Washington DC has the towering Washington Monument, the majestic Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson on the Tidal Basin… but those guys are all generally thought of as good, even great, presidents. “Buchanan was a great president too,” said absolutely no one – in fact, historians almost always rank him as the absolute worst president of all time. So why does he have a memorial?
His niece, that’s why. Buchanan never married, and so he tapped Harriet Lane to serve as White House hostess during his presidency. After Old Buck left office, the now-married and fairly wealthy Harriet Lane Johnston became a philanthropist, supporting children’s charities and donating a great deal of art to government museums (she’s the one responsible for the Buchanan bust at the National Portrait Gallery – it’s easy to spot because Buchanan looks like he’s sporting a mohawk).
Johnston was pretty much the only defender of the Buchanan Administration, but when you’re on the wealthy side you can mount a pretty good defense, and so in her will she left money to build a memorial to Uncle in Washington. This was free money to the government – the memorial would require no public funding – but lawmakers put off accepting the bequest for 15 years – remember, at the time DC only had the Washington Monument (though the Lincoln Memorial was in the works). No Jefferson, no anyone else – and the capital was going to have a Buchanan memorial? Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts was more than a little peeved: “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.” Finally someone noticed that the bequest had an expiration date, and so Congress finally approved it in 1918.
President Hoover was on hand for the memorial dedication: “James Buchanan occupied the presidency at a moment when no human power could have stayed the inexorable advance of a great national conflict,” Hoover said, and, given that he said this in 1930, with the Great Depression in high gear, he probably knew how Old Buck felt.
The Memorial, inexplicable as may seem, is quite nice. The impeccably-dressed Buchanan sits admiring the Constitution, or, possibly, glumly ponders his historical reputation. A side panel hails Old Buck as “The incorruptible statesman whose walk was upon the mountain ranges of the law.” In old school Roman style, all the U’s are actually V’s, so “Bvchanan” is actually walked on the “movntain range.” But the man has enough problems without me bringing up spelling.
Even nicer than the memorial: its setting, Meridian Hill Park (also called Malcolm X Park). It’s not near the Mall or even a subway stop, but a beautiful park with waterfall features, trees, He may be ranked last as a president, but his memorial isn’t.