Portsmouth Pomp for President Polk
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Written by Ray Brighton

James K Polk

Instigating war with Mexico, spreading slavery, James K. Polk was not beloved by Portsmouth citizens generally. But he got a civil welcome here. President Polk almost ran smack into "bad boy" Thomas Bailey Aldrich during his 1847 visit to Seacoast, New Hampshire.




SEE: Next visits by Franklin Pierce and Ulysses S Grant

James K Polk 11th President / Library of Commerce, American MemoryPresident James Knox Polk (1745 - 1849) was not like other presidents who had visited the Seacoast. At 49 he was the youngest chief executive in history and a southerner to boot. So close a protégé of Andrew Jackson, Polk was nicknamed "Young Hickory", and after twice losing re-election as governor of Tennessee, Polk 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 that soon split the nation into Civil War. 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

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 New Hampshire’s 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."  . ."


PRESIDENTIAL VISIT IN 1847  (continued)


Friendly Enemies

President Polk on SeacoastNH.comudge 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."

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.

Bad Boys Burning

Angry bad boys burn carriage in Polk visit protest / SeacoastNH.comBy 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 SeacoastNH.com. Reprinted courtesy of the pub lisher.

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