Best of The Pietist Schoolman: Presidential Memorials

Jefferson Memorial
Licensed by Creative Commons (chadh)

For the first time in nearly three years, the Washington Monument will be open to visitors today. So this seems like a good time to revisit my February 2012 post on the history of that monument, and of presidential memorials in general.

Commemoration has been much on my mind since my trip to the battlefields and cemeteries of World War I, but I have to admit that I hadn’t given much thought to the nature of commemoration in this country, the center of which (sorry, Mount Rushmore) is Washington, D.C.

Of course, like many Americans I’ve seen the big three presidential memorials in DC up close: the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Jefferson Memorial. My favorite is the third. It’s well worth the walk, but in any event, I’d prefer it simply because of how it featured in the classic The Simpsons episode “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington,” when Lisa visits the Jefferson statue in search of wisdom:

LISA: Mr. Jefferson, my name is Lisa Simpson, and I have a problem.
JEFFERSON: I know your problem. The Lincoln Memorial was too crowded.
LISA: Sorry, sir.  It's just...
JEFFERSON: No one ever comes to see me. I don't blame them. I never did anything important.
Just the Declaration of Independence, the Louisiana Purchase, the dumbwaiter...
LISA: Uh, maybe I should be going. I've caught you at a bad time...
JEFFERSON: Wait!  Please don't go. I get so lonely...
FDR Memorial
The FDR Memorial – Creative Commons (onecle)

The John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame in Arlington and the newer Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial are also fairly well-known, the latter in large part because of the controversy surrounding how it depicts (or, from some folks’ perspective, obscures) FDR’s disability. But did you realize that the following presidents also have memorials in Washington, DC? (listed in order of construction, with the location)

  • Andrew Jackson (Lafayette Park, inaugurated 1853)
  • James A. Garfield (Capitol Hill, 1887)
  • Ulysses S. Grant (Capitol Hill, dedicated 1922)
  • James Buchanan (Meridian Hill Park, 1930)
  • Theodore Roosevelt (Theodore Roosevelt Island, 1932)
  • Lyndon Baines Johnson (Columbia Island, 1974)

There’s also an “Adams Memorial” proposed to honor John and Abigail Adams, their son John Quincy, and others in that illustrious line. It’s supposed to be unveiled in 2015, the same year as the scheduled completion of a Dwight Eisenhower memorial.

Which doesn’t sound like it would be all that controversial — unless you’re the Eisenhower family and you’re not happy with what one of America’s most-honored architects plans to do with the memorial:

Yes, it’s true that Dwight D. Eisenhower referred to himself as “a barefoot boy” in 1945 when he returned home victorious to Abilene, Kan., after World War II. And it was in that image that the architect Frank Gehry found inspiration for the design of the official memorial to Eisenhower for which groundbreaking is expected this year on the Washington Mall.

The design shows Eisenhower as a youth gazing out at images of his adult accomplishments against a backdrop of the Kansas plains. But the Eisenhower family objects to the design and is attempting to delay approval of the project in a dispute that has pitted a leading American family against one of the country’s most recognized architects. The family says Mr. Gehry should portray Eisenhower as a man in the fullness of his achievements, not as a callow rustic who made good.

“He was chief of staff of the Army; he was a two-term president of the United States,” said Susan Eisenhower, a granddaughter. “It’s in those roles that America has gratitude for him, not as being a young boy with a great future in front of him.”

The family has asked that the project be delayed until its objections are addressed, and others have joined its cause.

“The statue of Ike as a Kansas farmer-boy mocks the president as cornpone in chief, the supreme allied bumpkin,” said the nonprofit National Civic Art Society, which focuses on architecture and urban design.

(Read the full article here.)

On the one hand, Dwight Eisenhower has relatives and descendants who want to preserve his memory as they see it; on the other, they share his memory with an entire nation, and if he is to be commemorated in such a prominent public space, perhaps it’s not up to his family to decide the nature of that commemoration.

Presumably that problem will be resolved, but it’s interesting to learn that presidential memorials have long been sources of debate, in no small part because it’s been so hard for the representatives of the American public to figure out a type of commemoration appropriate to their experiment in liberty. How, most basically, can one reconcile the grandeur of monuments with republican virtues like simplicity and self-sacrifice?

This challenge goes all the way back to the first president. Broad agreement on the need for something to honor George Washington predated the city that bears his name. But as Kirk Savage writes in Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape, “Deciding on a fitting monument to the republic’s founding figure engaged the deepest questions about what kind of republic he had founded” (p. 36).

An equestrian statue of George Washington as commander-in-chief was central to Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s original plans for the new capital city. While Savage asserts that “Nothing more monarchical could have been imagined,” even the iconoclastic Republicans (who had destroyed the only equestrian statue in 18th century America, of George III in New York City) and their leader, Thomas Jefferson, went along with the proposal at first. But as that project languished for lack of money, a debate did stir over the question of what to do with Washington’s body after his death. As president Washington approved a 1793 plan that he be buried in a crypt beneath the new Capitol building, though he did not say so publicly (and his will specified Mount Vernon as the burial place).

His death in December 1799 happened to intersect with the increasingly nasty fight between his Federalist successors and the Republicans. The former now supported a proposal for a free-standing mausoleum (a pyramid) that would have been larger than the Capitol itself. Republicans were beside themselves were fury, with some going so far as to argue that monuments of any kind were obsolete (one proposed that history textbooks would take their place) and antithetical to republican virtue. The most famous counterproposal suggested a plain tablet on which any citizen could write (figuratively) his (or her?) own meaning.

