Celebrate Presidential Visits to The Last Green Valley
Monday is Presidents’ Day, a national holiday held on the third Monday in February to celebrate all U.S. presidents past and present. For me, and I think for most folks my age, I remember the holiday as a birthday celebration of both George Washington (Feb. 22) and Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12).
The story of the holiday begins in 1800 following Washington’s death in 1799 when his birthday became a perennial celebration of the most important figure in American history.
In 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was established to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers. Columbus Day, Labor Day and Memorial Day are the other three-day weekend holidays.
In celebration of Presidents’ Day my column focuses on when both Washington and Lincoln visited The Last Green Valley.
George Washington visited our region during both the Revolutionary War and when he was president. There are reports that during the war he visited New London and Norwich, and while in Norwich stayed at the Leffingwell Inn. The inn was owned at the time by Christopher Leffingwell, a deputy commissar to the Continental Army.
Washington’s connection to the town of Lebanon is obvious because that town was the home of Gov. Jonathan Trumbull and Col. Jonathan Trumbull Jr., both of whom were instrumental in the fight for independence. I contacted Donna Baron, museum director of the Lebanon Historical Society Museum and a TLGV board member, to learn more about Washington’s visits to the town. Baron referred me to an excellent source of information on the Trumbull family at http://thelosttrumbull.blogspot.com that includes Trumbull family diary accounts of Washington visiting Lebanon and other sources.
According to the blog, Washington visited Lebanon twice in March 1781. The first time was March 4-5 while on route to meet with Count de Rochambeau and the French officers in Newport. The second time occurred during his return trip on March 16. During his first visit, he stayed with Col. Trumbull and his wife, Eunice Backus Trumbull. While there, he reviewed the Legion of Duke de Luazun and his French troops in quarters at Lebanon.
Washington traveled through Connecticut several other times during the Revolutionary War and during his presidency when he embarked on what was the first of two long tours of the United States. These tours would eventually take him along the East Coast from modern-day Maine to Georgia.
One of the more interesting accounts of Washington in our region is in 1789 while he was traveling between Hartford and Boston. The president stopped in Pomfret to inquire about the residence of Revolutionary War veteran Major Gen. Israel Putnam. Unfortunately, Washington decided a trip to visit his comrade would take a significant amount of time and disrupt his travel schedule. He rode on the additional miles to Ashford for the night. Putnam died less than a year after Washington stopped in Pomfret. How sad they didn’t have the opportunity to see each other one more time.
Washington’s preference for lodging was in public taverns and inns catering to travelers. He preferred this type of lodging over private homes to prevent political rivalries and the appearance of his preferring one private home over another.
In Ashford, Washington stayed at the Perkins Tavern. He made a reference to the tavern’s accommodations in his personal journal, commenting he had hoped for something “a little less rudimentary.”
Washington’s journal also documents a visit to Brigham’s Tavern in Coventry in 1789. “Set out about 7 o’clock, and for the first 24 miles had hilly, rocky, and disagreeable roads; the remaining 10 was level and good, but in places sandy. Arrived at Hartford a little before four. We passed through Mansfield, (which is a very hilly country, and the township in which they make the greatest qty. of silk of any in the State,) and breakfasted at one Brigham’s, in Coventry.”
Lincoln’s visits to The Last Green Valley were much less frequent than our first president. I found an interesting online resource Abraham Lincoln’s Classroom with detailed information on Lincoln’s travels to 27 states in the Country. The website is http://www.abrahamlincolnsclassroom.org.
“On September 11, 1848, Congressman Abraham Lincoln probably landed at Norwich, Connecticut after taking a steam ship from New York City. He was destined for Massachusetts to help rally that state’s Whigs behind the presidential candidacy of Zachary Taylor. He gave no known speeches in Connecticut, taking the railroad north to Worcester, where Bay State Whigs were holding a convention. It was Mr. Lincoln’s first visit to Connecticut, and he would not return for more than 11 years.”
Lincoln again visited Connecticut in 1860 while campaigning for the presidency. In late February he had traveled to New York City to give what became known as his Cooper Union Address. Connecticut Republican State Chairman Nehemiah Sperry contacted Lincoln to “seek his agreement in making speeches in Connecticut that might help Republicans in their upcoming gubernatorial election.”
“Mr. Lincoln traveled on to Providence and then Woonsocket, Rhode Island later that day. The next day, Mr. Lincoln returned to Norwich, the home town of Governor Buckingham. The visiting speaker stayed at the Wauregan House. According to Percy Coe Eggleston, the Norwich Town Hall was full that night. Mr. Lincoln was received upon his entrance in the Hall with storms of applause, loud and prolonged; and when he was introduced by Mr. Lamb, the enthusiasm of the audience knew no bounds. Cheer after cheer went up for the noble champion of Republican principles, and some minutes elapsed before the applause subsided sufficiently to allow him to commence his address,′ reported the Norwich Bulletin.
“Mr. Lincoln provided his listeners with a ‘manly vindication of the principles of the Republican party, urging the necessity of the union of all elements to free our country from its present rule, and closed with an eloquent exhortation for each and every one to do his duty without regard to the sneers and slanders of our political opponents,’ wrote Eggleston. The Rev. John P. Gulliver recalled that Mr. Lincoln’s speech ’was in substance the famous speech delivered in New York, commencing with the noble words: ‘There is but one political question before the people of this country, which is this, Is slavery right, or is it wrong?’ and ending with the yet nobler words: ‘Gentlemen, it has been said of the world’s history hitherto that ‘might makes right;’ it is for us and for our times to reverse the maxim, and to show that right makes right!’”
Residents of Norwich will recall the famous Lincoln Banner created to welcome his arrival in Norwich in 1860. Made of red silk, the banner can be seen displayed prominently on the second floor of City Hall. It shows a young Abraham Lincoln before he grew his beard. In 1997, the banner was rediscovered in an attic and offered for sale at a New York auction house. Norwich community leaders organized a fundraising effort towards the purchase of the banner. It raised $35,000 and the city officials later voted to spend $25,000 on its restoration.
I hope you enjoy the holiday. Feel free to celebrate all of our 45 presidents. For me, I’ll be remembering our first president, whose leadership during the Revolutionary War and indispensable role guiding the fledgling democracy earned him the name “Father of the Country.” I’ll also be remembering our 16th president, who preserved the Union and led the country through its bloodiest war, and our greatest moral and constitutional crisis.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He has lived in the region for more than 35 years and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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