From John Hennessy:
Last night we had 100+ at the Fredericksburg Area Museum for our presentation on Presidents in Fredericksburg. Given that about 25 people could not get seats, we’ll be presenting it again in November. Lots of new faces.
Is there a town of comparable size in America that has attracted such a steady procession of political punditry as Fredericksburg? Of America’s 45 presidents (including the rebellious one in Richmond), at least 24 of them have visited Fredericksburg–half of them while in office (since our last post on this, I have confirmed that John Tyler was here, as well as Grover Cleveland). I am virtually certain that two more were here–Zachary Taylor and Woodrow Wilson–but can’t yet prove it.
By far the most dramatic visit came in 1954, when Dwight Eisenhower rode into town (28 minutes late, the newspaper reported) to participate in a Mother’s Day ceremony at the grave of Mary Washington. While the nature of the visit was common (the Mary Washington monument is a favorite destination for presidents coming to Fredericksburg), it came in the midst of a frantic investigation into a threat on Eisenhower’s life. Word of the supposed plot came from a man who reported he was offered $500 to shoot the president in Fredericksburg. The informant claimed to have been approached the day before by two Puerto Rican men on Princess Anne Street. They offered money, and promised that if the informant failed in his attempt, they would be nearby to finish the job.
Bear in mind, in 1954, the words Puerto Rican nationalist and president provoked loud alarm bells in the wake of the failed, bloody attempt on Truman’s life by nationalists in 1950 at the Blair House. Local police deemed the informant reliable (he had helped with two other cases previously), and Secret Service officers and Fredericksburg detectives fanned out through town. They could not confirm his story.
When the president arrived on that rainy Sunday (as many as 3,000 turned out in the gloom to hear him), more than 70 law enforcement officers surrounded the speaker’s podium at the monument. The newspaper also reported that 46 members of the Mary Washington College cavalry troop were on hand (I’m not sure today’s secret service would include them in a list of assets available to help protect the president). The president knew nothing of the threat, and much of the audience was unaware too. But tension hung over the proceeding. Fredericksburg’s police chief said, ““I was under right might tension from the time the President arrived to the time he left.”
The president spent exactly 23 minutes in Fredericksburg that day, and nothing happened. While police were never able to substantiate the informant’s story, neither were they able to prove it a lie. And so no charges for filing a false report were ever filed.
If you want to read news coverage of the event from the Free Lance-Star in 1954, click here.
While here, Eisenhower offered up these words:
I feel highly honored…in joining with you in paying tribute to Mary, Mother of Washington. And on this day…we will…think of the great attributes of patience in adversity, of courage against all difficulty….If we remember these things, then such celebrations as these take on added meaning for all of us….For myself, I think I could add one more word—a tribute to the state that gave George Washington his mother and gave me mine. Thank you.
One thing we can surely say about presidential visits to Fredericksburg: while there have been many, none have produced anything approaching soaring oratory, Eisienhower’s included.