My latest project is to visit each of the gravesites of the US presidents and blog about what I learn about our culture. There will be strange stories, there will be somber stories, there will be everything in between. And you get to decide where I start!
The project will consist of 16 trips in all; on most of these trips I will visit more than one site. Trip details are below; once you’ve gone through them all, drop by the survey and cast your votes. Whichever trip you want me to do first I’ll do. I trust the people, you see.
Trip #1: New Hampshire
A number of presidents are considered failures; Franklin Pierce is one of them. But he had a pretty good excuse: everyone in his life was dying around him, including his sole remaining child and his own vice president, and his understandably inconsolable wife allegedly started holding seances. Pierce himself nearly bought the farm before taking office, which would have dumped a constitutional crisis on top of a family tragedy. Weâ€™ll explore all this, plus the incredibly back-handed way the world sent the man off to eternal rest.
Resources: none needed – we can walk to the gravesite and back.
Trip #2: Vermont
We all know the stories about Calvin Coolidge, aka, Silent Cal, and his gift of not gab, and he stayed true to that in death – he had no last words and his will is just 23 words long. The stoic Vermonter came from a long line of, well, stoic Vermonters. Heâ€™s also buried in a long line of stoic Vermonters, though in not nearly as prominent a place as his relatives who werenâ€™t President of the United States. Why? Weâ€™ll try to find out, but no guarantees – after all, Cal isnâ€™t talking.
Resources: none needed – this site is a day trip for us.
Trip #3: Massachusetts
President Number Two, John Adams of Massachusetts, spent his final years remembering the good old days with friend-turned enemy-turned-lifeâ€™s-too-short-to-hate-each other Thomas Jefferson. And in doing so, they apparently synched their biorhythms to the point that they died on the same day, which also happened to be the Fourth of July, a holiday each had no small part in creating. Adamsâ€™ last words – â€œThomas Jefferson survivesâ€ – werenâ€™t technically true, as TJ had passed on a few hours earlier, but still, what a way to go out. John’s son, John Quincy Adams, was no slouch in the dramatic death department, having been struck down while hard at work as a member of Congress. Quincyâ€™s list of achievements are long, yet he still gets buried by dear old dad? Welcome to the complex and sometimes claustrophobic family dynamics of the Adamses.
Resources: none needed– this site is a day trip for us.
Three lesser-known presidents, but three that tell us plenty about what the presidents and the presidency mean (and donâ€™t mean) to our culture. Martin Van Buren was a huge political talent – todayâ€™s strategists could learn a thing or two from his work – but heâ€™s underappreciated today, buried in his small hometown in New York and remembered, if at all, for presiding over a country in financial panic and a White House that (no joke) smelled like moldy cheese. Millard Fillmore, by all accounts, had little talent; even the White House website calls the guy â€œmediocreâ€! Chester Arthur wasnâ€™t great political shakes himself, but he was a snappy dresser, and his gravesite is pretty amazing, what with the weeping angel statue standing over his sarcophagus. They and their gravesites may be obscure, but do they have some stories to tell. This trip will also include a visit to the Buffalo site where President William McKinley was shot and where he died. Just in case three cemeteries wasnâ€™t depressing enough.
Resources: travel costs roughly $1365
Central Virginia is the final resting place of four US and one Confederate president; itâ€™s sort of like the Real World for dead chief executives. Thomas Jeffersonâ€™s gravesite at Monticello leads to plenty of interesting stories: how he personally oversaw every last detail of his grave marker, for one, and how the Jefferson family grew in a whole new way thanks to DNA evidence.Just down the road is Jeffersonâ€™s pal, James Madison, who followed TJâ€™s lead in life. In death, his house, Montpelier, is running the Monticello playbook as it transitions from a private residents to a public historic destination. Not too far away, in Richmond, lies James Monroe, in a fancy black cage of sorts, and John Tyler, the only American president to officially die a traitor. Even Jefferson Davis sort of came back into the fold before he passed. Weâ€™ll visit â€˜em all and tell some wild stories.
