As the recent controversy about Confederate monuments in New Orleans and other cities makes clear, opinions can change about the people our ancestors once regarded as worthy of remembrance in marble and bronze.
All of this came back to mind a few weeks ago in a place I’d never expected. I was thousands of miles from Louisiana and the rest of the former Confederacy when I came across a statute that raised its own questions about the judgment of history.
While visiting Vancouver, British Columbia for a few days, I decided to make an afternoon trek to Stanley Park, renowned as one of the nicest green spaces in the city. I had walked just a few yards into the 1,000-acre park when I spotted a huge monument to Warren G. Harding, 29th president of the United States. Given Harding’s widespread reputation as one of the worst chief executives to occupy the White House, it's surprising to see a monument to him anywhere. That such a large memorial to Harding rested on Canadian soil seemed stranger still.
History hasn’t been kind to Harding, who served as commander in chief from 1921 until his death from a heart attack in 1923. His administration was wracked by wrongdoing, including the misdeeds of Harding’s secretary of interior, Albert Bacon Fall, who was convicted of accepting bribes from oil companies to provide favorable leases of the government’s petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome in Wyoming. But the corruption around Harding wasn’t widely known while he was alive, nor was his philandering.
Which is why, when Harding visited Vancouver on July 26, 1923, he was hailed as a hero. He was the first sitting president to visit Canada, and the locals were grateful. By some estimates, about 50,000 residents turned out to hear him speak.
The president, secretly ailing, died a week later in San Francisco, the world shocked by his passing. Harding had belonged to the Kiwanis Club, and his fellow Kiwanians in Vancouver began a drive to build a memorial to his visit.
The monument, dedicated on Sept. 16, 1925, has a relatively modest image of Harding’s face in bronze at its center, but the dominant feature is a pair of goddess statues representing the United States and Canada. A lengthy excerpt from Harding’s speech about the friendship between the two countries is chiseled into the memorial.
There was a fountain in front of the monument, but it was dry and empty when I visited, except for a discarded popsicle stick lying at the bottom. It hinted at how much Harding’s star had fallen since residents of Vancouver unveiled the monument in 1925.
A few miles away, in Vancouver’s Maple Tree Square, I saw a monument that seemed less vulnerable to the shifting winds of political favor. It was a statue of John “Gassy Jack” Deighton, celebrated for opening the city’s first saloon.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter @Danny_Heitman.