff stand. But neither should we get so busy tearing down the god-like status of Founders like Jefferson that we omit their astounding accomplishments. Striking a middle ground will no doubt make both the lovers and haters uncomfortable, but that vantage point provides a far more honest assessment.   


[1] Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 48, 99.

[2] Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Thorndike, Me.: G.K. Hall, 2000), 308.

[3] Ibid, 315.

[4] Weincek, Henry. "The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson." Smithsonian. Last modified October 2012. Accessed October 13, 2015. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-dark-side-of-thomas-jefferson-35976004/?no-ist.  

[5] A Sally Hemings message board on Monticello.org displays some hilarious back forth between the Jefferson lovers and haters—http://www.monticello.org/site/plantation-and-slavery/thomas-jefferson-and-sally-hemings-brief-account 

[6] Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (New York: Random House, 2012), 42.

[7] Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom," Virginia Historical Society, accessed October 21, 2015, http://www.vahistorical.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/thomas-jefferson

[8] Anna Berkes, "A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge," Monticello, last modified April 2009, accessed October 21, 2015, http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/bill-more-general-diffusion-knowledge.

[9] "Founding of the University," University of Virginia, last modified August 3, 2010, accessed October 21, 2015, http://www.virginia.edu/uvatours/shorthistory/

[10] Peter J. Hatch, "Thomas Jefferson's Legacy in Gardening and Food," Monticello, last modified 2010, accessed October 21, 2015, https://www.monticello.org/site/house-and-gardens/thomas-jeffersons-legacy-gardening-and-food.

[11] Jon Meacham, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (New York: Random House, 2008), 97. 

Trying To Get Published Made Me Kind of Miserable

You might find this post disingenuous since I already got a book deal; shelve that cynicism—at least until the end. I’m writing with unfiltered empiricism. 

A great struggle in my life has been to pursue something without letting it consume me. Exuberance defines me; I don’t know why, it’s the way I was made. That can be good—like how it motivated me to sprint into a packed lecture hall at Penn State wearing a heart-covered t-shirt and proclaim HAPPY SIX MONTHS to my then girlfriend (now wife). But it can just as easily make me miserable—like when I threw all of myself into trying to get published. Here’s how: 

1) Odds were I’d never get published. Less than 2% of completed manuscripts get a book deal. That statistic gnawed at me daily. Why wouldn’t it? The only logical response to this industry standard was crushing defeat—a feeling of frustrated worthlessness that I failed at that one thing I wanted. My heart perpetually had a book-shaped hole in it. I still loved to write; it still made me come alive. But each query rejection pushed me closer toward a feeling of obsolescence. Some nights my chest ached so bad that I actually couldn’t sleep; I cried once. I began to believe that only getting published would bring me lasting worth—even when a host of other things were, in reality, equal or surpassing in worth. Things like my actual job. Things like loving and investing in my wife and daughter. Things like helping the poor and sick in my community. Things that have lasting significance. Somehow, along the way, getting published went from a goal to a preeminent love. It consumed me. And while I still loved my story, trying to get it out into the world often made me kind of miserable. 

Then I crossed over. 

2) I’m getting published—but the shimmer has already begun to fade. I still wake up giddy that my dream has come true; but each time I do, the giddiness lessens. It’s not unlike staring into my closet each morning at that pair of shoes. When I bought them last year they actually made me feel like a better person; now they bore me. I’ve actually been thinking about going shopping. OK, fine—so I’ll just write another book. For a while it will feel good again—more heaping praise from friends and Twitter. But I know I’ll crave more. Maybe I write again and again and again; but the hunger will creep back. The joy I once had will turn out to be only circumstantial happiness more fleeting than morning dew. Like the first scenario, I’ll find less satisfaction in things that actually matter because what I’ve built my life around has not done what I hoped it would: fulfill me completely and indefinitely. I’ll have exactly what I wanted, but it won't be enough. Quite surprisingly, I might still be kind of miserable. 

