Presidential Memorials and Public Memory

The Washington Evening Star, April 13, 1930

“Will the United States Government eventually decide on a national presidential shrine at Washington, to which may be brought the ashes of its chiefs?” asked an article in the Washington Evening Star in April 1930, shortly after the death of former president William Howard Taft. Suggesting that a multi-presidential shrine would add “a fitting touch of majesty to the capital,” it also noted that it would save time for visitors.

Some might argue that existing presidential shrines add a touch of majesty, yet the article provokes the questions: What are the many ways in which the U.S. memorializes its presidents, and why?

The nation’s presidential memorials both can be found in a wide variety of locations and take a wide variety of forms. Many presidents are commemorated at their burial sites around the United States. Some of these, like the tombs of Warren Harding and James A. Garfield, feature imposing architecture while others, like the grave of Calvin Coolidge, are more modest.

Lincoln Monument for the U.S. Capitol grounds, proposed but never built

Presidential memorials created in the nineteenth century sometimes feature statues, like the mounted figure of Andrew Jackson across from the White House, or obelisks, like the Washington Monument a mile or so away. In 1880, a visitor to Washington, D.C., who asked to see the Lincoln Memorial might have been directed to a statue in Lincoln Park. A traveler stopping in Springfield, Illinois, with the same question would have been pointed toward a granite tomb topped by both a statue and an obelisk.

Memorials in the twentieth century often took the form of larger monumental buildings, like the Lincoln Memorial on today’s National Mall. The Library’s James Madison Memorial Building, in addition to being a busy workplace, is the nation’s official memorial to Madison, who first proposed that the Continental Congress should have a library. Some presidents are commemorated by their presidential libraries and some by living memorials, such as arts centers, policy forums, and scholarship programs.

Invite students to explore the nature of commemoration and of memory.

  • Ask students to select an image of a presidential memorial and to identify the different elements of the memorial, including symbols, figures, text, and materials. Encourage them to speculate about what message the memorial communicates about the president, and to describe how these different elements help convey that message.
  • Ask students to identify a recently created memorial to a public or private figure with whom they are familiar, whether a physical memorial or some other commemoration. What elements of this memorial make it effective? What does it say about its subject? Students might speculate about whether this is the way in which the subject of the memorial would like to be remembered.
  • To extend either of these activities, you might also whether the current general view of the individual commemorated by the selected memorial is still consistent with the view that the memorial conveys.

Do your students have memorials or monuments that they remember as being especially powerful? Please let us know in the comments.

One Comment

  1. Rebecca
    February 15, 2019 at 8:27 am

    This is really an excellent activity idea. I would be interested to read a post related to controversial statues and monuments that have garnered attention in the media and in towns across the US.

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