"The Verdict of History": Defining and Defending James Buchanan through Public Memorialization

TR Number
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Virginia Tech

Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, decorum called for the veneration of past presidents as devoted patriots. The terms "sage" and "statesman," which became synonymous with patriotism, riddled the remembrances of every president during this period. The Civil War, however, marked a significant shift in national meanings of patriotism. Civic virtue and morality gave way to post-Civil War ideals of warrior heroism. No longer would presidents simply be expected to maintain virtue and character; rather, they were to exhibit the heroism of Civil War soldiers. For those presidents who did not meet the public's new patriotic criteria, their once untouchable legacies became contested terrain.

This thesis explores how changing definitions of patriotism influenced the public's consideration of and relationship with presidents, and how the former leaders — as well as their families and supporters — manipulated the nation's collective memory of their lives and administrations. It specifically focuses on James Buchanan (d. 1 June 1868), whose administration not only preceded the Civil War but also bore the brunt of post-Civil War opprobrium. Buchanan and his descendents repeatedly sought to refute the public's disparaging "verdict of history," which criticized the former president's passivity in response to secession as evidence of his lack of patriotism. Over time, various forms of monuments and memorials arose in an attempt to counteract this criticism. This thesis demonstrates that as the Civil War influenced meanings of patriotism, presidents and their descendants took measures to control public memory via increasingly innovative and elaborate forms of memorialization.

memorialization, James Buchanan, patriotism, Civil War, Memory