The Republican commander in chief arrived on his presidential yacht as U.S. battle ships fired their guns in a salute that lasted a full five minutes.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump will travel to Jamestown to give a speech marking the 400th anniversary of the first meeting of a representative legislature in the future United States.
Trump’s address to a special commemorative session of the Virginia General Assembly will no doubt attract many supporters, but it will also draw protesters, just as the president’s appearance on the Mall on the Fourth of July did. Many of the state’s Democratic political leaders said they will boycott the Trump talk.
There were no protesters when Roosevelt arrived 112 years ago.
At 8:30 a.m., Roosevelt’s presidential yacht, the Mayflower, “appeared out of the north, skimmed across the shining blue and threaded her way through the lanes” of 50 U.S. and foreign battle ships, The Washington Post reported. The ships’ guns fired their salute. “At last the smoke cleared away, and the President was perceived — on the deck of the Mayflower — his high hat in hand and his frock coat flapping in the breeze,” the Philadelphia Inquirer said. Admirals arrived at the yacht to greet the president.
As Roosevelt stepped from the gangplank to go ashore, the head of the exposition greeted him. “Welcome to Old Virginia,” he said to the 46-year-old Roosevelt, who responded: “I’m glad to be here. It’s bully.”
A crowd generally estimated at about 40,000 people turned out for the opening of the exposition, which resembled a World’s Fair. The site stretched over 340 acres of grounds and water. At least 37 foreign nations were represented as well as the U.S. government. Scores of American companies and more than 20 states planned to construct exhibition buildings. Pennsylvania, for example, wanted to build a replica of Independence Hall. There was a “War Path” amusement park, a Wild West show and a re-creation of the San Francisco earthquake. The cost of admission was 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children.
Though the purpose of the day was to celebrate American history, Roosevelt clearly “was the magnet” for the men, women and children in the crowd, who “shouted cheers for him, and their legs did valiant service in hustling them here and there, wherever they might get a glimpse of him,” The Post said.
The newspaper also reported: “Every other man in the crowd called the President ‘Teddy’ and laughed.” And “the President vigorously shook his head and grinned.”
Roosevelt’s appearance drew a bevy of dignitaries. They included most of his cabinet members, more than 100 members of Congress from both parties, governors, mayors, more than 100 diplomats and 150 reporters, plus 5,000 soldiers and 1,500 sailors.
The president was scheduled to deliver his speech at noon from an awning-covered stage in an open square. It was a hot day with a brisk southeasterly breeze. Numerous officials and diplomats sat behind Roosevelt. The president shook his finger at the French ambassador and told him to put on his hat. “I won’t have you suffer a sunstroke,” he joked.
The crowd roared as Roosevelt rose to speak. Suddenly, people in the back began pressing forward, threatening to trample the people at the front. Sensing a disaster, Roosevelt — “with the agility of a school boy” — suddenly leaped on top of a small table that had been placed on the speaker’s stand.
“I have always known,” he said, “that you gentlemen of Virginia were noted for protecting your women and children. Now let me see the proof. By pressing forward someone may be killed.”
The crowd calmed down.
Roosevelt’s lengthy speech rang with modern-day themes. “At the moment the greatest problem before us is how to exercise such control over the business use of vast wealth, individual, but especially corporate, as will insure its not being used against the interest of the public, while yet permitting such ample legitimate profits as will encourage individual initiative,” he said.
Immigration was another theme. “All through the colonial days, new waves of immigrants from time to time swept hither across the ocean, now from one country, now from another,” he said. And “each group of newcomers, as it adds its blood to the life, also changes it somewhat, and this change and growth and development have gone on steadily, generation by generation throughout three centuries.”
The crowd responded to the speech with “constant outbursts of applause and cheering,” the New York Tribune reported.
Then came the big moment for the president to officially open the exposition by pressing a golden electric button that, as one newspaper reported, “will start in motion the thousand wheels in the Exposition.” Roosevelt pressed the button as a thousand flags unfurled, cannon shots roared and bands played “America.” When he did, however, one South Carolina man in the audience was heard to say, “I’ve been lookin’ around some, but I declare I can’t see just what wheels are being set in motion.”
He was right. There were precious few mechanical wheels to set in motion.
After five years in planning, the exposition was far behind schedule and dogged by financial problems. Only a third of the buildings were completed, just 20 percent of the lights could be turned on and many exhibits such as the amusement section were not ready to go.
The energetic Roosevelt was unperturbed. He headed for a presidential luncheon at the exposition’s administration building. He returned to the square to review a military parade and then attended two receptions. The next day, on his way back to Washington on his yacht, the president stopped at Jamestown Island.
The exposition continued through November. Other visiting celebrities included African American educator Booker T. Washington and author Mark Twain, who rode in on a steam yacht owned by a Standard Oil company magnate. Roosevelt returned in June on Georgia Day to visit the state’s building, a reproduction of his mother’s family home in Roswell, Ga. The president drew another “enthusiastic welcome.”
But attendance was far below expectations, and the exposition ended deep in the red. The New York Times dubbed it “the most colossal failure in the history of exhibitions.”
Presidents have continued to be involved in celebrating Jamestown. In 2007, President George W. Bush spoke at the 400th anniversary of the settlement. The early colonists, he said, “planted the seeds of democracy at a time that democratic institutions were rare.” That year, England’s Queen Elizabeth II also visited both Jamestown and nearby Colonial Williamsburg.
Trump’s visit Tuesday will mark the date in 1619 when Virginia’s first House of Burgesses met in Jamestown. A White House official said the president plans to give remarks that “celebrate our great American tradition of representative democracy.”
Next month, Jamestown will mark a far different milestone: the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans, the beginning of a subjugation that left millions in chains.
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