Tuesday, July 1, 2003

'State of Eight' exhibit brings Ohio's presidential legacy home

By Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Loreta Fuhrman is the curator of the U. S. Grant Birthplace in Point Pleasant, Clermont County.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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Ohio still holds the title as Mother of Presidents. But after administrations marked by scandal, tragedy and mediocrity, the rest of the nation said eight is enough, and it's been eight decades since the last Ohioan occupied the White House.

Ohio presidential candidates made historic marks on politics, including "the front-porch campaign" and slogans such as "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too." But Buckeye-headed presidential tickets have died out with the front porch's popularity, a trend not even space hero John Glenn could reverse.

Four Ohio presidents died in office, two had scandal-marred administrations, and one - Cincinnati's William Howard Taft - is often remembered as the nation's heaviest president, so big that a special bathtub was needed for him in the White House.

Still, with eight presidents (seven of them native sons) coming from Ohio from 1840 to 1920, the state's record is impressive. Virginia remains second, with seven presidents.

During this year's bicentennial, Ohioans will honor their eight in an exhibit that arrives in Cincinnati today. There are also efforts to increase local recognition of Greater Cincinnati's presidents - William Henry Harrison, Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison and Taft.

"Since the early days of the republic, Ohioans have dramatically shaped the political landscape of the United States," said Fred Stratmann, a spokesman for the Ohio Bicentennial Commission. In the 80-year stretch ending in 1920, Ohioans won 10 of 21 presidential elections.

William Henry Harrison was elected the ninth president in 1840; Ulysses S. Grant, 18th president, 1868 and 1872; Rutherford B. Hayes, 19th president, 1876; James A. Garfield, 20th president, 1880; Benjamin Harrison, 23rd president, 1888; William H. McKinley, 25th president, 1896 and 1900; Taft, 27th president, 1908; and Warren G. Harding, 29th president, 1920.

From July 1 to Oct. 31, their careers can be examined in "State of Eight: A Bicentennial Tribute to Ohio's Presidential Legacy," at the William Howard Taft National Historic Site on Auburn Avenue in Cincinnati.

State of Eight "uncovers heartbreaking and humorous aspects of Ohio's prominence in national politics - from enduring the death of four native sons in office to playing host to the national convention of the Cheese Party," said Lee Yoakum, another bicentennial spokesman in Columbus.

It features period artifacts and documents and examines the broader role Ohio has played in presidential politics in 200 years, said Nancy Kleinhenz of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont.

The Hayes staff created the exhibit, which was paid for by the Bicentennial Commission. Artifacts came from museums and presidential sites across the country.

"We tried to cover the whole spectrum. There's more to the legacy than the eight men who were elected president," Kleinhenz said.

That's why State of Eight considers lesser-known Ohio presidential candidates as well as the five major-party conventions and more than 20 third-party meetings that have been held in Ohio. Some former candidates are so obscure that they have been nearly forgotten by everyone but political memorabilia collectors.

During Ohio's presidential run, the country grew up. Rural dominance gave way to urban. Factories popped up from Maine to California. America expanded internationally and helped fight a world war.

In 1888, Benjamin Harrison sometimes campaigned from his front porch. Later, other candidates followed his lead.

The apex of Ohio clout came in the election of 1920, which placed Buckeyes in the national spotlight on both tickets. Democrat James Cox, governor and owner of the Dayton Daily News, ran for president against Harding, a Marion newspaper owner and senator.

Harding, who won, died in office of natural causes, amid scandal. Garfield and McKinley died from wounds inflicted by assassins. And William Henry Harrison caught pneumonia and died April 4, 1841. He served just one month.

On May 26, the Bicentennial Commission dedicated a presidential historical marker - one of six in Ohio - at Harrison's Tomb in the Hamilton County village of North Bend.

"Harrison was a hero of the Indian wars and the War of 1812," said James Cash of Kettering, author of Unsung Heroes: Ohioans in the White House, A Modern Appraisal.

His grandson, Benjamin Harrison, "was a good student at Miami University, even though he was called 'the human ice cube.' He had no sense of humor, but was intelligent."

Cash said interest in the presidents remains high in Ohio. He speaks about them across the state, and this year his book went into a sixth printing.

He believes Ohio was a fertile ground for future presidents because it was the new frontier in the 19th century.

"Ohio was the land of opportunity," he said. "Ambitious people came here from the East and South. It was a free state, not slave, and it was interested in productivity improvement, especially with farm machinery. It was a very special place that people were eager to come into. We had New Englanders in the Western Reserve, and Carolinians and Irish and Germans and Scots-Irish and free blacks. California today is what Ohio was in the 1800s - a great mix of people.