This all sounds depressing; but it’s actually incredibly freeing. See, if I lower this pursuit of getting (or being) published to its proper place in my life, relief floods in. Why? Because I’m no longer exceeding the weight limit that the thing was meant to have. Let’s say I never got published. Yes, I would be incredibly bummed (exuberant people get very, very bummed—ask anyone who knows me). But after all the bumming, I’d realize that it didn’t really matter as much as I thought. I’d see a book for what it was: a book. I’d also be spared the illusion that getting published would make me eternally happy—and the ensuing emptiness when it doesn’t. And if I do get published, I’m not fooled by the shimmer. I’ll still celebrate and revel and get super freaking excited—all things I’ve done since my book deal. But if guard my priorities, I won’t grow hollow when the excitement wears off—which it will. Arguably, I’ll enjoy it more because I see it for what it is: something really, intensely cool—a serious accomplishment. But something temporary. Something fleeting. 

I struggle with this every single day; some days every moment. The stirring in my chest—once angst from the not yet and now joy from the finally—echoes an ongoing battle for supremacy. Writing has always wanted to be preeminent, and when I let it, it actually robbed me of some serious joy. I missed out on a lot of incredible moments and opportunities over the last couple of years because I was either tucked away writing or lost in my mind bemoaning my perceived writing failures. To believe that getting published would result in a different outcome flies in the face of what I know to be true about my own heart. However counterintuitive, I’m convinced that the more I build my life around writing—regardless of success—the more miserable I could very well become. 

But the thing is, I can’t stop writing. Like exuberance, it’s part of me. It makes me feel alive. So what now? 

What nothing. I keep writing. I just don’t let it take over. 

Which is easier said than done.

That Time I Got A Book Deal

Apparently the relentless, soul-crushing pursuit of something can end in sweet, sweet vindication that (almost) makes up for the nights spent wondering: Is this going to actually ever happen? 

For me it happened last week when I signed a book deal with Skyhorse Publishing. Their children’s imprint, Sky Pony Press, will be publishing my debut YA novel in the Spring of 2017. 

But it started way before that. When? I’m not really sure when I inceptioned myself that being a writer is what I wanted. Early, I think—maybe way earlier than I actually can pinpoint. Who knows these things.  I can say more accurately that my first attempt at writing a book was eight years ago during student teaching. It was an awful, embarrassing attempt. Wincingly bad. More false attempts followed because that’s one thing I’m really good at: getting really excited about writing a book and then giving up after 3,000 words. I never planned or plotted or got feedback. I just kept it all to myself and did a bunch of really crappy writing. I was my own worst enemy.  

An M.A. in History at Villanova changed that, exactly how you’d assume: my professors completely shredded my writing. They Marine Corps Boot Camp Drill Sergeanted me. I was bushwhacked. If it was a movie, it would be rated R for extreme and gruesome violence. I went into that program thinking I knew history and how to write; I quickly realized that I didn’t know history and that I had a serious crap-ton to learn about good academic writing. That was hard.  As someone patently insecure, I struggled taking criticism. I didn’t get defensive, but instead convulsed with unnecessary panic. I worried that I’d made the wrong choice to start the program and that I couldn’t get the grades needed in order for my school to partially reimburse me. Around that time my wife reminded me that I live in habitual hyperboles. She told me to relax. Things got better. 

Toward the end of that program—Fall 2012 I think—the idea for this particular book settled in my mind: a young adult thriller laced with Revolutionary history, but completely modernized. By now I’d honed my writing to a not-awful level and felt really good that a graduate journal had published one of my papers. But I wanted more. Yeah, there’s notoriety from other history nerds, and yeah, my professors were proud; that meant a lot, and I beamed under their condoning nods. But I wanted to write something that was going to be read outside academia—something, that in my mind, actually mattered to me and my eighth graders. In one of the few decipherable lines of Moby Dick, Melville surmised my angst best: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.”

My mighty theme sprang from a deep well fed by two underground rivers: a father’s unwavering love for his son, and the concept of inherited treachery—being branded by the actions of one’s ancestor. While writing a paper on Revolutionary traitors that fall, this all sort of swirled together in my head and a question surfaced: where are the descendants of the Revolutionary generation today? Like, what’s Washington’s great-great-great-great whatever doing in 2015? Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a secret club of Revolutionary descendants today bonding over their ancestor’s mutual awesomeness? But there was a better question still submerged, way farther down that grabbed at my ankles: what about the traitors of the Revolution? Where are they? If Washington’s offspring are living the dream, then what about Benedict Arnold’s? And wouldn’t it be cool if the the descendants of the heroes still actively persecuted the offspring of the traitors out of some misguided sense of honor...?

