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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Presidents on Martha's Vineyard

President Barack Obama’s family vacation on the island of Martha’s Vineyard will play big in the news this week, but perhaps the Vineyard residents, even the tourists, may take it in stride after all. President Bill Clinton’s family vacations here through the 1990s gave them a little practice in dealing with the traffic of tedious motorcades and tight security. Other sitting US Presidents, and would-be presidents, and former presidents were visitors here, under vastly different circumstances.

For a detailed retrospective on these presidential visits, have a look at this article in Martha’s Vineyard magazine.Two that spring to mind as the most interesting, and in some ways coincidental (not just because they were also in August) and ironic as times of political turmoil, are when John Adams came for a court case in 1765. Lawyer Adams rode circuit at the time and the Vineyard was part of his jurisdiction.

In his diary, John Adams wrote, “After the 14 of August this Year 1765, I went on a journey to Martha's Vineyard, on the Tryal of a Cause before Referees, between Jerusha Mayhew and her Relations. The keen Understanding of this Woman, and the uncontroulable Violence of her irascible Passions, had excited a quarrell of the most invidious, inveterate and irreconcileable nature between the several Branches of the Mayhew Family, which had divided the whole Island into Parties.”

The “uncontroublable Violence” of “irascible Passions” was nothing compared to what was going on back in Boston as Adams waited to board his ship in Falmouth for the crossing to the island. His cousin Sam Adams, really annoyed at the Stamp Act, led the Sons of Liberty to riot against the stamp master on August 13th, and then on the 26th, burned down the fellow’s house. The Act had been voted on in Parliament that March, but wasn’t even going to take effect until November.

John Adams briskly summarized, “I forgot to mention that while We were at Falmouth waiting to be ferried over to the Island the News arrived from Boston of the Riots on the twenty fifth of August in which C.J. Lt. Governor Hutchinsons House was so much injured. My Business at the Bar was so The Stamp Act was repealed, and the Declaratory Act passed: but as We expected it would not be executed, good humour was in some measure restored.”

Well over one hundred years later in the nation that Adams helped to establish,
President Ulysses S. Grant and his wife visited the Vineyard in August 1874 at the Methodist Campgrounds. He was the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Vineyard. The previous year, the Panic of 1873 (they don’t call them Panics anymore even if we still panic a little), brought economic ruin when banking firms collapsed, the stock market crashed, and the depression that resulted (we don’t even like to call them depressions anymore if we can help it), lasted a good six years.

In the congressional elections that fall after President Grant’s vacation, the Democrats (Grant was a Republican you remember), took the House for the first time in many years in one of our many typical political shudders as a response to trouble.

These days we, too, are experiencing “uncontroulable Violence of…irascible Passions,” exciting “a quarrell of the most invidious, inveterate and irreconcileable nature.” Perhaps a little vacation is what we all need. May “good humour” in some measure be restored.

For a look at the town of Oak Bluffs, have a look at my article on Another Old Movie Blog on the Strand Theater. For a look at John Adams’ autobiography, see this site by the Massachusetts Historical Society.


John Hayes said...

Fun post--I love the line about "good humour" being "restored," & I really got a kick about your comparison of the 1873 "Panic" to our current situation. By the way, you & your readers might be interested in check out this fine blog written by someone I knew in grad school--the blog is covering the Obamas visit to Martha's Vineyard in detail, & the writing is excellent--witty & informative.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, John. I'll take a look at that blog, thanks for the link.

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