Resources: travel costs roughly $1371
Trip #6: Washington, DC
No place says more about how Americans memorialize their history and their presidents than the capital city. We start with George Washington, the first president and the first to pass on. Weâ€™ll find out about the last set of precedents Mr. Washington set: teaching the country how to mourn a departed president. Woodrow Wilson spent the last part of his presidency essentially a dead man walking; felled by a massive stroke, he spent months unable to work while the country dealt with the aftermath of World War I. Then he outlived his successor (!). Then we visit two American presidents buried at the countryâ€™s most hallowed ground, Arlington Cemetery. First, William Howard â€œTubbyâ€ Taft, who was not – I repeat, not – buried in a piano crate. And John Fitzgerald Kennedy, whose grave is probably the most elaborate, most touching and most lovely. Amazing that the whole concept was essentially put together in three days.
Resources: travel costs roughly $1067
Trip #7: Nashville, Tennessee
All things (and presidents) must pass, but Old Hickory Andrew Jackson managed to live through duels, bloody battles, assassination attempts, all sorts of illnesses. Weâ€™ll find out what finally did him in – although weâ€™re going to double-check to see if heâ€™s really dead, or if heâ€™s just laying in wait to get up and raise more hell. Not far away is James K. Polk, who arguably worked himself to death as president and died just a few months after his term was up. Heâ€™s buried on the grounds of the Tennessee state capitol – you know, just in case somebody needs extra help or something.
Resources: travel costs roughly $760
Trip #8: New York/New Jersey
Groucho Marx never liked contestants on his game show â€œYou Bet Your Lifeâ€ to walk away without a prize, so teams whoâ€™d run out of money would get a crack at a bonus question: â€œWhoâ€™s buried in Grantâ€™s Tomb?â€ Later, Groucho would ask similarly goofy questions with obvious answers, just to mix it up, but would usually congratulate them by saying â€œGeneral Grant is absolutely rightâ€ anyway. Weâ€™ll look at how Grantâ€™s Tomb became a cultural icon. Weâ€™ll also visit Franklin Rooseveltâ€™s tomb, which was the site of his, and the countryâ€™s first, presidential library; Teddy Rooseveltâ€™s gravesite – which is just bully; and Grover Clevelandâ€™s tomb. In fact, weâ€™ll visit that spot on two nonconsecutive occasions.
Resources: travel costs roughly $1281
Trip #9: Grand Rapids, Michigan and Springfield, Illinois
Everbody in politics thought of Gerald Ford as a nice guy. Then he died, and the gloves came off, upon the release of Thomas DeFrankâ€™s book â€œWrite It When Iâ€™m Gone,â€ full of Fordâ€™s off-the-record and very candid observations about his fellow politicos. Was Ford the only president to hold his tongue until death? Weâ€™ll find out. And then thereâ€™s Abraham Lincoln. This is the big one – every story here is worth a book of its own. Why schoolkids rub the nose of Lincolnâ€™s bust for good luck when they visit. Why the â€œtombâ€ you see at Lincolnâ€™s tomb isnâ€™t real, and why the actual tomb is twelve feet below, covered in concrete. Grave robbers, exhumations (some of Lincoln, some ordered BY him), rumors of seances in the White House, and a cross-country funeral procession that set the standard for presidential memorials to this day. And heâ€™s on the penny!
Resources: travel costs roughly $958
Trip #10: California
West Coast presidents representinâ€™! When Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974, more than a few angry Americans might have agreed with Hunter S. Thompson, who wrote in disgust â€œIf the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles.â€ But when Nixon died twenty years later, the disgraced former president had become a distinguished elder statesman – not the dark face of Watergate but the bold peacemaker who went to China. His funeral was redemption – even Thompson admitted the image-rehabilitating funeral was â€œNixonâ€™s last war, and he won.â€ Meanwhile, fellow Californian Ronald Reagan is so frequently mentioned in modern politics youâ€™d hardly know heâ€™d been out of the spotlight for twenty years and dead for eight. Heâ€™s like the Tupac of dead presidents.
