Presidents Who Visited Portsmouth
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
Barack Obama’s historic visit to Portsmouth in September 2012 adds one more president to the city’s scorecard. But how many does that make? Let’s tally them up. The local newspaper reported that Obama is the first president to visit the “Banke” since George Washington stopped by in 1789. That's sort of true. But the headline neglects to mention 20 other presidents who visited in-between. (continued below)
As hair-splitting President Bill Clinton famously noted, “it depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” In our case -- what do we mean by “Banke” and what do we mean by “president?”
By “Banke” in this case we’re talking about the campus of the 10-acre Strawbery Banke Museum, formerly the Puddle Dock neighborhood. The museum borrows its name (with its own unique spelling) from the original English colony of Strawberry Bank that extended as far as Greenland and Rye. The town “accidentally named” Strawberry Bank was changed to Portsmouth in 1653 and the museum did not take on the name until 1958, three centuries later. Washington probably walk through this spot when it was a bustling dockside neighborhood en route to see the mother of his secretary Tobias Lear in the South End.
For purposes of this tally, let’s count all the presidents who visited the boundaries of modern day Portsmouth. And we’ll stick to presidents of the United States. That cuts out John Langdon, John Sullivan, and Meschech Weare who were the first three “presidents” of New Hampshire and who certainly walked around the state’s only seaport. The title was later changed to “governor.”
We will stick to sitting presidents, but the list widens if we included men who visited Portsmouth when they were not yet chief executive. President John Adams, for example, stayed here in December 1777. In a letter to his wife Abigail, Adams wrote that General Whipple “insisted upon my taking a bed at his house.” According to a later reference Adams tried his last court case as a lawyer for a client at Portsmouth. But we’re not going to count him here.
Hail to the Chief
Technically, it's all been downhill since George Washington spent four whole days here in 1789. Washington was treated like a god. Streets were renamed. The population sang his praises. No sitting president has stayed so long in town since.
Only six presidents made their way to Portsmouth in the next 100 years. By the time James Monroe arrived in 1817, the American dream was already frayed at the edges. The second war with Britain and the resulting trade embargoes had savaged the local economy. The city had been flattened like a bomb blast in a series of devastating downtown fires. Many promising young leaders, Daniel Webster among them, had split town for greener pastures.
Monroe, who had been an aid to Washington in the Revolution, was treated to a duplicate of Washington’s visit. Locals held a similar parade, sang songs, conducted church services, took Monroe on a boat ride to see the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, and treated him to tea with a very elderly John Langdon. The message of the broken city to the president was as simple as a prayer. Save us, they begged.
Thirty years and five presidents passed before James Polk, the youngest president to date, arrived in 1847. America had changed almost beyond belief as this Tennessee protégé of Andrew Jackson pushed the country west toward Texas and California. Although respectful of the office, many locals were anti-Polk and did not repeat their Washington tribute.
When city officials postponed Fourth of July fireworks to accommodate the president's visit, a small group of boys staged a mini-rebellion. The mischievous gang rolled an old stage coach into Market Square and set it on fire. Among them was young Thomas Bailey Aldrich, the Portsmouth poet, who later confessed all in his bestselling novel "The Story of a Bad Boy."
Franklin Pierce arrived next in 1856. Previously Franklin had visited the Isles of Shoals with his Bowdoin College classmate Nathaniel Hawthorne. He became the fourteenth president with this horrific slogan: “We Polked You in 1844, We Shall Pierce You in 1852."
New Hampshire's only native-born president, Pierce was on home turf having earlier served his legal apprenticeship in Portsmouth. Largely unpopular and later blamed for helping ignite the Civil War, Pierce requested a low-key visit from local officials. They settled for a 21-gun salute, a little speechmaking, and a visit to Fort Constitution for the launching of a new ship. Afterwards, accompanied by James Buchanan, who would become the next US president, Pierce retired to the Rockingham House on State Street to hang out with old friends. Ironically, with the nation on the edge of civil war, Pierce and his wife found peace in Portsmouth. They returned for a short visit when the President's single term ended the next year, and stayed many months.
