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Welcome to Arkansas, Mr. President! (Part 2)

Old State House Museum - Thursday, January 17, 2019

President Theodore RooseveltTheodore Roosevelt was probably the first post-Civil War chief executive to attract the fascination and excitement of people in both the North and the South. In a way, the Spanish-American War of 1898, better known as the “Splendid Little War,” helped to form the bond between the noisy New Yorker who embarked for Cuba in a Brooks Brothers custom uniform and returned a national hero after his “Rough Riders” routed the Spanish at San Juan and Kettle Hill.

Six Arkansans served in Roosevelt’s famed regiment, formally known as the First United States Volunteer Cavalry, most notably Lieutenant John C. Greenway of Hot Springs, whom the then-former President referred to in his posthumously-published book, The Rough Riders, as a “model soldier and comrade.” One enduring part of the esteem that Arkansans held the twenty-sixth President in is the community of Roosevelt in northwestern White County which held a post office as early as 1899. While by lineage an urban aristocrat from the east, and a Republican, he always referred to himself as “half southern.” His mother, Martha Stewart "Mittie" Bulloch, was the younger daughter of one of Georgia’s largest planters who resided at their family's historic mansion, Bulloch Hall in Roswell, and was the sister of two Confederate officers. Roosevelt himself referred to that lineage in his love for grits, once reminiscing that when he was good, his mother would make him cheese grits.

While Roosevelt attracted some negative reactions from southerners early in his term from his 1901 White House dinner with Booker T. Washington, the president still enjoyed a good degree of good will in the state in spite of his admitted lack of understanding of the region’s social mores. Probably the greatest source of knowledge about Arkansas that Roosevelt gained outside of the state’s Republican leaders was Greenway, who advised the president on federal appointments in Arkansas.

Former Governor and U.S. Senator Powell Clayton still directed much of the Republican Party’s affairs in Arkansas in the early twentieth century, and was the first to state that he and Roosevelt belonged to “two different camps within” the GOP. Roosevelt appreciated and respected what he called Clayton’s party “regularity with a conscience.” Clayton was still heavily favored by Roosevelt in the matter of patronage, and their relationship was so important that he sent Vice President Charles Fairbanks to Arkansas in 1906 to campaign for Republican congressional candidates, a practice almost unheard of in much of the South.

Clayton would pull off a coup in 1905 by bringing Roosevelt to Arkansas as the second president to visit the state while in office (Benjamin Harrison was the first). However, the Governor greeting him would be Jeff Davis, already antagonistic toward the president from his refusal to grant a pardon to a Davis associate that had been convicted of embezzling post office funds. When Davis urged Roosevelt to “soften his heart” in considering the request, the chief executive replied, “My dear Governor, a soft heart is sometimes indicative of a soft head.” Davis, who had made his reputation with harsh populist and racial rhetoric, certainly remembered the encounter at Roosevelt’s welcoming ceremony on October 25, 1905, when the crowd of 40,000 was treated to a defense of lynching in Davis’s remarks. An incensed Roosevelt responded to the Governor that he would seek to “drive the menace and reproach of lynch law out of the United States.” Little Rock residents gave Roosevelt an enthusiastic welcome along his parade route, yet Davis tried to sully the mood by refusing to attend a luncheon afterward, where he would have sat with Clayton, whom Davis held responsible for the death of an aunt during the Militia Wars.

After his presidency, Roosevelt still made visits to the state: in 1910, he was a guest of honor at the Arkansas State Fair in Hot Springs. In April 1912, as he sought the Republican Presidential nomination, he made a major attempt to attract Southern support at the convention by visiting Fort Smith, Ozark, Clarksville, Russellville, Conway, Argenta, and Carlisle. After Roosevelt lost the GOP nod and ran on his Progressive Party label in the fall, he returned for a tour in September that took him from Memphis to Little Rock. In Brinkley, which had a new train station described as "In a good town on a great trunk line" the "Roosevelt Special" rolled into town. Before a crowd of about 500, Roosevelt "began a little speech in advocacy of the Progressive (“Bull Moose”) Party movement, but before he had hardly begun, the special had to pull out.” The Special proceeded to Little Rock, where he made a speech on waterway conservation. While Roosevelt never carried Arkansas in his campaigns, he maintained good will and the continuing admiration of the state’s citizens.