Guest Essay: David Johnson offers a Presidents Day history lesson

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EDITOR’S NOTE: For anyone who follows historian and journalist David Johnson on Facebook, his “Weird Presidential History” posts have been an ongoing treat since the November election. David knows whereof he speaks; the new editor of museum publications at the New Orleans Museum of Art also served as editor of award-winning Louisiana Cultural Vistas and, the Digital Encyclopedia of Louisiana. He also serves as a board member of the (upcoming!) Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, and is an avid presidential history buff. “I have visited every presidential library in the National Archives system, from Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush, as proof!” he noted in presenting this guest essay. Fun stuff to ponder for Monday (Feb. 20), President’s Day. Enjoy.


Author David Johnson

Presidents Day offers Americans a chance to reflect upon the 43 men who have represented the nation since 1789. Louisiana has long been host to a series of events that have shaped the presidency from its earliest days. Thomas Jefferson acquired the territory that ultimately became a state in 1812. Zachary Taylor, the only Louisianian to achieve the presidency, owned a plantation north of Baton Rouge in the 1840s. A young Abraham Lincoln sailed to New Orleans from his hardscrabble Indiana family farm to make money in the 1830s. Teddy Roosevelt found the “Sportsman’s Paradise” an irresistible destination for hunting and fishing expeditions. Alarmed by the threat to Gulf birdlife, he would establish one of the earliest national wildlife refuges at Breton Island in 1904.

Franklin and Eleanor frequented the state to witness New Deal projects following the death of nemesis Huey Long. Many of John F. Kennedy’s friends — and ultimately his assassin — emerged from Louisiana. George H.W. Bush would be nominated for the office at the Superdome in 1988. Seventeen years later, his son would be harangued for failing to provide timely assisted to thousands stranded there in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. What follows here are a few little-known aspects of how the state has played a role in influencing the worldview of the varied men who have called the White House home.

thomas-jefferson-origTHOMAS JEFFERSON
Not long after Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon Bonaparte in 1803, he received word that the surprised citizens of La Nouvelle Orléans were anxious about the prospect of American rule. Among those who raised concern was Mother Superior Therese de St. Xavier of the Ursuline Convent, a nunnery that dated back to the city’s earliest French colonial founding in 1718.

In a letter dated July 13, 1804, a mere seven months after the real-estate transfer, President Jefferson assured the sister that though the U.S. would expect an unfamiliar separation of church and state in the former French and Spanish colonial city, the convent and its school would be guaranteed freedom to practice its charitable works and educational goals with no interference from federal authorities:

“To the Soeur Therese de St. Xavier farjon Superior, and the Nuns of the order of St. Ursula at New Orleans

“I have received, holy sisters, the letter you have written me wherein you express anxiety for the property vested in your institution by the former governments of Louisiana. the principles of the constitution and government of the United states are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to it’s own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority. whatever diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and it’s furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society, by training up it’s younger members in the way they should go, cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under. be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it.

“I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship & respect. Th: Jeffers”

lincolnriverboatABRAHAM LINCOLN
In April 1828, at age 19, a lanky Abraham Lincoln journeyed down the Ohio River and into the Lower Mississippi Valley aboard a flatboat loaded with the bounty of farm products from his Indiana homeland. For young men in the early 19th-century Midwest, a riverborne escapade floating down current to New Orleans was an adventurous rite of passage and a means of putting cash in bare pockets.

Abe and his buddies would anchor overnight on the banks of the river for the duration of their monthlong voyage, but the night prior to their anticipated arrival in New Orleans they were attacked while in deep slumber near present-day Convent, La. A group of runaway slaves clubbed Abe and his shipmates, startling the men awake. The frightened crew narrowly escaped with their lives and cargo. Abe forever bore a gash mark on his left temple. The traumatized men opted to sail the final miles of the river in darkness and the wee hours of morning before the spire of St. Louis Cathedral and other big-city landmarks appeared as they approached the multilingual, exotic, fifth-largest city in America.

