Welcome to Arkansas, Mr. President! (Part 3)

Old State House Museum - Monday, March 04, 2019

William Howard Taft, photo from Library of CongressAfter Theodore Roosevelt’s time as Arkansas’s frequent presidential visitor, appearances by the country’s chief executives tapered off a bit, although were not nonexistent as they had been in the past.

William Howard Taft, after succeeding Roosevelt in 1909, visited that fall, in part due to a spirit of cooperation and friendly relationship between Democratic Governor George Donaghey and Harmon Remmel, who had run for Governor himself in 1894, 1896, and 1900, and was rising to the leadership of the state GOP as long-time leader and former Governor Powell Clayton inched toward retirement. This would be part of a regional swing which would culminate in Taft addressing the Deep Waterways Convention, which was scheduled to meet in New Orleans in October. The Deep Waterways Association was keenly interested in a deep water channel between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico and with it, the improvements in navigation and flood control that would follow on the Mississippi as a result.

Remmel, as President of the Little Rock Board of Trade, hoped to persuade Taft to visit the capital city and other parts of the state after completing a planned tour of the west and before embarking for St. Louis to begin a trek down the Mississippi to New Orleans. There was also another motivation: both Remmel and Donaghey had requested a $150,000 appropriation for a swamp land drainage survey in Arkansas and Louisiana, and hoped to gain Taft’s support.

Taft accepted the invitation, and it was announced that the president would speak on October 24, 1909, in Texarkana, Arkadelphia, Benton, and Little Rock. In order to put Taft in Arkansas on his first stop, his train was stopped just over the state line, as the depot, like the post office, straddled both Arkansas and Texas.

Yet the length and intensity of the Texas leg of the tour had taken a toll on Taft, and by the time he got to Texarkana, his voice was reduced to a near-whisper. Texarkana’s newspaper, The Daily Texarkanian, observed that Taft had arrived with “his ample girth (he weighed over 350 pounds) and his ravishing smile but his voice was nowhere in evidence.” Because of his condition, he was only able to deliver a thirty-two word greeting, “Ladies and Gentlemen: I left my voice in Texas and it is gone. I can only express to you my feeling of gratitude for this reception: I thank you.” The remaining Arkansas dignitaries: Remmel, Donaghey, Clayton, and Senator James P. Clarke, filled in the welcoming addresses to the crowd of about 12,000, which also included about fifty Little Rock residents, many of whom were described as wearing “Prince Albert coats and silk plug hats.”

Taft’s voice had sufficiently recovered enough to address several thousand people including college students at Arkadelphia, then 4,000 at Benton, where people from Hot Springs had been brought in by train. He won over the people by reminding them, “I am a Republican and most of you are Democrats, but you are receiving me as the President of the United States, and I am speaking to you as loyal American citizens whom I love.”

Later that night, he arrived in Little Rock, where he was met by two delegations of veterans, one Union and one Confederate. He was also greeted by about 20,000 residents, who were treated to a raspy-voiced Taft, who apologized for having “a voice like a crow.” Governor Donaghey, who travelled on the train with the President, found his good humor and sunny personality welcome and contagious despite the partisan divide and the less-than-ideal speaking conditions.

The President completed his travels boarding a ship at St. Louis to journey down the Mississippi to the Deep Waterways Convention in New Orleans. Twelve steamers transported Taft, the Governors of twelve states along the river, and others on their six-day cruise. Taft made his last and what was described as his most substantive address in the state at Helena on October 27, and pleased those in attendance by favoring a comprehensive approach to improving the Mississippi and its tributaries, and that it should be done with the same sense of urgency as the Panama Canal. Ultimately, the $150,000 appropriation for a swamp land drainage survey in Arkansas and Louisiana was approved by Congress.

Taft made one more trip to Arkansas: as a former President, he visited in February 1918 and delivered a series of lectures to soldiers training at Camp Pike entitled, “Why the United States is at War,” and reminisced with old friends Remmel, Donaghey, and Arkansas Gazette editor J.N. Heiskell. He also dispatched a message to the ailing Theodore Roosevelt, and Donaghey thought that this was the start of their reconciliation after the bitter 1912 campaign. Arkansans’ good will for Taft was enduring, and when the former President was nominated by President Warren Harding as Chief Justice in 1921, he had the unanimous support of Arkansas’s leaders.