Resources: travel costs roughly $993
Trip #11: Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Every few years somebody does a survey where prominent presidential historians rank the nationâ€™s chief executives. James Buchanan almost always comes in dead last, and for years I thought it was for doing nothing while the country moved toward civil war. Turns out it was his predecessor, Franklin Pierce, who did nothing – Buchanan actually did plenty, all of it exactly wrong. â€œPosterity will do me justiceâ€ indeed, although posterity has at least (barely) remembered him. Is there nothing we can learn from this guy?
Resources: travel costs roughly $605
Trip #12: Greeneville, Tennessee
Andrew Johnson is buried in a small town in eastern Tennessee; the nearest major airport is Charlotte, North Carolina, more than three hoursâ€™ driving away. Plenty of presidents have come from small towns like this, but few of them are buried in those small towns anymore (Jimmy Carterâ€™s beloved Plains, Georgia being the only modern exception). Weâ€™ll look at why presidential graves end up as much more prominent locales than they used to.
Resources: travel costs roughly $738
Trip #13: Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky
The presidency of William Henry Harrison, of course, is defined by nothing so much as his death, since he wasnâ€™t president long enough to have done much else. His grandson, Benjamin Harrison, was known for his cold, icy personality; little has changed. But the real breakout star here is Old Rough and Ready, Zachary Taylor, who died in office in 1850 but was exhumed in 1990. Had a president been murdered? No, but that was probably small comfort to him sitting in that examining room 140 years after the end.
Resources: travel costs roughly $1092
Trip #14: Ohio
Ohio has birthed more presidents than any other; sadly most of these have come home the hard way, which may be why Ohioans have built elaborate grave monuments to men who are largely forgotten. James Garfield and William McKinley were both assassinated, and the country responded with memorial donations large and small (McKinleyâ€™s even says it was paid for with the pennies of children- egad). Warren Harding died of natural causes, and while the rumors suggest a presidency and death fit for Dateline NBC, the real story is not about Hardingâ€™s supposedly â€œcuriousâ€ death but about his grieving dog, Laddie Boy, and how the country rallied around the little fella after his master went to his grave. (They even wrote a song to help the dog cope – I am not making that up.) Finally, Rutherford B. Hayes was president, and is now dead, and few write much beyond that about him. We donâ€™t expect to break that tradition.
Resources: travel costs roughly $1336
Trip #15: Texas
According to historian Michael Beschloss, on his first flight home after leaving office, Lyndon Johnson sat in his seat, smoking a cigarette. His daughter, remembering his near-fatal heart attack barely a decade earlier, took it away. His reponse? â€œIâ€™ve now raised you girls. Iâ€™ve been president. Now itâ€™s MY TIME!â€ And it was – for the next four years, he smoked like a chimney, ate himself into a new weight class and grew his hair out to near-hippie proportions. And brought on several massive heart attacks, one of which killed him. It was his time. Weâ€™ll look at why somebody might want several years of self-destructive â€œMY TIMEâ€ after living the pressure-cooker White House lifestyle. Weâ€™ll also look at the many things named after Lyndon B. Johnson – from space centers to freeways to medical centers in American Samoa (?). And since weâ€™re in Texas, weâ€™ll make a trip to Dealey Plaza in Dallas, where the guy before LBJ died. Explaining how that death went down is a little more complicated than â€œMY TIMEâ€ could ever be.
Resources: travel costs roughly $1111
Trip #16: Iowa, Missouri and Kansas
Three major modern presidents round out our cast. Herbert Hoover set records for presidential longevity – he was still writing to the White House to offer his services into his 90â€™s. Harry Truman, meanwhile, spent his twilight years at the library, and would no doubt be pleased that a series of well-received biographies helped rehabilitate his image. Dwight Eisenhower‘s image needed no rehabilitating, he was popular at the end of his term and has stayed that way. But Ike’s public image has changed somewhat; heâ€™s become a voice of warning of sorts. Not bad for a guy who supposedly spent his whole presidency on the golf course. And while weâ€™re in the neighborhood, weâ€™ll also visit the gravesite of David Rice Atchison, US Senator who claimed to have been â€œActing President for a Day.â€ Which isnâ€™t really true, but kind of is.
Resources: travel costs roughly $2014