And The Judas Society was born.

The journey from idea to draft to querying agents to rejections to more rejections was painful.  So painful.  A few highs, mostly crushing lows. And it all would have ended if not for my wife, whose constant support pushed me to keep writing and sending out queries—reassuring me that “someone will want this”. She counseled against my knee-jerk and ultimately foolhardy decision to self-publish just because I wasn’t happy with the current circumstance. And she was right. Ejecting from the cockpit and hoping the poorly packed parachute would save me wasn’t the right move; I just needed to get serious about flying the plane and figure out how to pull this thing out of the dive. 

Most critically, she kept me grounded (yes, this goes against the previous plane metaphor, just deal with it). She reminded me of a salient truth that I struggle with constantly: to make this pursuit ultimate—to give it a preeminent place in my heart above God, my wife, my daughter, above my community that I’m called to love and invest in—was dangerous. It would twist me, distort me, command my emotions and time and mental space in nefarious ways. In this she echoed Pulitzer-Prize winner Ernest Becker (yes, I just dropped a random, esoteric 1970′s cultural anthropologist on you) in The Denial of Death: if I found my “cosmic significance” in this book, I would deify it—problematic because it was never meant to bear the “burden of godhood”. Even if my dream of being published came true, it wouldn’t be enough. Pursue it, she counseled, but don’t make it more than it is. It’s just a book. 

You can see how I married up.

Fall 2014 things started to happen. Several agents expressed interest in the book, but the one who shared my vision wanted to see some edits before making an offer to represent it—wanted to see if I could maneuver out of some pretty tricky plot holes. It was a two-way job interview of sorts; I had to buy into her changes for the work, and she had to buy into my cleverness to actually make those changes happen. We both passed. The day before Thanksgiving, Lauren Galit of LKG officially offered to represent me. It was the hardest benchmark in my writing journey to reach, and the most critical. 

See, to get traditionally published today, you need an agent because publishers don't (or rarely ever) accept unsolicited manuscripts from unagented authors—see also: me. Agents know the market; specifically, they know what editors are acquiring and what they’re sick of. In exchange for a small percentage of future profit, they agree—after deciding they like you and your book and that it has a chance of selling—to represent you. Think of them as very picky trail guides who only agree to take the people they think can make it to the goldfields of California. (This is a historical reference, you see.) They don’t promise you success, just the chance of it; in exchange you give them some of the gold you find. Sure, you can go on your own, but most likely you’ll die of bear mauling or starvation or cholera (all of which can serve as metaphors for various types of nontraditional publishing). They act as editor, encourager, hard-truth sayer, and above all, champion of your work. A good agent has your back, but isn’t afraid to say things to your face. They also apparently live on their email.

Lauren’s edits, in conjunction with LKG’s associate agent and stellar Middle Grade author, Caitlen, were fantastic. She zeroed in on problems I overlooked, sniffed out narrative miscues, and thus pushed the book to an entirely new level. Edits were too numerous to count; think in the hundreds. It was both thrilling and excruciating. I was finally working with legit book people. I also most definitely sank near or into depression (habitual hyperboles, again). But the thing is, it’s what I needed. It’s what my book needed. 

May 2015 brought the awful, three-month wasteland of waiting known as “submission” where Lauren sent out the manuscript to interested publishers she’d previously hooked with a pitch. If you listen very carefully, you can still hear the deafening silence of that waiting. A rejection or two would trickle in with feedback ranging from good to oddly vague. More waiting. An editor would leave a press, and we’d have to find another one there. More waiting. A rejection with feedback that stung. More waiting. A tug on the line: an editor saying she’s halfway through and loving it. More waiting. Depression. Anxiety. 

Waiting. 

And then Lauren’s email: “The publisher wants to set up a phone call.”

