For Presidents’ Day, I’m focusing on one of the shortest presidential visits in Salem history: President Polk’s breezy visit on July 5, 1847 which seems to have clocked in at (well) under in an hour. There are much more notable (and longer) stopovers by Presidents Washington, Monroe, and Jackson, and both Presidents Taft and Coolidge visited Salem often while they summered nearby, but I thought Polk’s pitstop might shed some light on the popularity of abolitionism here in Salem in the antebellum era. There was an interesting reaction to my post last week on my slavery mapping project: it was shared on a few facebook pages and rather than commenting on the specific issue of slaveholding in pre-revolutionary Salem, there were references to the city’s active abolitionist community nearly a century later, as if that somehow compensated for the sins of the past. I”ve heard this sentiment from students too, but my colleagues seem a bit more reserved about the popular appeal of the anti-slavery movement. I actually don’t seek to judge the past by ahistorical standards; I’m more interested in uncovering as much of the truth as possible. So what does the response of Salem’s citizens to the arrival of President Polk on the day after the Fourth of July in the summer of 1847 tell us?
So interesting that this 1844 Polk Print (Library of Congress) mirrors the “Landsdowne” Portrait of George Washington from 1796: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
The historical assessment of Polk’s presidency has traditionally focused on his successful policies of westward expansion, including the annexation of Texas in 1845, the negotiation of the Oregon Treaty with Great Britain in 1846, and the conclusion of the Mexican-American War in 1848, increasing the territory of the United States dramatically and extending its boundaries to the Pacific. He was a man who lived up to his promises, but expansion at this time cannot be viewed apart from the increasingly-intense debate over the expansion of slavery, and Polk was a slave owner not only by inheritance, but also by “investment”. The story of Elias Polk, the “faithful slave” who served the President in the White House, seems to have been utilized to portray Polk as a paternalistic slave owner, but a recent study characterizes him as far more “acquisitive” and entrepreneurial, holding “the constricted views of a Tennessee slavemaster.” This is certainly how the most fervent of northern abolitionists saw Polk, but I’m not sure if they speak for the majority of the population.
Two abolitionist “Moral Maps” which illustrate fears of the spread of slavery in the United States and North America, 1847-1854, Cornell and Yale University Libraries.
The nation was at war when the President visited Salem in the summer of 1847, and the reports of his visit illustrate the divisions that were becoming ever-apparent: in side-by-side columns in the Salem Observer for July 10, 1847 we can read a stinging indictment by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and an account of the President’s reception in Salem, which was “kind and hospitable” by his own estimation. It’s quite a contrast! The Anti-Slavery Society’s condemnation takes the form of a letter addressed to the president in which he is called out (You are a slaveholder. Men, women, and children are by you held in slavery—recorded in your ledger as chattels personal—worked like brutes, without wages or stipulation, under the lash of a driver, and fraudulently and tyrannically deprived of all their just earnings), compared unfavorably to the “Autocrat of all the Russias,” and called upon to emancipate his slaves immediately. In the next column, the President is welcomed to Salem with full “civic and military honors” and a “cavalcade” (before motorcades there were cavalcades) through its “ancient” crowd-lined streets. There are conflicting assessments of Polk’s visit to Salem, but all the papers agree it was a hastily-put-together affair, as the city authorities got word of the President’s arrival only the night before.
Salem Register, July 5, 1847
Here you can see the city scrambling: Boston, Lowell, Concord, New Hampshire, and Portland, Maine were presidential stops announced ahead of time, but the President seems to have added stops in Portsmouth, Newburyport, Salem and Lynn at the very last minute as he made his way back to Washington. The program announced above was pretty much how it came off, but additional details emerge in the reporting: the President’s train arrived at the Beverly Depot at 2:55 and according to the Salem Gazette, “Mr. Polk refused to leave the cars in Beverly unless he could be assured that he should not be detained more than 15 minutes in Salem,” and consequently a “gallopade” ensued through the city which was characterized as both “ludicrous” and farcical” by both the Salem and Boston papers. The Salem Register calls Polk’s visit to Salem “a Grand Presidential Polka……affording a vast fount of amusement to the lovers of the ludicrous.” There was a big crush to see “the man who made the war, but “the Comet-like flight of the Head of the Nation through the City of Peace beggars description.” [Yes, Salem was indeed referred to as the City of Peace before it became Witch City: better, no?] He came and went “like a Flash………with the President” (in an elegant barouche driven by six black horses) “bobbing his uncovered head, now this way, and now that, as a handkerchief flustered from some window, or a cheer came up from a band of his adherents, posted on some corner.” I’m not sure if this depiction has a larger message of criticism aimed at the President beyond that of the short shrift he gave Salem, and none of the reports of this “Presidential Polka” enable us to “read” the crowd: besides the brevity of this presidential visit, everyone also seems to agree that the “most pleasing part” of the whole affair was the sight of the schoolchildren of Salem aligned along Chestnut Street. As the Salem schools had been desegregated three years before, I’m assuming (and hoping) that there were African-American students in the ranks.
The People’s Choice? A Polk campaign ribbon from 1844, Smithsonian Institution.