Among the sites Lincoln would have beheld in the teeming port city was the slave auction in the lobby of the St. Louis Hotel. He would remark in later years that the scene of human trafficking “was a continual torment to me.” The young Lincoln would repeat the journey in 1831, this time without incident. Both trips marked the farthest the future president would ever travel in his assassination-fated lifetime of 56 years. As historian Richard Campanella points out in “Lincoln in New Orleans,” his extensively researched book on the subject, when President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, he could very well have freed his attackers from nearly four decades prior.

In 1959, with his eyes set on a possible run for the presidency the next year, U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts began touring the U.S. in support of his fellow Congressional Democrats. JFK knew his Catholic faith would be a hurdle in obtaining the party nomination, much less an office held only by Protestant men since George Washington took the oath in 1789. Kennedy would be assured a warm welcome in the heavily Catholic parishes of Acadiana — and he gladly accepted an invitation to speak at the International Rice Festival in Crowley at the invitation of political power broker Judge Edmund Reggie.

Kennedy and his young wife, Jacqueline, arrived in the seat of Acadia Parish on Oct. 16 in a motorcade of 16 white Cadillacs that left Lafayette following a fundraising luncheon. Crowds estimated at 125,000 squeezed into the streets of a town that registered under 16,000 residents in the 1960 census. The town had celebrated the annual rice harvest with parades, beauty pageants, food booths, concerts and other amusements since 1927.

Kennedy, age 42, considered the wearing of hats to be old-fashioned, but he gamely accepted a fedora decorated with glued-on rice kernels. Mrs. Kennedy won over the Cajun crowd with more enthusiasm when she spoke in French. As historian Leo Honeycutt explained in a Times-Picayune article in 2013, “So she gets up there and, in French, she recounts a story about how when she was a little girl, her father had told her that Louisiana was way down south, but it … was a little part of France, and she had been in love with it ever since … Well, what do you think? I mean, the house comes down.”

The 1960 presidential race pitted incumbent Vice President Richard Nixon against Kennedy in one of the closest elections in U.S. history. The “Solid South” coalition that normally backed the Democratic ticket fractured, many would say due to anti-Catholic sentiment, but Louisiana handily gave its 10 electoral votes to a man who had built a kinship with rice-farming families.

Kennedy would be assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, by a troubled young man born and raised in New Orleans: Lee Harvey Oswald.

ladybirdpostcard1LYNDON JOHNSON
In the 1964 presidential campaign, Lady Bird Johnson, not yet a year into her unexpected role as First Lady, took it upon herself to campaign in a stretch of America least receptive to her husband’s civil rights agenda. From October 6-10, the “Lady Bird Special” charter train rode the rails from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, a journey of more than 1,600 miles across eight states in the former Confederacy — hostile but heartfelt territory for a woman born in Texas who spent much of her childhood among family in Alabama. Mrs. Johnson delivered 47 speeches in whistle stops that ranged from country crossroads in the Appalachian foothills to the grand-dame cities of Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans, site of her final rally.

Reporters traveling with the press car were given a humorous “Dixie Dictionary” drawn up by the first lady’s press secretary, Liz Carpenter, for “folks from the Nawth covering the South.” The booklet defined certain regional colloquialisms, such as “Kissin’ Kin: Anyone who will come to the depot” and “Beri-beri: pronounced Barry-Barry” — as in Republican opponent Goldwater — “a disease wiped out in the South.”

Mrs. Johnson arrived at New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal to be greeted by President Johnson and a rare, racially mixed crowd not seen elsewhere on the route. Emotionally charged by the impact of her unprecedented campaign, she told the audience, “I am aware that there are those who would exploit the South’s past troubles, to their own advantage, but I do not believe that the majority of the South wants any part of the old bitterness.” In a speech later that night at the Jung Hotel on Canal Street, in a speech where he quoted Huey Long, Robert E. Lee and John F. Kennedy, President Johnson said, “If we are to heal our history and make this nation whole, prosperity must know no Mason-Dixon line and opportunity must know no color line.”

