In a way that seems completely anathema to Australians, Americans love nothing more than celebrating their political leaders and commemorating their storied lives, on everything from throw pillows to carvings upon mountainsides. The focal point of this adoration has always been the Presidency. It’s a tradition that began with George Washington, a man whose personality and character made possible the once radical experiment of an elected head of state. His willingness to share and ultimately relinquish power ensured the survival of the democratic spirit that had elsewhere so often failed at the hands of elected dictators.
Not known for their understatement, Americans have continued this tradition in grand style, erecting hundreds of monuments and museums around the country to celebrate their ‘leader of the free world’, with varying results. Here is a selection of some of the more thoughtful, beautiful and intriguing amongst them.
1. The Washington Monument – Washington, D.C.
A project that would take nearly 40 years to complete, the Washington Monument is the foremost memorial to America’s first president. Though many elaborate designs were initially proposed, a simple obelisk of bluestone, marble and granite was ultimately agreed upon, capped at its apex with aluminium. It was the tallest structure in the world upon its completion in 1885, and today offers the best views over the city to which George Washington gave his name.
2. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello – Charlottesville, Virginia
One of the great polymaths of his age, Thomas Jefferson’s greatest achievements extended far beyond his two terms as president. From his designs of the house and estate (inspired by ideas of the renaissance), to a dumb-waiter for wine hidden in a fireplace he built, Monticello is a beautifully preserved example of the 3rd president’s incredible intellect and ingenuity. Yet Monticello also reveals some of the great paradoxes at the heart of Jefferson’s life – his estate was perennially on the edge of bankruptcy and dependent on the labour of hundreds of enslaved blacks. For the man who had penned “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”, it was a moral quandary that would torment him and his legacy.
3. James Buchanan’s Wheatland – Lancaster, Pennsylvania
James Buchanan had a decorated political career, but what he had hoped to be his crowning achievement ultimately became four unhappy years of presidency just prior to the Civil War. Despite his considerable skill and experience, Buchanan found he could not avert the looming disaster, and seven states were in rebellion when he passed the baton to successor Abraham Lincoln, who would within a month be fighting America’s bloody Civil War. Buchanan took much of the blame for the failure to avert a war, and retired a broken figure to Wheatland, his beautiful Federal-style estate in the South Pennsylvania woodlands. Though often ranked as America’s worst president, his home museum now stands as a thoughtful exploration of how sometimes even the most powerful and talented of leaders cannot always change the course of history.
4. Lincoln Memorial – Washington, D.C.
Though hundreds of roads, counties and brands bear the Great Emancipator’s name, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington is the most beloved. Daniel Chester French’s sculptural masterpiece of a seated Lincoln sits enclosed in a Greek doric temple, straddling the Potomac River and the National Mall. Completed in 1922, the Lincoln Memorial is one of the closest things to sacred space that can be found in the USA, particularly for African Americans. Subsequent events, most notably Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, have continued to make the Lincoln Memorial an ongoing reminder of what Lincoln himself sought – to continue the struggle to realise the ideals of the republic on which it was founded.
5. Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill – Oyster Bay, New York
A force that was larger-than-life, Teddy Roosevelt embodied the excitement and energy of America at the turn of the 20th century, ready to make its mark on the world and take its place as the foremost economic and military power. His achievements were remarkable and varied, from breaking up some of the biggest American corporations and establishing America’s first National Parks to building the Panama Canal and brokering the peace treaty of the Russo-Japanese War. His home at Sagamore Hill on New York’s Long Island, in which he lived from 1885 to his death in 1919, is a fascinating insight into the man and his times. You can see everything from exotic trophies from his hunting expeditions, to scholarly works and technical treatises on the newest knowledge of the age.
6. Woodrow Wilson International Center – Washington, D.C.
Woodrow Wilson was the only US president to hold a doctorate, and while in office was dedicated to fostering a positive role for the United States in spreading democracy, maintaining peace, and building global institutions. His greatest project was the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations, yet domestic politics in his own backyard thwarted his internationalist ambitions. Though not a conventional tourist attraction, the Wilson Center in Washington, dedicated to continuing his work, is one of the world’s most respected think tanks on international affairs, and the Wilson Quarterly is an exceptional non-partisan publication on the issues facing the globe.
7. Herbert Hoover National Historic Site – West Branch, Iowa
Herbert Hoover, the 31st president, had an unlikely story. Born into a tiny farming community in rural Iowa and orphaned at age nine, he made his fortune as a self-made mining engineer in Australia and China before mounting a successful second career as a bureaucrat and administrator, and eventually mounting a successful run for president despite never having previously held elected office. Much was made of his rags-to-riches story, and his birthplace became a tourist attraction during his presidency as a symbol of the small-town America that was rapidly disappearing under industrialisation. Today over 48 hectares of West Branch has been protected and restored to Hoover’s period, protecting not just Hoover’s birthplace, but the bygone part of America into which he was born.
8. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum – Boston, Massachusetts
With beautiful views overlooking Boston’s Dorchester Bay, the Kennedy Presidential Library commemorates a life and presidency that was cut tragically short. The building itself is an architectural jewel by renowned architect I.M. Pei, and explores not just the defining events of the Kennedy years – the space race, the Cuban Missile crisis and the civil rights movement – but the extraordinary contributions made by his brother Robert Kennedy, his wife Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and the later generations of the Kennedy family.
9. Lyndon B. Johnson Ranch – Stonewall, Texas
A garrulous Texan who could charm and intimidate in equal measure, it was Lyndon Baines Johnson who achieved many of the landmark changes that Kennedy had first promised, including great leaps in health, education, social security, and at long last the legislation that would dismantle segregation and disenfranchisement of blacks in the South. The Vietnam War would be his final political puzzle and one he couldn’t solve, and it overshadowed many of his achievements. Johnson’s lifelong home was in the Texas Hill Country, and his ranch in Stonewall was the ‘Texas White House’ – more than 20% of his presidency was spent there. Visited by dignitaries from across the nation and world during his term, the preserved ranch (and nearby library in Austin) commemorates his remarkable but complex legacy.
10. Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum – Yorba Linda, California
Perhaps the most complex of all the presidents to understand, Richard Nixon has become a byword for corruption and political malfeasance. Yet behind that reputation lies one of the most intelligent, but insecure, men ever to occupy the Oval Office. Never particularly sociable or popular, Nixon’s drive and intellect led him to a long but hard won political career and a long list of achievements as president. Yet his drive often turned to obsession that was to be his undoing, and the Watergate scandal which ended his career forever changed American politics. His home and library, set amidst beautiful parkland in Southern California, offers an engaging and unorthodox view into Nixon’s life and world, and a balanced reflection on the great highs and lows of his life.