The rest is not always downhill for all authors, but thankfully it was for me. Phone call with editor Alison Weiss at Sky Pony went fantastic; book was passed up the chain; book was approved. Offer was made; offer was accepted. Contracts were haggled over; contracts were signed. Author took selfie with contract. Agent submitted deal announcement to Publisher’s Weekly. 

Author screamed for joyous relief.  

Silver linings run through this journey. The difficulty of channeling my passion into this book yet not making it preeminent is for sure at the forefront. Another is that I’m not deluded—a latent fear always lurking in the back of my mind. That is to say, my ideas, prose, and ability to execute an idea can actually produce something desirable by people who publish books. My wife has always told me that I can write, and that my ideas were good. I believed her, but it was a hard thing to do. I am quick to self doubt by nature, preferring to think less of myself because it’s much safer. If I go into it saying “just a heads up: this isn’t that good”, then I won't feel the crushing disappointment if others don’t like my work. It’s a problem. Therapy is helping. 

The bitter sweet part of all this is that I’ll be giving up my teaching job. JK; I’d never do that. I need inspiration from my amazing students and faculty, not to mention the money. Not that this was ever about money—though to be clear writing is probably the worst way to make money, ever. Yes, money is good. I like money. I’d like more of it. But what I really wanted was a major league creative marketplace. I wanted someone—despite the subjectivity that governs life and the book business—to say, “We like your writing. We want others to read it. Come write for us. Join our team.”

Last week I joined the team at Sky Pony Press. There is no figure of speech to accurately communicate my state of happiness. My emotions transcend hyperbole. And yeah, there’s a ton more work ahead, and a publication date of Spring 2017 that feels like thirty years from now, but that’s fine because this adventure has been wild and this summer epic. I’ll never forget it. 

That time I got a book deal.

Hiding (But Still Honoring) Awful Presidents: The James Buchanan Memorial

Where does one hide the memorial of America’s consistently worst-voted president?  In the lower quadrant of a forgotten park, apparently, where no tourist could accidentally find it.

Exactly 1.5 miles north of the White House, nestled between 15th and 16th Street in the almost-completely gentrified and super trendy U Street Corridor sits Meridian Hill Park.  Like all parks everywhere, Meridian Hill has a unique history; like all park histories everywhere, it’s horribly and tediously boring. 

I’ll summarize.  The brainchild of Mary Foote Henderson, wife of a wealthy senator, Meridian Hill officially became a park in 1930.  It’s built on a hill, surprisingly called Meridian Hill. Architects call the style “neoclassical”, meaning the designers tried to recreate a Roman garden you might still see in Italy.  The park has three defining sections: a flat, tree-lined grassy mall area at the hilltop; a steep slope covered with criss-crossing walkways, groves, statues, and most notably, a thirteen-basin Cascading Waterfall; and a lower garden boasting a large reflecting pool.  It’s gorgeous.  On a recent DC trip to visit my brother-in-law, my wife, daughter, and I traipsed Meridian Hill jealously.  We wished it could replace our waterfall-less, statue-less suburban Philly parks.  We just have playgrounds.  And signs telling us dogs aren’t allowed in the playground area. 

And then I saw it—an imposing, twenty-yard marble wall centered by an equally imposing granite statue of a seated, brooding man.  “BVCHANAN”, it read, in that pretentious, neoclassical all-caps.  Two other Romanesque statues representing “law” and “diplomacy” served as, according to the Wikipedia entry I did while standing there, “bookends”.  I blinked, hilariously.  This couldn’t be real. James Buchanan (I’ll go ahead and spell it correctly for unpretentious clarity sake) cannot have a memorial.  The president is universally acknowledged as awful—often the worst, but never more than 3rd worst American presidents.  Standing there I wondered: did I fall into the park’s reflecting pool and into another dimension?  Because in this universe James Buchanan doesn’t deserve a statue, much less a giant wall of glory in an otherwise perfect park.  To quote historian Paul Finkleman, “If the measure of executive competence is the condition of the nation when the president leaves office, than Buchanan was unquestionably the least successful  president in U.S. history.”

