When I took this photo in Washington in November 2013, I could not foresee using it anytime soon. Then New York Times columnist Gail Collins’ piece from earlier this week, “Hillary Versus History,” engaging in what she called “random irrelevant trivia about presidential elections of the past”—but which, one suspects, she regarded as anything but irrelevant to today—gave me the opportunity.
The last time one Democrat was elected to succeed another, without first becoming Vice-President, was when James Buchanan followed Franklin Pierce, back in the election of 1856. That one didn’t go over terribly well. Buchanan, despite one of the most glittering pre-Presidential resumes in history, became a disaster.
Was Buchanan “the worst President ever,” as Collins suggests? My vote still goes to Richard Nixon, for his cynicism, vindictiveness, and the gargantuan set of scandals that, for the sake of simplicity, is now remembered with the word “Watergate.”
But I’ll grant Collins the point that even Tricky Dick has not only defenders, but even Democratic historians who, looking back in the 35 years since Ronald Reagan entered the Oval Office, reluctantly allow that this GOP predecessor had his good points as far as domestic policy was concerned (e.g., the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency).
Collins is indisputably correct, that “you very seldom run into fans of Buchanan, the man who cozied up to slaveholders and failed to stop Southern secession.” That is why, when I came upon the James Buchanan Memorial in today’s “Photo of the Day” a year and a half ago, I was absolutely dumbfounded.
I’m not going to get into the aesthetics of this sculpture of James Buchanan by Hans Schuler in DC’s Meridian Hill Park (now also nicknamed “Malcolm X Park”—a moniker that, if Buchanan could hear it now, would give this Northern “doughface” sympathizer of the South fits). But I must say that I had a WTF? moment when I read its inscription: “THE INCORRUPTIBLE STATESMAN WHOSE WALK WAS UPON THE MOUNTAIN RANGES OF THE LAW.” And framing him between statues of "Diplomacy" and "Law"--too much!
The only people who could have wanted such a memorial made, with such a ludicrous description of his character and legacy, would have been Southern Democratic segregationists who never got over their loss in the Civil War, I figured. But not so—they weren’t pushing to see him honored, either. On the other side, there was active opposition from the most prominent Senate Republican of the time, Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, who noted that the statue would honor the only president "upon whom rests the shadow of disloyalty in the great office to which he was elected."
So who wanted it? As Brady Carlson wrote, in an entertaining post on the memorial, it was Buchanan's niece. Yes, his niece.
The only bachelor to become President, Buchanan never had any offspring. (I’m not going to get into the issue of whether or not he was gay—not in this post, anyway.) But he needed someone with the feminine touch to help with social occasions. When the widower Thomas Jefferson became President, that function was filled by the wife of his Secretary of State, Dolley Madison (giving her great on-the-job training for when she officially filled the role, as the actual President’s wife). Now, under Buchanan, that function was performed by Harriet Lane. It is one of the great anomalies of White House history that the first person known to have been called “First Lady” was not the wife of the President, but his niece.
Buchanan looked on his niece not just as something like his daughter (he had, in fact, adopted her, after the death of both her parents when she was 10) but also—surprisingly enough for someone so conservative—as an intellectual equal, someone whom he could sound out for advice on career decisions, for instance. Twenty-six years old when her uncle was inaugurated, she was, by all accounts, a lively, intelligent young woman who, in a different time, might have aspired to high office herself.
James Buchanan’s life was blighted by national tragedy; Harriet’s, by personal tragedy, as her husband and two sons died within three years. Quite affluent by this time (the mid-1850s), as a result of inheritances from her uncle and her banker husband, she devoted the remainder of her life, as recounted in this 2006 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article by Mark Roth, to eminently worthwhile philanthropy: improving prison and hospital conditions, establishing an institute for the blind in New York and fighting illegal liquor sales on Chippewa Indian reservations.
But part of her estate, at the time of her death in 1903, was earmarked for a memorial to her uncle. Nowadays, the government would practically grab with both hands at a project in which no public funds would be expended (particularly when what would be $100,000 in today's currency would be involved), but for a long time there were no takers. Then, with somebody noticing that her bequest came with an expiration date—15 years—lawmakers reluctantly signed on, perhaps consoling themselves with the thought that the project might more work for the construction industry.
Though Woodrow Wilson signed the legislation enabling the memorial, it was another President, almost as maligned as Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, who spoke at the monument’s dedication. Hoover—beleaguered, in the form of the Great Depression, by the steepest challenge to face an American President since the secession movement that made Buchanan so unhappy—made one assertion that, while historically debatable, was, given his own predicament, heartfelt: “James Buchanan occupied the presidency at a moment when no human power could have stayed the inexorable advance of a great national conflict.”
But another sentence, about the contribution of Buchanan’s niece to this most unexpected bit of DC memorial art, was inarguable: “It is due to Miss Lane's devoted appreciation of his kindness that this statue has been erected."