If you are a regular or frequent visitor to these pages, then it will come as no surprise to you that I care a great deal about art, history, and civic spaces. So it was with great revulsion on Wednesday morning while reading coverage of the Occupy DC movement’s latest shenanigans at McPherson Square here in the Nation’s Capital, that I saw a photograph of the statue of General McPherson in the center of the square named for him, sporting a Guy Fawkes mask, and emerging from a giant plastic tarp that has been thrown over his monument. Several of my regular readers have asked for my comments about this, and while I am perhaps going to be moving a bit beyond what they intended, here goes:
It is time for Mr. Jonathan Jarvis, the Director of the National Park Service, to step down.
Now, before all of you over there on the Right think that I am taking this position because the Occupiers are a bunch of hypocritical scofflaw quasi-anarcho-hippie spoiled brats, which of course they are, you may be surprised to learn that this, alone, is no reason to oust them from the public square which they have occupied for the past several months. Much as my fellow conservatives do not want to admit it, because they do not like the mishmash of issues which the Occupy movement stands – or tokes – for, we are better off with a National Park Service, that is cautious with respect to how it treats protesters on public land. We have the freedom to say and do many things, thank goodness, including stupid things.
Otherwise, if there was a heavy-handed reaction to protesters in Washington, those of us who are Pro-Life for example would not have the opportunity to peaceably engage in the March for Life, which this year numbered roughly half a million people, and of course received far less coverage than the antics of the tent city dwellers in McPherson Square. I would suggest that in some respect, this is the fault of those of us on the side of life, as we are not being as vociferous as we ought to be…though that is a topic for another post.
The monument to Civil War Major General James McPherson – which by the way is pronounced “McFURson” rather than “McFEARson” because “There’s no fear in McPherson” – was sculpted by artist Louis Rebisso, on commission from the late General’s comrades at The Society of the Army of Tennessee, who paid $32,000.00 for it. This was following an Act of Congress authorizing the placement of a monument to the General in the capital less than one year after his death at the Battle of Atlanta in 1864, which indicates how well the General was thought of by many. The figure of the young military man on his horse is cast in bronze from captured Confederate cannons which were melted down for the purpose.
General McPherson was originally from Ohio; he rose out of poor circumstances to graduate first in his class from West Point, where he became an instructor in military engineering for a time before moving into experience in the field. He was regarded by all accounts as a great military mind on the rise, with a particularly good understanding of building defensive fortifications and improving the defense of harbor areas. General William Tecumseh Sherman was inconsolable after McPherson was killed, in part because the younger man had asked for a brief leave to go home and marry his fiancée, which General Sherman refused because he did not feel he could spare McPherson.
General Sherman wrote the following after McPherson’s death:
History tells us of but few who so blended the grace and gentleness of the friend with dignity, courage, faith, and manliness of the soldier. The country generally will realize that we have lost not only an able military leader, but a man who had he survived, was qualified to heal the national strife which has been raised by designing and ambitious men.
The Monument to General McPherson is part of a group of Civil War statues and monuments in the Nation’s Capital that were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, and which come within the purview of the National Mall and Memorial Parks spread around D.C. The care, cleaning, and preservation of General McPherson’s monument, therefore, is not the responsibility of the District of Columbia but rather that of the Federal government under the National Park Service. The job of the National Park Service, as described in the Act of Congress which created it, and was signed into law by President Wilson in 1916, is as follows:
The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations hereinafter specified by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments, and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.
It is apparent that the present Director of the National Park Service is not doing his job to protect this historic monument to General McPherson. One look at the photograph below will tell you that. Whether a tent city in a national park is a vigil or a campsite, I will leave to my colleagues in the legal profession to semantically determine. I am not interested in curtailing anyone’s freedom of speech.
Whether intentionally defacing a memorial authorized by an Act of Congress placed inside that park is an act of public vandalism however, is not open to discussion. Imagine if the same had been done to the statue of Lincoln on the National Mall, and ask yourself whether it would have been allowed to stand, unrepaired and unpunished. To paraphrase U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, I know vandalism when I see it. And in this case, so should Director Jarvis.
It is an insult to the men and women who died to preserve the Union, and bring about freedom of millions of people from the horrors of slavery, that the monument to this man who gave his life in order to save the United States from disintegration is being so grossly insulted and defaced, and with impunity. Whatever Mr. Jarvis may or may not want or be able to do with respect to the parkland itself, General McPherson deserves better than to continue to be maltreated in this way, as a result of Mr. Jarvis’ apparent impotence to do anything whatsoever. Nor has he considered the precedent he is setting by allowing these protesters to do whatever they want to this public work of art. The logical conclusion we must draw from his inaction is that Mr. Jarvis would have no problem with people repelling down the front of the Statue of Liberty, either, or spray-painting red noses on the faces of the presidents at Mount Rushmore, so long as they did so to raise awareness for some cause.
Admittedly I am no one of any importance, as you are all very much aware. I harbor no personal ill will to Mr. Jarvis, who I am sure is a perfectly capable person in other aspects of his life. Yet as General McPherson himself would understand, if you cannot provide effective leadership, then you need to step out of the way, and allow those who are better able to lead to take charge.
Whether Mr. Jarvis leaves voluntarily, or whether he is dismissed, he has shown that he is incapable of fulfilling one of the basic responsibilities of his job. He must be replaced by someone who understands the duties of that position, takes that job description seriously, and carries out his duties, particularly given that his salary is paid by taxpayers. And hopefully whoever replaces this failed Director will ensure that General McPherson quickly reemerges from the indignity which he has been forced to endure, as a result of demonstrably poor leadership at the National Park Service.
General McPherson deserves better than this