Abraham Lincoln campaigned in nearby Dover and visited Exeter where his son Todd attended the Academy, but Honest Abe seems to have missed Portsmouth. Lincoln’s murder just moments after the end of the Civil War changed the nation and the presidency. Who could live up to the image of the martyred saint? Certainly not President Ulysses S. Grant whose Reconstruction era was scarred by scandal.
During his 1871 whistle-stop in Portsmouth Grant was accompanied by no less than 200 colleagues and cronies in a luxurious new Pullman car decked out with flowers. While some residents were thrilled by any presidential visit, this passage from the Portsmouth Times demonstrates an angry undercurrent:
"However unworthy of respect and veneration U.S. Grant may be as a man, we are sorry that any should fail to pay proper respect to the President of the United States. Hence we regret that any persons were provoked by his stupid appearance as he stood on the platform of the car at the depot, to make insulting remarks in his hearing. If Grant does look as though he had been drunk for a week, and act, in a surly, cold and indifferent manner toward the people who throng to see him, still it is wrong to treat him as other men should be treated for such conduct. Remember that he is president, and properly regard his high office."
No wonder President Chester A. Arthur’s visit in 1882 was a closed-door affair. This was the influential era of Portsmouth ale tycoon Frank Jones who owned half the city. Jones had been at political odds with President James Garfield, but had earlier served in Congress with Arthur, his vice president. When Garfield was assassinated in 1881, Jones wasted no time in extending an invitation to his former colleague.
President Arthur was only too happy to enjoy free accommodations at Jones’ luxurious Wentworth-by-the-Sea hotel in New Castle and the Rockingham Hotel in Portsmouth. Arthur arrived in September 1882 on the USS Dispatch and, in his biography of Frank Jones, historian Raymond Brighton suggested that the two power-brokers cut a deal to stall the possible closure of the Portsmouth Navy Yard. Backroom deals were typical of the era. When the president noted that he would like to build a cottage in the beautiful seacoast region, Jones immediately offered to pay for the land.
You do the math
By contrast, the last Portsmouth presidential visit of the 19th century in 1889 was a highly public affair. President Benjamin Harrison was known as “Kid-Glove Harrison” for his penchant for wearing gloves to avoid infection while shaking hands with the public. Harrison’s great-grandfather had signed the Declaration of Independence, but his grandfather was the most forgettable of all American presidents. That’s because poor William Henry Harrison caught cold during his inauguration in 1841 and died 30 days later. (There are photos of President William McKinley in the Portsmouth Athenaeum collection, but it isn’t yet clear whether they were taken in Portsmouth.)
According to local newspapers, a crushing throng of men and women filled the Portsmouth depot as President Harrison arrived in his fancy train car en route from his vacation in Bar Harbor. Citizens seeking appointment to public offices waved their resumes in hopes of attracting the favor of the chief executive. Twelve minutes and one short speech later, the president was heading down the tracks toward Manchester.
We owe much of our knowledge of presidential visits to historian Ray Brighton who combed early newspapers for political stories that he retold in his Portsmouth Herald column for decades. According to Brighton, the whistle stop tradition continued through the 20th century. – William Howard Taft, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter all came and left quickly. Two presidents named George Bush used Pease Air Force Base like a private landing strip on frequent visits to the Bush “summer White House” in nearby Kennebunkport.
Almost every modern president and presidential candidate from John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon to William Jefferson Clinton and Jimmy Carter have since made an appearance in Portsmouth. If we total the list and throw in a few of those not-yet-elected men, we can safely say that half of the 44 United States presidents have passed through Portsmouth.
Lyndon Johnson sent his wife instead. “Ladybird” Johnson was the first resident of the White House to walk through the newly opened Strawbery Banke Museum. A photograph from 1967 shows her standing exactly where President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle recently waved to 6,000 cheering fans. They were not the first, and will certainly not be the last.
Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site SeacoastNH.com. His latest book is Under the Isles of Shoals: Archaeology and Discovery at Smuttynose Island. He is currently seeking underwriters for a new book on Portsmouth fires
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