"Most of the Ohio presidents were war heroes, and people do like their heroes," Cash said. "They were interested in issues related to the war. They wanted to help the oppressed.

"Also, Hayes, Harrison and some others were well-educated and smart. Garfield spoke Latin and Greek fluently and headed what would become Hiram College. He once solved a mathematical problem that had been posed by an ancient Greek. Garfield got the answer published in a math journal."

As lofty as Garfield was, Grant was as common. But his administration, seven years removed from the Civil War, was marred by scandals.

"Grant is not considered a good president," Cash said. "But what united many of these early presidents from Ohio was their concern about slavery and what would happen after the slaves were freed.

"They joined the Republican Party to help stop the spread of slavery and to help rebuild the South. Ohio presidents supported the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, to free the slaves and give them equal rights. Grant supported it - along with others - but he gets little credit."

This spring, the Ohio Historical Society dedicated a marker at the U.S. Grant Birthplace in Point Pleasant in Clermont County. The Civil War general - critical to the Union's victory - was elected president twice.

"I don't think President Grant gets the proper attention he deserves," said Loretta Fuhrman, curator of the Grant Birthplace. "We need to promote him better this year, in his 180th birthday. A lot of people don't realize just how important the man was."

Ohio's eight presidents

William Henry Harrison (March 4-April 4, 1841) Born Feb. 9, 1773, Berkeley, Va. Died April 4, 1841, Washington, D.C. Political nickname: Old Tip (for Tippecanoe). Party: Whig. Served only one month. Buried in tomb at North Bend. It is operated by the Ohio Historical Society and open to the public.

Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877) Born April 27, 1822, Point Pleasant, Ohio. Died July 23, 1885, Mount McGregor, N.Y. Political nickname: Hero of Appomattox. Party: Republican. Buried in Grant's Tomb, New York City. Grant's Birthplace is operated by the Ohio Historical Society. His boyhood home in Georgetown, Ohio, is also open to the public.

Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881) Born Oct. 4, 1822, Delaware, Ohio. Died Jan. 17, 1893, Fremont, Ohio. Political nickname: Dark-Horse President. He won by one electoral vote. Party: Republican. Southern Reconstruction ended during his term. Mrs. Hayes was dubbed "Lemonade Lucy" because she refused to serve alcohol. Buried in Fremont, site of the Hayes Presidential Center.

James A. Garfield (March 4, 1881-Sept. 19, 1881) Born Nov. 19, 1831, Moreland Hills, Ohio. Died Sept. 19, 1881, Elberon, N.J. No nickname. Party: Republican. Shot by disgruntled Charles Julius Guiteau on July 2, 1881. Garfield was the first to campaign in both English and German. Died of infection from wound. Buried in Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland. National Park Service operates his home in Mentor.

Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) Born Aug. 20, 1833, North Bend, Ohio. Died March 13, 1901, Indianapolis. Political nickname: Little Ben. Party: Republican. Grandson of William Henry Harrison. Graduated from Miami University, Oxford. Buried in Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis. His North Bend birthplace burned in 1858, but a marker commemorates the house.

William McKinley (1897-1901) Born Jan. 29, 1843, Niles, Ohio. Died Sept. 14, 1901, Buffalo, N.Y. Political nickname: Idol of Ohio. Party: Republican. Shot by assassin at exposition in Buffalo. Buried in Niles. The McKinley Memorial Birthplace Home and Research Center is built on the grounds of his family home, which burned in 1937.

William Howard Taft (1909-1913) Born Sept. 15, 1857, Cincinnati. Died March 8, 1930, Washington, D.C. No nickname. Party: Republican. Largest chief executive, at 300 pounds. Served as president and later chief justice of the Supreme Court. Buried in Section 30 of Arlington Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Birthplace at 2038 Auburn Avenue, Cincinnati, operated by the National Park Service.

Warren G. Harding (1921-1923) Born Nov. 2, 1865, Corsica (now Blooming Grove), Ohio. Died Aug. 2, 1923, San Francisco. No nickname. Party: Republican. Teapot Dome scandal brewed during his administration. Died in office. First president to speak on the radio. Buried in the Harding Memorial, Marion.

If you go

What: State of Eight: A Bicentennial Tribute to Ohio's Presidential Legacy.

Where: William Howard Taft National Historic Site, 2038 Auburn Ave., Cincinnati.

When: 8 a.m.-4 p.m. July 1-Oct. 13 at the Taft Education Center.

Admission: Free.

Information: 684-3262.


E-mail rmcnutt@enquirer.com

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