Posted by: davepidgeon | January 12, 2009

Obscure presidential memorials


The White House stands illuminated at night.

The White House stands illuminated at night.

I’ll be heading to Washington, D.C., in a few days, and with the upcoming inauguration of Barack Obama, our nation’s first black president, I got to thinking. Washington is a city of monuments, statues and memorials; some solemn, some epic, some visually stunning. Who doesn’t want to see the Lincoln Memorial or the Jefferson statue or the Washington Monument? Stop there on any day, and you’ll see that their popularity didn’t stop when their time in the White House ended. But I pondered: What are the more obscure memorials to presidents?

Let’s start with the Ulysses S. Grant memorial on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. Odd that such a prominent place would pay tribute to one of the most disastrous and scandal-ridden administrations in U.S. history, but at the turn of the 20th century, some old Civil War veterans wanted their hero to be well honored and his reputation saved, just as he helped saved the union in ’64-’65 (that’s 1864-1865). The bronze statue is 250 feet wide and on axis with the more deserving Washington and Lincoln monuments. I don’t mean to take away from Grant’s accomplishments as a soldier – I don’t think its any coincidence that he’s depicted in military regalia riding a horse as if directing Union forces at Spotsylvania – but he hardly earned the right to be memorialized as a president. 

Writer Dennis Montagna had this to say in a July 2003 article:


By contrast, the Grant Memorial never achieved the prominence its patrons and designers had envisioned for it. Planned to be the centerpiece of an American Place de la Concorde that never took shape around it, Grant’s memorial is dwarfed by the Capitol behind it and the Mall that stretches before it. In addition, a vast fan-shaped reflecting pool placed in front of the monument in 1970 has lessened its impact by limiting visitor access and views.

The public personae of Lincoln and Grant have undergone similar fates. Lincoln’s stature has grown throughout the past century. Grant’s place in the public realm has diminished from its high point, as represented by his mausoleum, which is the largest of any American’s, built in the late 1890s on New York’s Riverside Drive.


Turning our attention now to a more successful president and commander-in-chief, Franklin D. Roosevelt received in 1997 an expansive, elaborate, slightly overdone memorial on the shores of the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial.

But that was not how FDR would have wanted it. Roosevelt had told a friend who was a Supreme Court justice that all he wished for in a memorial was for “it to be placed in the center of that green plot in front of the Archives Building. I should like it to consist of a block about the size [of this desk].”

Indeed, in the late 1960s, a small memorial to FDR sits on the grass at 9th and Pennsylvania Avenue. All it says is his name.

There are others, but I’ll conclude with a little hometown pride … well, more like laughter at the irony. James Buchanan, a Democrat from Lancaster, Pa., where I call home, is often considered to be the worst president to ever occupy the White House. Many will argue today that the current chief executive, George W. Bush, should have this honor, but I tend to disagree. Here’s why: For all of the mistakes and questionable decisions of the last 8 years, Bush never saw a single state SECEDE from the union. That, however, is the legacy of our James Buchanan, who saw seven bust out before he left office, and all he did was shrug. Buchanan took office in 1857, and he felt going to war to prevent the break up of the union was not legal. He supported a pro-slavery constitution in the Kansas territory, which their voters rejected, and he had claimed slaves were treated with “kindness and humanity.” Uh huh. He did, however, say secession was illegal, but if the commander-in-chief can’t put down treason and rebellion, who can?

Nonetheless, should you be in D.C., travel to Meridian Hill Park along Florida Avenue and 19th Street. There you will see a modest statue of Buchanan that is now 79 years old. I guess there’s still hope for Jimmy Carter, or Herbert Hoover.


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