Welcome to Arkansas, Mr. President! (Part 4)

Old State House Museum - Wednesday, March 20, 2019

After a decade of greater-than normal attention to Arkansas from Republican presidents, Democrats would get a bite at the Arkansas apple in 1912. Virginia-born Woodrow Wilson stood on the cusp of becoming the first native Southerner to occupy the Oval Office since Tennessee-born fellow Democrat Andrew Johnson served during Reconstruction, thanks to the bitter split in the Republican Party between President William Howard Taft and ex-President Theodore Roosevelt.

Woodrow Wilson, image from the Library of Congress Wilson, who had migrated north and served as President of Princeton University and Governor of New Jersey, had Arkansas ties of his own. His sister, Marion, once lived in Little Rock and was married to the Reverend Ross Kennedy, pastor of Second Presbyterian Church. Wilson was planning to marry Ellen Axson in 1884, but he had only completed a year of graduate work at Johns Hopkins University. Marion contacted her brother in the spring of 1884 concerning a teaching opening at Arkansas Industrial University in Fayetteville (now the University of Arkansas). The advertised salary was $1,700 a year ($41,851.17 in 2019) and was attractive enough as a point and a place to begin to build an academic reputation.

Ellen did not share her fiancé’s enthusiasm for the Arkansas opportunity, as she knew very little about the state. Once she further educated herself about the area, she was willing to take the chance on Fayetteville. Yet the Board of Trustees chose not to authorize the position, and he would continue in Maryland with his studies and a new $500 graduate stipend. His sister would observe that that he was unhappy at Johns Hopkins, and having been given the chance, would have rather have been in Arkansas. But would it have led him to the White House? That’s indeed something to ponder.

Wilson would develop another close friendship from Arkansas when he served as a professor at Princeton. William Frank McCombs, a product of Hamburg, was the son of one of the largest merchants and planters in Southeast Arkansas. The two first became acquainted at Princeton where Wilson was one of his Political Science professors. McCombs would gain his degree from Harvard and practiced law in New York City. Wilson and McCombs stayed in close contact and the former student was an important contributor to his professor’s campaign for New Jersey Governor in 1910. The next year, McCombs, Walter Hines Page, editor of World’s Work magazine, and businessman Walter McCorkle organized a committee for Wilson to win the 1912 Democratic Presidential nomination.

After making contacts with McCombs and his committee, Arkansans supporting Wilson organized, and on October 27, 1911, on his way to the Texas State Fair in Austin, Governor Wilson arrived in Little Rock where he made brief remarks from the back of his train at Union Station. Greeted by James Harrod, leader of Little Rock’s Wilson Club, and Secretary of State Earle Hodges, Wilson was taken to the new State Capitol office of Governor George Donaghey, and the Governor later recalled that he thought Wilson to be rather cold and aloof. Donaghey further recalled, “I did not warm to him as readily as friendly Theodore Roosevelt or to jolly William Howard Taft. He had the slightly aloof manner which accompanies great intellectuality.” On October 28, he made three speeches in Dallas and one in Fort Worth, and headed back toward Arkansas. He was scheduled to arrive at Texarkana about noon on October 29 for a twenty-minute speech and was scheduled to pull in to Little Rock for a similar speech at 8:10. Railroad snafus in Texas caused a delay of over three hours, and by the time Wilson pulled into the Capitol city, it was after 11 PM, and less than three hundred people had stayed behind to greet the candidate. Wilson confessed that he had reservations about speaking on Sunday because of his “old-fashioned Presbyterian conscience,” but was reassured when he saw many clergymen in the audience. Expressing concerns about government and corporate secrecy and the abuses of the Trusts, Wilson said, “I believe that everything should be done with open doors, for I believe that the only sufficient cure we have for politics is the same cure we have for tuberculosis, and that is to live in the open – to live in the sunshine.”

While Wilson’s visits were well-received, it did not prevent Arkansas’s delegation to the 1912 Democratic convention, which was led by Congressman and soon-to-be Governor Joe T. Robinson, from being committed to House Speaker Champ Clark of Missouri. While the state voted for Clark on the first ballot, they came around to support Wilson’s nomination on the 46th ballot, and his two elections in 1912 and 1916. After the experience of Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson, it was clear that Arkansas was more attractive to would-be presidents than in the past. The period of 1909-1912 was considered the first step in the process of taking Arkansas seriously in presidential politics, and was accelerated when an Arkansan named Robinson was the first Southerner since the Civil War to be nominated for Vice-President on a major party ticket, and finally completed when another Arkansan, Bill Clinton, occupied the White House in 1993.