When I can motivate myself, I run. Armored in moisture-wicking layers, I hit the streets, jogging a route that takes me past a huge statue of George McClellan, a Civil War general probably best known for being canned. Although McClellan had won at Antietam, still the nation’s bloodiest single-day battle, President Lincoln fired him for being too reluctant to attack the Confederacy. If you live in Washington, you’ve surely passed the monument: It stands in the middle of Connecticut Avenue opposite the Washington Hilton, where Ronald Reagan was shot.
When I wasn’t worrying about having a coronary on my jog, I’d wonder how a fired general could get such a memorial. Maybe, maybe Douglas MacArthur. But McClellan? It seems even odder considering that McClellan won the Democratic nomination for president in 1864 and ran against Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War. He got trounced. McClellan wanted to keep prosecuting the war, but his running mate was a “Peace Democrat” who had no problem brokering secession—an appeasement that doomed any already-slim chance of unseating the Great Emancipator. After that, McClellan led a relatively quiet life, becoming the head of public works in New York City—although his son and namesake did become mayor in 1904.
How does someone like that get one of the best perches in the city? The answer, as with so many statues in D.C., is that he had ardent supporters. They commissioned a statue of the general, so it was raised. Today, interested parties might sink their money into ad buys or think tanks. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, public sculpture captured the hearts and minds of the elite.
You don’t need to be a plodding runner to appreciate Washington’s statues. They’re everywhere, and thanks to Pierre L’Enfant’s street layout—which is great on paper and terrible behind the wheel—you’ve surely been stuck around Dupont Circle (which bears a statue of Civil War Adm. Samuel Du Pont) or Washington Circle (which sports an equestrian statue of the first president near the university that bears his name). It’s an endless procession of white men on horseback. All totaled, Washington has close to 650 outdoor sculptures and architectural statues, according to James M. Goode, who literally wrote the book on the subject, Washington Sculpture.
How did a fired general get a statue? Maybe MacArthur. But McClellan?
All cities boast outdoor art, but capital cities have more because they represent a nation’s history, and they’re a magnet for embassies and other individual emissaries who want to raise memorials to promote their own country. Which is why Washington has a Joan of Arc statue presented by the women of France to the women of America. There’s a statue of the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran and one of the Spanish bard Pablo Neruda.
What I like is that the subjects are not all so heroic. Besides McClellan, there’s a huge statue of James Buchanan, widely considered one of the worst U.S. presidents because his dithering helped bring on the Civil War. A childless bachelor, Buchanan had a niece who commissioned the statue and had the money to build it. The statue is as grandiose as Buchanan is disdained. Among the absurd touches, it depicts him in judicial robes, even though he was never a judge.
I like the weirder statues, too. (There’s one of Sodom and Gomorrah over a building near Dupont Circle.) But it’s the odd juxtaposition of Washington statues that makes them somehow more poignant. Buchanan sits in a corner of Meridian Hill Park, just yards from a statue of Dante, erected on the 600th anniversary of the Italian poet’s death. Dante, holding his Commedia, looks stern. What would he and the lousy 15th president have made of each other?
The oddest—and yet most fitting—juxtaposition is on Massachusetts Avenue, where there’s a statue of Edmund Burke, the famed 18th-century conservative member of British Parliament who was an intellectual lodestar to William F. Buckley and a pre-tea party generation of American conservatives. (Burke advocated careful progress: He praised the American Revolution and condemned the more sweeping French one.)
It might seem odd that a conservative sits catty-corner from Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Federation of Labor. A cigar roller, Gompers was a leading light of the labor movement, and the AFL erected this rather overwrought tribute to him, complete with anthropomorphic depictions of “education” and “home,” dedicated by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. I like to climb on it and study hidden iconography of the time, such as the early railroad locomotive. (Reading Goode’s book on D.C. statues I learned that his monument is actually hollow; a pair of thieves once stored their booty inside of him.) But Gompers was outshone by other, more radical members of the labor movement—most notably John Lewis of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. In the end, Burke was more forward-thinking than most people realize, Gompers more reactionary.
There’s always an art fight in D.C. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was controversial, and battles still rage over whether the National Mall is too crowded. We bicker about art because, here at least, it still matters. That’s a good thing. It’s also another good reason to take up running.
This article appears in the January 29, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.