A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

President Trump’s recent visit to Kentucky caps long history of presidential visits chronicled in new book

By Wayne Onkst
Special to KyForward

When President Trump visited Kentucky this fall, he was adding to the long history of presidential visits to the Commonwealth. For 200 years, presidents have traveled to Kentucky for public business, using the state’s centrally located rivers, railroads and airports. Kentucky has also played an important role in national politics at various times during U.S. history, attracting presidents who needed Kentucky’s votes or supportive senators and representatives in Congress.

Celebrating a presidential visit is an American tradition born with George Washington’s triumphal journey to New York in 1789 to assume the presidency. Presidential visits have typically been celebrated by grand welcomes, with considerable ceremony and large crowds. Kentucky has welcomed the president about 120 times through the years. Beginning with James Monroe who visited Kentucky for almost a month in 1819, 27 presidents have visited the Bluegrass while serving in the nation’s highest office.

Greenup Street, Covington home of Jesse Root Grant, father of U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant. Source: Harper’s Weekly, 11 November 1865.

Presidential travel was very different in early days. The president traveled with no security detail or advance team. Since Congress provided no funding for travel, the president was responsible for paying his travel expenses. Monroe, traveling with General Andrew Jackson and aides, spent the night at homes and taverns along the way. Each city he visited, however, organized a welcoming committee to try to outdo their neighbors with a parade, military exercises, speeches, and balls to welcome the president. Monroe visited at least 10 Kentucky cities and celebrated July 4th with Kentuckians as they got their first glimpse of a President of the United States. The national press watched the Kentucky reception very closely since it was the first time a president had visited the west.

The long distance from Washington, along with the difficulty of communication, discouraged the early presidents from visiting Kentucky, so Andrew Jackson was the only other pre-Civil War president to visit Kentucky. He made three trips through the Bluegrass on his way between Washington and his home in Nashville during his eight years as president.

Development of railroads during the Civil War period enabled much quicker travel and much better communication so presidents were able to travel much farther. In 1906, Congress finally agreed to pay the president’s expenses as he traveled. Of all the presidents since the Civil War, only James A. Garfield, Grover Cleveland, and Calvin Coolidge did not visit Kentucky during their service as President.

Even though travel has become much easier, presidential visits are a relatively rare occasion. Many people only see a president once or twice, if at all, and residents outside of major metropolitan areas seldom have the opportunity to see a president in their community. Even though we now see the president daily in the media, visits by presidents still draw crowds from a wide area. Some of the largest crowds ever gathered in Kentucky, and many of the largest crowds in Kentucky communities, have come to see the president.

FDR visited Latonia Race Track in Covington in 1938, Courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library, Covington.

Presidents have come to Kentucky for many reasons. Monroe came to Kentucky to inspect military installations and to strengthen his political network in advance of the 1820 election. Other presidents have opened conventions and expositions, attended horse races, spoken at funerals, dedicated historic sites and infrastructure, promoted administration initiatives, addressed academic assemblies, thanked troops, held town halls, visited parks, attended conventions and meetings, and thanked volunteers. On many occasions, presidents have passed through Kentucky while traveling beyond. Particularly in recent years, however, most visits have served political purposes as presidents have campaigned for themselves or others or raised funds for campaigns.

Northern Kentucky has received many presidents because of its location near Cincinnati and its transportation infrastructure at the crossroads between east and west, north and south. Ulysses S. Grant made the first recorded presidential visit to Northern Kentucky in 1871 to visit his parents, who lived in Covington on Greenup Street. The president was welcomed by a salute from Newport Barracks and attended a reception in his honor at the mansion of Amos Shinkle, which later became Booth Hospital. President Grant visited his parents again in 1872 and returned to Covington in 1873 for his father’s funeral.

Wayne Onkst’s new book, Presidential Visits to Kentucky 1819 – 2017, is available from the Jesse Stuart Foundation and also at Roebling Point Books in Covington.

Northern Kentucky’s railroad connections brought many presidents to the area between the Civil War and the development of air travel following World War II. Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft each passed through Northern Kentucky, but only Roosevelt stopped to speak, making a brief address at the depot at Ludlow in 1902.

Franklin D. Roosevelt also passed through on the Southern Railroad in 1934, but he made one of the most historically significant visits to Kentucky in 1938 when he arrived at the Latonia Race Course to speak on behalf of Senator Alben Barkley. Barkley was managing Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation in the U. S. Senate and was being challenged for his Senate seat by Kentucky Governor Happy Chandler. In campaigning for Barkley, Roosevelt took the unusual step of endorsing a candidate in the Democratic primary. As the national press watched, Chandler stole the show by sitting on the speakers’ platform and jumping in the car between Roosevelt and Barkley on the way from the Latonia depot to the race track.

John F. Kennedy was the first president to use the airport in Northern Kentucky when he made a visit in 1962 to campaign for Democratic candidates for Congress. Kennedy spoke at the airport and took a motorcade through Covington and Newport on his way to a rally in downtown Cincinnati.

President Gerald Ford in Louisville. Courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library, Covington.

Lyndon Johnson used the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport four times during his presidency. He held a news conference in March 1964 to discuss flooding on the Ohio River and he shook hands with supporters in October 1964 before campaigning in Cincinnati. He returned in July 1968 for a meeting of the National Governor’s Conference in Cincinnati. As his administration came to a close in 1968, Johnson made a last-minute trip to Crestview Hills to speak at the rechristening of Villa Madonna College as Thomas More College and dedication of the new campus.

The increasing importance of Ohio in national politics in the last quarter of the twentieth century brought all serious national figures to the Cincinnati area. Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama landed at the airport in Northern Kentucky for appearances and campaigning in Cincinnati.

President Clinton came to Carrollton in 1998 to advocate for a tobacco settlement that was before Congress, and President George W. Bush came to Northern Kentucky University in 2006 for a speech on American business competitiveness and a fundraiser at the Hilton Hotel in Florence for Rep. Geoff Davis. President Obama came to Northern Kentucky in 2011 for a speech in the shadow of the Brent Spence Bridge on the northern side of the Ohio River to advocate for an infrastructure program he had proposed.

Wayne Onkst was director of the Kenton County Public Library from 1999-2006 and Kentucky’s State Librarian from 2006-2015. He is a resident of Erlanger. His book Presidential Visits to Kentucky 1819 – 2017 is available from the Jesse Stuart Foundation and also at Roebling Point Books in Covington.

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