Presidential Past Creates Backdrop for 2012 Convention
From George Washington to Barack Obama, U.S. presidents have slept, studied and taken their first steps in North Carolina. They’ve vacationed here, played golf and visited must-see attractions. Depending on whom you believe, as many as four native sons have held the nation’s highest office.
As the state awaits a new moment in history with the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, political junkies of all persuasions can dig into our presidents’ pasts at places across North Carolina.
President James K. Polk State Historic Site (Credit: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources)
Our 11th president was born on a 150-acre farm south of Charlotte in 1795. The oldest of 10 children, he lived there until 1806, when his family moved to Tennessee. Nine years later, Polk transferred from a Tennessee academy to the University of North Carolina, where he graduated with honors in 1818.
Sites to see
- President James K. Polk State Historic Site, Pineville. About 12 miles from convention headquarters in Charlotte, the site features period log structures and furnishings similar to those from Polk’s childhood. Exhibits explore the Mexican-American War, the Oregon boundary dispute, the annexation of California and other events that marked Polk’s single term as president (he did not seek re-election).
- UNC-Chapel Hill. Polk Place, a tree-lined quadrangle in the heart of the historic campus, is named for the distinguished alumnus. Morehead Planetarium and Science Center displays a bronze statue of Polk in its art rotunda.
- State Capitol. A monument on the grounds honors Polk, Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson as “Three Presidents North Carolina Gave the Nation.” President Harry S. Truman spoke at its dedication in 1948.
In 1808, our 17th president was born in downtown Raleigh in a kitchen at Casso’s Inn, a bustling business where both of his parents worked. After apprenticing as a tailor, he traveled the South, returned to Raleigh, then moved with his family to Tennessee in 1826.
Sites to see
- Andrew Johnson Birthplace. A highway marker across the street from the Capitol approximates the original site of the kitchen. In honor of the Johnson sesquicentennial, Harry S. Truman attended ceremonies at the house, which is now located at Raleigh's Mordecai (pronounced MOR-duh-kee) Historic Park.
- State Capitol: The monument “Three Presidents North Carolina Gave the Nation.”
About 30 miles south of Charlotte, a historic marker in Waxhaw places the birth of our seventh president “a few miles southwest of this spot” in 1767. That could land you in South Carolina, which is consistent with Jackson’s own account, but North Carolina has yet to give up its claim. In any case, Jackson studied law in Salisbury with prominent attorney Spruce Macay and was admitted to the Rowan County bar in 1787. He moved to Tennessee while it was still part of North Carolina.
“Three Presidents North Carolina Gave the Nation”
- Museum of the Waxhaws and Andrew Jackson Memorial. With its focus on the region’s history and Scots-Irish heritage, the museum illuminates Jackson’s boyhood and influences on his world view as a young Patriot and future president.
- Salisbury. Stroll down Jackson Street, supposedly named for Old Hickory. A highway marker at the Rowan Public Library notes his tenure with Macay. And the Rowan Museum has a warrant for his arrest on a complaint that was settled out of court.
- Greensboro Historical Museum. Before moving to Tennessee, Jackson stayed at the family home of his friend John McNairy. The McNairy House has been relocated to the grounds of the museum, whose collection includes native daughter Dolley Madison’s famous red velvet dress and photos of presidential visits.
- Cherokee. Visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Oconaluftee Indian Village and Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, or watch a summer performance of the outdoor drama “Unto These Hills,” for a Native American perspective on the president who administered the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
- State Capitol: “Three Presidents North Carolina Gave the Nation” monument.
Our 28th president was the son of a minister who was pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Wilmington from 1874 to 1885. The future Nobel Peace Prize winner attended Davidson College, a top liberal arts college about 20 miles north of Charlotte, during the 1873-74 academic year. He withdrew because of illness and spent the next year convalescing at his family’s home in Wilmington. Future Congressman John D. Bellamy was among his local friends.
Sites to see
- Davidson College. Wilson is rumored to have planted a tree in the college arboretum. He also played center field on the baseball team, but note that Wilson Field is named for T. Henry Wilson Jr., Class of 1951, and not the president.
- Wilmington. First Presbyterian Church is near the riverfront in the historic port city; a marker notes the site of the manse where the Wilsons lived. Also, John Bellamy’s home is now the Bellamy Mansion of History and Design Arts.
The official story places the birth of our 16th president in a log cabin in Kentucky. An alternate story suggests that Nancy Hanks gave birth to the future president in the North Carolina foothills of Bostic, about an hour’s drive from Charlotte.
Site to see
- The Bostic Lincoln Center makes its case at a library on Depot Street and with visits to Lincoln Hill, site of another log cabin.
- Wake Forest University: President Harry S. Truman broke ground on the university’s Winston-Salem campus in 1951 and dined with university benefactors Charles and Mary Babcock (R.J. Reynolds’ daughter) at their home, which is now Reynolda House Museum of American Art. Two decades later, Gerald R. Ford gave the address for the graduation of his oldest son, Michael Gerald Ford, now Wake Forest’s associate dean for campus life. And Presidents Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush have all stayed at Graylyn Estate, the university’s elegant conference center.
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: President Gerald R. Ford took a summer law course here in 1938, then returned in 1942 for the U.S. Navy's Pre-Flight School training program. One of his contemporaries recalls seeing Ford in the audience at a Kate Smith concert: future President Ronald Reagan was in her troupe. Also, George H.W. Bush completed his pre-flight training in Chapel Hill.
- Duke University: President Richard M. Nixon graduated with a law degree from Duke in 1937. Other Duke law school alums with ties to presidential politics: Kenneth Starr, whose investigation of President Bill Clinton opened the door to impeachment; and Sam Seaborn, deputy communications director for president Josiah Bartlet on the TV drama “The West Wing.”
- Western Piedmont Community College: Speaking of President Nixon, the Senator Sam J. Ervin Jr. Library and Museum honors the chairman of the Senate Watergate committee in his hometown of Morganton. The museum-library re-creates Sen. Sam's personal library and documents the career of this "country lawyer"/constitutional expert whose Washington tenure began with the censure of Sen. Joe McCarthy and ended with Nixon's resignation.
added: May 21, 2012
updated: May 23, 2012