Now it sounds like I’m dancing on the president’s grave.  Buchanan is dead, you might say, and no one’s perfect.  I agree; he is both dead and imperfect.  The same will one day be said of me.  (And of you, you neoclassical-loving prigs, wherever you are).  But let’s be clear: I'm not condemning him as a person.  I’m condemning his awful executing, crudely summarized here: doing nothing to stop the imminent Civil War, refusing to uphold the Constitution, opposing black suffrage post-war, and blaming the entire conflict on abolitionists (see Finkleman’s essay for the less-crude summary).  Buchanan’s memoirs are a laughable Ode to Slavery.  I’m also specifically condemning the 1918 Congress who approved the project.  Perhaps they were using World War 1 as a giant smokescreen, hoping the populace wouldn’t notice.  Maybe they were just bored.  Maybe disgust for Buchanan had faded to the point of ambivalence. 

See, here’s the truth: statues, by their very nature, honor.  No one walks by a brooding (and honestly very good looking) statue of James Buchanan and considers that his inaction deeply harmed our country.  More likely they think, “Wow, this guy did something worthy of getting his likeness turned into granite flanked by marble.  This guy is awesome.”  We’re talking serious cultural memory icons at work here.  Widener Law Professor Robert Lipkin puts it perfectly: “Icons embody our cultural memory and send messages that someone or some group want sent.”  That begs the question: who in their right mind would want to send a message that James Buchanan was in any way worth of honor?

His family, duh.   

Enter Harriet Lane, Buchanan’s niece—though daughter is more accurate, as he became her guardian when she was orphaned at age 11.  You can understand why her will included an explicit request to build a memorial to Uncle James and the lavish funds to do it.  No tax payer money required (which most assuredly it wouldn’t have received).  Awkward controversy abounded instantly, best summarized by then Mass. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge: “This joint resolution proposes at this moment, in the midst of this war, to erect a statue to the only President upon whom rests the shadow of disloyalty in the great office to which he was elected.”  Hilariously, the vote passed easily in both Senate (51-11) and House (217-142).  Again, perhaps Congress was just horribly bored.      

But this is important because it shows that those with money and influence can enshrine cultural memories that are dangerously misleading, if not outright false.  Yes, you are rightly thinking of the many Jefferson Davis statues—though to be fair, most of those are Lost Cause-era shrines built by former Confederate States or thinly veiled Confederate organizations.  Still, the point stands.  We build things to remember people how we want them to be remembered rather than how they ought to be remembered.  But that’s problematic—there is a right and a wrong.  These are Professor Lipkin’s “messages that someone or some group want sent.”  And it’s embarrassing that the U.S. Congress allowed it.

But in case you think I’m reading too much into the memorial, consider this quote that adorns the marble wall, penned by Buchanan’s Secretary of State, Samuel Black: “The incorruptible statesman whose walk was upon the mountain ranges of the law”.  This is either a tactful work of delicate prose—i.e., ignoring Buchanan’s glaring failures by making statements about his integrity—or the painfully bias input of someone who enjoyed Buchanan’s patronage. Technically, I’m not sure the quote is inaccurate.  But being “incorruptible” or “walking upon the mountain ranges of the law”—which I can only assume means he spent a lot of times in his personal library reading law books, looking down on mankind—doesn't warrant a memorial.  Chief Executives who actually executed the law deserve those.  James Buchanan is not one of them.

To close: no U.S. president was or is without fault.  That’s an assumed point of agreement, and the reason we won’t tear down the Washington Monument because the general owned slaves.  Or the statue of the much maligned Andrew Jackson on his horse just a few hundred yards from the White House.  But James Buchanan ought not to occupy the southeastern garden of Meridian Hill Park.  He does not deserve that small honor, even if his audience is limited to lounging millennials and wandering homeless.  Burying his memorial (pun completely intended) in Meridian Hill Park was prudent, even if unintended.  Still, Buchanan’s memorial insults and devalues the work of presidents who actually did their job.  

Not that it will keep me from walking through the park, though, upon my next visit..  That thirteen-basin cascading waterfall is pretty sweet.  And I suppose the architecture is too.  

You win, neoclassicists, like you always do.