Greenough, Enthroned Washington
Licensed by Creative Commons (Wknight94)

In the end, Congress deadlocked and the matter died. Washington’s body went to Mount Vernon, where it rests still. And no monument came into being until 1841, when Horatio Greenough unveiled a massive, semi-nude statue of Washington posed like Zeus or Jupiter. It stayed in the Capitol rotunda for two years before relocating outdoors, then into the Smithsonian Castle and finally to its present spot in the National Museum of American History, having long since “gone down in the annals of American art history as the most reviled public statue ever erected” (p. 49).

Meanwhile, in 1848 work began on the obelisk that’s become the Washington Monument, an effort directed by a private society — that ran out of money in 1854. For years the monument stood, two-thirds unfinished, as an eyesore, before finally getting new momentum at the Centennial in 1876. It was completed in December 1884 and dedicated two months later.

But what of that equestrian statue, you might wonder…? Well, one finally came into being on the eve of the Civil War. Dedicated in 1860, it stands in Washington Circle (part of the Foggy Bottom neighborhood).

However, this was the second equestrian statue erected in the United States. Indeed, the second equestrian statue commemorating a U.S. president. Its sculptor received the commission after completing a similar monument in 1853: a statue of Andrew Jackson that stands in the center of Lafayette Square, a public park directly north of the White House.

Andrew Jackson Statute in Lafayette Square
Licensed by Creative Commons (Navin75)

Which is nicely ironic, since Jackson played such a crucial role in the development of the modern Democratic party that emerged from Jefferson’s Republicans. And it was local Democrats who founded an association dedicated to commemorating Old Hickory, a project that gained momentum under the Democratic administrations of James K. Polk and Millard Fillmore. The group commissioned an appropriately populist choice to design and carve the statue: a former house plasterer named Clark Mills, who had no training as a sculptor but resolved to balance a bronze Jackson atop a horse standing on its two hind legs. According to an admiring writer who interviewed Mills at the time:

At first [Mills] declined [the committee’s commission], never having seen an equestrian statue. He was modest—that is his character. But the genius of his fame disturbed his rest, and woke up the strong native powers of his mind. It haunted his imagination. When all the world was asleep, a thousand beautiful forms floated before his waking visions. There was the great JACKSON, who has impressed the grandeur of the soul and the republican simplicity of his character on the institutions and mind of his country, and on the future of the world. (Washington Union, Jan. 18, 1853)

Intriguingly, there are echoes of the Eisenhower debate here. Mills claimed to consider capturing imaging Jackson at various stages in his life (“in the character of a poor peasant boy, of a hardy pioneer of the wilderness, of a Judge, of a Senator, of a General, and as President of the United States”) before settling on the military theme of Jackson as “hero of New-Orleans.”

As work on the statue continued into the fall of 1852, the New York Times (which deemed Jackson “the heart’s idol of his party, the man of iron will, who, with many great faults, had many greater virtues”) was not optimistic it would amount to anything, given the checkered history of efforts to commemorate the first president. After scoffing at a proposal for a privately-funded granite pyramid in honor of Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, the Times concluded archly that

…while the Washington monument continues an unfinished and unseemly mark of tardy gratitude… the corner stone of the Jackson pedestal is likely to crumble into dust ere it be capped by public munificence, or “voluntary subscriptions.” (Oct. 30, 1852)

While the author took solace in the thought that Jackson (“as in the instance of Washington”) would always have a monument “in the hearts (marble shall we call them?) of his countrymen,” Mills managed to finish the statue in time for it to be dedicated on January 8, 1853 — the 38th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans.

Stephen Douglas called Mills a ‘natural genius,’ and the Democrat-controlled Congress gave him a bonus of $20,000 (nearly double his original fee), plus the commission for the Washington equestrian statue. But Savage notes that the statue of Jackson inspired another reaction:

Mills’ statue had its critics, however. Over time the Jackson monument became, in professional art circles, a benchmark of popular tastelessness. For professional critics and artists it was a low-culture horror that brought to mind the circus, popular theater, and children’s toys. (Monument Wars, p. 80)

Nonetheless, for Savage, Mills’ statue of Jackson was a watershed moment, not only because it inspired a wave of statues in residential (not official) Washington, but as

…the model of the commemorative landscape to come. It was the first in a long line of portrait statues of military heroes, many of them equestrians. Decades later, visitors to the capital could easily observe that there were almost no statues of scientists or men of peace —much less figures of women!—to offset what one critic in 1900 called “this sculptured militarism.” Collectively, the city streets of Washington were becoming an outdoor version of the indoor military pantheons such as St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, though without the planning and coherence that European states brought to such commemorative projects. Most of the capital’s military figures were unabashedly commanding. While Greenough depicted Washington resigning his military command, Mills had Jackson reveling in it.


2 thoughts on “Best of The Pietist Schoolman: Presidential Memorials

  1. I like the Roosevelt statue because it is in keeping with the public perception of him at the time. Should memorials not reflect the life and times of those they honor?

    1. Absolutely – but I think some would argue that FDR’s disability was central to his life, even if it was kept out of public sight. This is one argument, perhaps, in favor of a more abstract symbol like an obelisk – the Washington Monument doesn’t even attempt to show us what the man it honors looked like (Washington as a military leader? a political one? a young man? an old one?), but it still prompts viewers and visitors to remember him.

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