newlywedcartersJIMMY CARTER
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter began their married life in 1946 as a military couple whose peripatetic life took them from naval bases in San Diego and Honolulu to Groton, Conn., before Jimmy made a dramatic decision in 1953 to give up his aspiring career as a nuclear submarine officer and return to a far-less-glamorous life of farming after inheriting his father’s agribusiness in Plains, Ga. The sudden death of the elder Carter patriarch from cancer forced Jimmy to evaluate his own life, and he felt that supporting his widowed mother, the family’s longtime tenant farmers, and the modest community of 700 people who depended upon the Carter’s peanut mill would be a more worthwhile destiny. Mrs. Carter, dreading an end to her liberation, vehemently disagreed and reluctantly moved back to a red-dirt town full of limited opportunity, a place she had long dreamed of escaping in girlhood. She confessed in her 1982 autobiography, “First Lady From Plains,” that it took years for her to come around and accept that her husband’s rash resignation from the Navy was a positive move. A vacation to New Orleans in the late 1950s added some perspective:

We saved $300 for a trip to New Orleans with friends, but instead of budgeting this time, we decided to do anything we wanted until the money ran out. It lasted four days! We stayed up all night every night, slept every morning, ate pompano en papillote (having no idea what to do when the fish arrived in a bag), drank wine with lunch for the first time, and much, much chicory coffee. We also went to the horse races, spent hours listening to to good jazz, and even got special permission to listen to the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra practice one afternoon. Jimmy couldn’t resist saying, ‘See, if we were still in the Navy, we couldn’t pick up and go whenever we wanted to. Now aren’t you glad we’re home and aren’t you glad I’m my own boss?’”

The couple would find ample opportunity to visit the Crescent City in the years after their time in the White House. Daughter Amy attended Tulane University in the early 1990s, where she met her future husband, James Wentzel. The Carters attended Jazz Fest in 1996, and returned to build houses for Katrina victims in 2008.

Bill Clinton’s widowed mother, Virginia Blythe, received her nurse anesthetist certification from New Orleans’ Charity School of Nursing in 1949. For all of her 70 years of life, she was known for a her love of a good time — she gambled in illegal casinos in her hometown of Hot Springs, Ark., and was a beloved railbird at the race track there. She never hesitated to jump onstage to join a cabaret singer in a number, uninvited. During her months of study just blocks from the French Quarter, she frequented Bourbon Street with her gal pals. In 1962, Virginia returned to her natural habitat and treated her 15-year-old son to a vacation in New Orleans. The two attempted to enter the swinging nightspot of famed jazzman Al Hirt, only to be turned away from the doorman since Billy was underage. In his autobiography, “My Life,” Bill Clinton recalled what happened next: “As mother and I were about to walk away, the doorman told us that Mr. Hirt was sitting in his car reading just around the corner, and that only he could let me in. I found him — in a Bentley no less — tapped on the window, and made my case. He got out, took mother and me into the club, and put us at a table near the front. He and his band played a great set — it was my first live jazz experience. Al Hirt died when I was President. I wrote his wife and told her the story, expressing my gratitude for a big man’s long-ago kindness to a boy.”


Andrew Jackson statue, Jackson Square

Andrew Jackson, America’s seventh president, stands at the very epicenter of New Orleans in honor of his triumphant feat in crushing British Redcoats at the Battle of New Orleans in January of 1815. Jackson led a ragtag, multilingual army of French and Spanish Creoles, slaves, free men of color, pirates, Native Americans and “Kaintuck” renegades in an upset victory against the largest military force on earth. The General was crowned with laurels at an elaborate thanksgiving ceremony a few days later in the square, then known as Place d’Armes, that would eventually bear his name. For the remainder of his life, newspapers would refer to him as Hero — always with a capital H. Jackson returned for a victory lap in 1840 on the 25th anniversary of the battle and laid a cornerstone for a commemorative monument that would eventually morph into a statue of himself astride a rearing horse, sword held high, unveiled in 1856. Two identical statues by sculptor Clark Mills exist, one in Nashville, on the grounds of the Tennessee state capitol, and the other in Washington, D.C., on the Ellipse facing the White House. The inscription “The Union Must and Shall Be Preserved” was added in the 1860s by order of Union General Benjamin Butler as an admonition to Confederate New Orleanians during the city’s federal occupation. The statue weighs 20,000 pounds and is renowned for its gravity-defying construction since the piece is balanced by just two of the horse’s legs.

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