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President Polk almost collides
with "bad boy" Tom Bailey

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President James Polk [Editor's Note: President James Knox Polk (1745 - 1849) was not like other presidents who had visited the Seacoast. At 49 he was the youngest chief executive and a southerner. So close a protégé of Andrew Jackson, Polk was nicknamed "Young Hickory" and, after twice losing re-election as governor of Tennessee, went on to become the nation's first dark horse presidential candidate. A declared one-term President, Polk's expansionism led to the giant US addition of Texas and California and set the stage for the battle over slavery. He died just months after his term ended. In this article, historian Ray Brighton makes the connection between Polk's visit and the most famous Fourth of July in Portsmouth history. --- JDR]

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President Polk is Coming!

After the visits of George Washington and James Monroe, 30 years and five presidents came and went before another chief executive graced the streets of the old port city. President James Polk ran into some antipathy in the course of his visit. It was his lot to be presiding over an unpopular war, the one with Mexico from 1846 to 1847.

Some hint of the problems President Polk faced is contained in a strongly worded item in the Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics on June 26th, 1847:

"BUENA VISTA -- This according to the New Hampshire Gazette is to be the watch-word for the Polk War Party at the coming election. This is well. Let it be understood, then that we are not called upon to decide between a federalist and some other 'ist', but to vote for or against Mr. Polk's war-for conquest and slavery. Those who are fond of war and blood-shed, those who approve of extravagance and waste and great loans and burdensome taxes, will vote for a representative who will act as Mr. Polk pleases."

"But those who are opposed to war," the newspaper continued, "who do not approve of slavery, who are not anxious for conquest, and who deem our present debt and present taxes large enough, will vote for a representative whose views agree with their own. Let the issues in this contest be War and Slavery on the one side -- Peace and Freedom on the other."

As indicated in this emotional article, an election for seats in the National Congress was brewing, and in June, 1847, President Polk took to the road to campaign for his policies. In the same issue of the Journal was a brief item from Baltimore in which President Polk reportedly said in a speech that he wouldn't be a candidate for re-election under any circumstances. The Journal gave the Boston Post as the source for the President's itinerary. He was heading toward Boston, via New York, and due there on June 29th. The next day he planned to move on to Lowell, and then July lst he was to be in Concord, NH. The next day he would go to Portland, Maine.

The Journal added:

"Letters have been received in this town, stating the President may make a short visit to Portsmouth, probably after visiting Maine. No certain arrangement, however, has yet been made." However, it didn't take Portsmouth long to get up a full head of steam in planning to receive the eleventh leader of the United States. After all, a president is a president, and Portsmouth had never failed to roll out the red carpet. First in the program was a proper reception on the Portsmouth Bridge, where his escort from the Pine Tree State would turn him over to his New Hampshire hosts, headed by lchabod Bartlett.

With all the fraternal and temperance organizations in the parade, plus federal officers, the Portsmouth Greys, the Hampton Artillery, the procession wound its way up Market Street. Twenty-nine guns were fired by the Portsmouth Artillery as a salute, and the parade passed through several streets, ending at Congress Hall on Congress Street, on the site of the present day Jarvis Block. A balcony had been hastily constructed on the southern side of Congress Hall. From its eminence, the Portsmouth multitude was introduced to President Polk on July 5, 1847.

In contradictory terms, the July 10, 1847, issue of the Journal informed its readers that: "The president was conducted to a large platform, erected in front of Congress Hall, where he and his suite, the committee of arrangements, and some others were accommodated with seats . . ."

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Friendly Enemies

When the multitude below had shuffled into proper positions of reverence, US Supreme Court Judge Levi Woodbury, the local attorney who had helped Daniel Webster cut his first legal teeth in the Portsmouth courts, addressed the President. Himself an orator of great note, Woodbury was the soul of in civility:

"Allow me, in behalf of my fellow citizens of the ancient town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to welcome you to its hospitalities. Interchanges of personal civility between a people and their chief magistrate are usually attended by the happiest influences. We know and are now better by being face to face and heart to heart ... We greet you, therefore, sir, to our hearths and altars, as the highest administrator of that power for more than 20 millions of free and prosperous people...."

Judge Woodbury's welcome continued in the same flowery vein for several more paragraphs. In the course of it, he called attention to the importance of the Navy Yard, and the key location of Fort Constitution. At the time of President Polk's visit to the town, Congress had just authorized a dry dock for the Navy Yard after years of agitation for it and Woodbury dwelt on the matter: 'We look anxiously toward the means of public usefulness increased here by the Dry Dock which has been happily authorized under your administration; cherishing as we do as strong conviction that such expenditures tend to render imperishable that great principle, now embodied into the American code of public law --- Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute."

President James Buchanan When the dry dock came into being, nearly five years later, it was of the floating variety, and was built on Pierce Island and then floated to the Navy Yard. The Journal's reporter found himself in the sad position, for a newsman, of not being able to hear the President's reply to Woodbury's speech. The Journal was strongly anti-Polk, anti-slavery and anti-war, but its coverage of the event was fair. When Polk finished speaking, he was taken inside the building and there introduced to local citizens, and members of his suite were introduced. Among these was James Buchanan, then secretary of state, but who would become the 15th president.

From Congress Hall, the party rode out to Judge Woodbury's mansion at Elm Place, just off present-day Woodbury Avenue. The fine old house is gone, razed to make way for the Woodbury Manor housing project. After enjoying the judge's hospitality, the party returned in town and went to the Rockingham House for a lunch prepared by the owner, Thomas Coburn. That structure, too, is gone, destroyed by fire in 1884.

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Bad Boys Burning

By one o'clock, the President left Portsmouth for Newburyport, where he arrived at 1:45. Nowhere in the Journal's coverage is there any mention of the fact that a gang of youths really had the town jumping in the early hours of the Fourth. The tale is told in the famous novel "Story of a Bad Boy" by Portsmouth's famed writer Thomas Bailey Aldrich. In the ground breaking 1869 novel, a gang of local boys wreck havoc by burning an old stagecoach in the middle of Market Square.

What had brought about the wild night was the usual ineptness of public officials. They had ordained that there would be no Fourth of July celebration because of President Polk's visit on Monday the 5th. Portsmouth youths then and now are not easily intimidated, and the police had a pretty rough night on the Fourth. Overworked, President Polk died soon after his one term ended. It would take another 20 years before Thomas Bailey Aldrich told the world of his momentous night during the President's visit to Portsmouth.

By Ray Brighton
Edited by

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More Presidents Visiting Portsmouth

Buy the book
Rambles About Portsmouth, by Raymond Brighton, Portsmouth Marine Society, Peter Randall Publisher, 1993 Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
© 1994 Portsmouth Marine Society

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Additional Links (Press BACK to return to SeacoastNH)

The Hall of Forgotten Presidents

Young Hickory: Polk for Kids

Polk, The Greatest President Ever! (student paper)

The Enigma of the Eleventh President

Polk's Inaugural Address (1845)

PBS Westward Expansion Profile of Polk

Assessing the Administration of James K. Polk

James Polk on the White House Web Site

Grolier Encyclopedia

A Texan View

Polk, the "Workhorse"

Polk on a Stamp

What Polk Did

USS James K Polk

James K Polk Memorial Log Cabin

The James K Polk Ancestral Home

Grave of James Polk

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