–by Ronald M. Johnson
Over many years of research, as Abby Johnson and I explored the history of Congressional Cemetery, we often encountered the words and actions of
Representative Lindy Boggs. She seemed to appear everywhere we searched. We found her speaking in the halls of Congress urging the restoration of the old burial ground, at board meetings of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery counseling patience and staying the course, and in newspaper accounts of House committee meetings where she pressed colleagues to provide funding for saving the federal monuments at the cemetery. How did this remarkable woman, who recently passed away at her home in Chevy Chase, become the central figure in Congress leading the effort to preserve this historic burial ground?
This story of perseverance and dedication began with a tragedy, the 1972 disappearance of her husband Representative Hale Boggs on a plane trip in Alaska. Until that event, Lindy Boggs was his most ardent and faithful supporter, campaign manager, and political advisor. Though grief-stricken, she responded to this great loss by entering the special election held to fill the remainder of his term. She won that election and stood again for a full term the next year. Over the coming years, until 1991, Lindy Boggs remained in the House representing the 2nd District of Louisiana. During a distinguished career with many memorable achievements, she served on the Banking and Currency Committee and the Appropriations Committee during 18 years in the House.
It was the latter assignment, however, that provided an opportunity to help restore Congressional Cemetery, originally founded in 1807 and located 1.5 miles southeast of the Capitol. By the early 1970s, the site was in disrepair and badly in need of assistance. Membership on the Appropriations Committee allowed Lindy Boggs, along with fellow House member Tip O’Neil and Senators Mike Mansfield and Hugh Scott, among many others, to provide the leadership that passed Public Law 94-495 authorizing the Architect of the Capitol to oversee the restoration of federal monuments at the site. Signed by President Gerald Ford on October 14, 1976, the law granted the old burial ground federal recognition as an important historical landmark. Over the next five years, Boggs led the movement to provide funding for the law, eventually succeeding in 1981. That same year, Congress voted to establish a Congressional Cenotaph at the cemetery honoring her husband, a fitting tribute to both the husband, who had died in the midst of public service, and his wife for helping fulfill his legacy and her own as members of Congress.
The preservation of Congressional Cemetery has been, of course, the result of efforts by a large number of individuals and organizations who banded together, over the last 40 years, to bring about its present revival. Without the strong voice and actions of Lindy Boggs during the critical years of 1976-81, however, when the movement to save the site was just getting underway, that development might have faltered. Those who love the cemetery was always be indebted to Lindy Boggs for an effort that has led, over time, to the restoration of a site that remains America’s first national burial ground, a place where “the memory of the nation” is alive and well.
Note: Both the focus and historical sources for this blog can be found in Abby Arthur Johnson and Ronald Maberry Johnson, In the Shadow of the United States Capitol: Congressional Cemetery and the Memory of the Nation (New Academia Publishing, 2012).