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The day 'Ex-President' Taft came to town

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William Howard Taft. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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Sunday, July 8, 2018

 

William Howard Taft’s name is usually a punchline. The rotund 27th president famously became stuck in the White House bathtub and won only two states, Utah and Vermont, in his unsuccessful attempt at reelection in 1912. Even in his memoirs, Taft spent more time dwelling on his service as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court than on his one-term presidency.

Yet, in early May 1918, Elizabeth City rolled out the red carpet for, as the Daily Advance called him, “Ex-President Taft.”

The First World War brought Taft to town. April 1918 marked the one-year anniversary of America’s entrance into the conflict, and war weariness plagued the country. In Europe, the Germans launched a major spring offensive that threatened to throw the Allies into the sea before American troops arrived in force. Liberty Bond subscriptions lagged.

To drum up support for the war effort, numerous entities, both public and private, sponsored patriotic lecture tours by famous celebrities and politicians. William Howard Taft was one of the possible speakers.

His invitation to speak in Elizabeth City came from the local chapter of the Red Cross, but the prime mover behind Taft’s visit was Isaac Melson Meekins. A local Republican politician, Meekins knew Taft personally; while president, Taft appointed him assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

Taft arrived in Elizabeth City on Thursday, May 2, 1918. An honor guard of local Boy Scouts and an ensemble of local notables, including Meekins and W.O. Saunders, greeted the former president at the train station. After a luncheon with the Chamber of Commerce, Taft made a major point of buying a $50 Liberty Bond at Savings Bank & Trust on Poindexter Street, since encouraging investors to buy government debt was a key part of the visit.

The main event occurred that night at the Alkrama Theater. After a brief introduction by city officials, including future Governor Ehringhaus, Taft delivered a ninety-minute address on the topic “America Seeing It Through.” The “it,” of course, was the war.

In his speech, Taft pulled no punches. He envisioned a long and hard struggle against the “Potsdam Gang,” a reference to the German Kaiser’s primary residence near Berlin. Victory over the Central Powers, Taft believed, might take two years and upwards of five million American soldiers.

Along with the grim reality came a major dose of Allied propaganda. In a bit of rhetorical hyperbole, Taft lay sole blame for the Great War on Germany. He also, without any real evidence, claimed that the Kaiser planned to seize Canada, and desired war with the United States from the very beginning of his reign.

After his address, Taft left the same day by train for his next stop, Greensboro. Newspaper coverage of the event lauded Taft’s “democratic bearing,” and crowed over the fact that Virginians came to North Carolina to hear a politician speak rather than the other way around.

However, “ex-president” Taft got one thing slightly wrong. Instead of two more years, the war ended six months later.

Leonard Lanier is collections assistant at Museum of the Albemarle.

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