40 minutes in the spring of 1891, George Anderson Wright -- mayor
of the East Texas town
-- served as the nation's de facto president.
Of course, the 45-year-old Texan lacked authority to wage war, negotiate
treaties, veto acts of Congress or to exercise any other of the
chief executive's Constitutional powers. But had a deranged citizen
taken a shot at him, the life of President Benjamin Harrison's could
have well been saved by the Anderson County businessman. The arrangement,
however, had nothing to do with presidential security.
Though known as Col. Wright, the title was honorary, a common Southern
courtesy at the time. Actually, he'd been only an enlisted man during
the Civil War, fighting in the Confederate army. After the war,
he'd done a variety of things, including piloting a river boat on
the Trinity River, running a cotton commission house, as well as
operating a mercantile business at Hall's Bluff in Houston County,
a livery stable and later a bank.
Having settled in Palestine,
he ran for mayor in 1891 and went on to serve six years. Naturally
enough, Wright counted as a friend Judge John H. Reagan, the Palestine
man who had been the Confederacy's postmaster general. Both men
also stood as political allies of another East Texan, Gov.
James S. Hogg.
Early in 1891, the White House announced that President Harrison
would be taking a whistle-stop train tour of the South and West,
including Texas. After speaking in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and
Arkansas, Harrison would enter the Lone Star State at Texarkana
and then proceed to Palestine
for his first Texas address.
There, the first sitting president ever to visit Texas, he would
be officially greeted by Gov.
Hogg, Judge Reagan and Mayor Wright. The three Texans would
then travel with the president to Houston.
The Air Force One of its day, a lavishly appointed chartered train
pulled into the Palestine
depot early on the morning of April 18. After the requisite
handshaking, the President delivered a 347-word speech from the
back of the train.
First, he praised Texas as a "kingdom without a king, an empire
without an emperor, a state gigantic in proportions and matchless
in resources, with diversified industries and infinite capacities
to sustain a tremendous population and to bring to every home where
industry abides prosperity and comfort."
Next the President hit on the principal objective of his trip, convincing
die-hard Southerners still bitter over the election of Republican
President Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War and Reconstruction, that
Republicans (more like Democrats today) were worthy of their vote.
Harrison, by the way, was a Republican seeking a second term.
"I desire to assure you, my countrymen, that in my heart I make
no distinction between our people anywhere," he said, proceeding
with additional boilerplate rhetoric.
In reality, it was his stomach, not his heart, that preoccupied
the 23rd President at the moment. As Harrison spoke, his gut grumbled
worse than the crowd's most die-hard skeptic.
"It is very kind of you to come here this morning before breakfast,"
he continued. "Perhaps you are initiating me into the Texas habit
-- is it so? -- of taking something before breakfast."
That line brought laughter and cheers, since Harrison clearly referred
to the custom among many of knocking back a bracing shot of whiskey
to enhance digestion before the morning meal. Those who practiced
the ritual also noticed that it seemed to improve one's outlook
on the new day, at least for a while.
"This exhilarating draught [more presidential humor] of good will
you have given me this morning will not, I am sure, disturb either
my digestion or my comfort during the day," he concluded quite truthfully
and to further cheers.
And indeed it did not. Meeting Wright, the President had noted that
the bearded Texan looked somewhat like he did. Harrison had 13 years
on the mayor, but he judged enough similarity existed between them
to accomplish what he had in mind. So, after the train left Palestine
for Houston, Harrison
asked Wright to take his place standing at the back of the train
while he, Governor
Hogg and Judge Reagan partook of breakfast. Wright readily agreed
to assume the mantle of a virtual presidency, and the three higher-ranking
politicians repaired to the dining car for a hearty morning meal.
Whether they enjoyed an "exhilarating draught" went unreported,
as did Wright's secret role in national affairs.
Not only did Wright wave at people and otherwise act presidentially
as the train moved through the East
Texas pines, at the next stop he doubled for Harrison. Alighting
from the train, he shook hands with local dignitaries who, in the
age long before news reels or television, had no real idea what
Harrison looked like.
Finally, someone in the crowd recognized the Texan and called him
out as a presidential imposter. By that time, Harrison and his Texas
escort had completed their morning repast and Wright "resigned"
mayor and the governor left the train at Houston,
and Harrison continued on to make speeches in Galveston,
Antonio and El
Paso. Harrison's trip, the most extensive presidential tour
to that point in U.S. history, lasted five weeks. While the Indiana
politician got plenty of national exposure, it was not enough to
overcome the electorate's disdain of his policy on tariffs and high
federal spending. When he ran for reelection in 1892, Harrison lost
to Democrat Grover Cleveland.
Former "President" Wright died Nov. 6, 1935 and is buried in Palestine's
city cemetery. His simple gray granite tombstone reveals only his
dates of birth and death, making no mention of his 40-minute "term"
© Mike Cox
- March 10, 2016 Column
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