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