Four Presidents, One Chautauqua

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In its 142 years, Chautauqua Institution has attracted a who’s-who of cultural, educational, religious and political luminaries. Among them have been four sitting American presidents: Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Bill Clinton. And each of them had one thing in common other than the presidency: a special bond with the Institution itself or with a notable Chautauquan.

That’s the thesis of Ed Evans, a longtime journalist, author and educator who will share his insights in a program called “Presidents at Chautauqua” at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Christ as part of the Oliver Archives Heritage Lecture Series.

“The thing that has driven a president to visit Chautauqua is a relationship with either somebody who was here or a prior relationship of being here before as a speaker,” Evans said.

Evans, an award-winning professor of communications and media arts at SUNY Broome, has written a book about E.B. Green, the Buffalo architect who designed some of Chautauqua’s most iconic buildings. He has also produced a documentary about the Clinton visit to Chautauqua in 1996, and is working on a documentary about the four sitting presidents who visited the Institution.

According to Evans, Ulysses S. Grant came to Chautauqua in 1875 at the invitation of John Heyl Vincent, who, along with the industrialist Lewis Miller, had co-founded a national Sunday school assembly one year earlier on the shore of Chautauqua Lake. Grant and Vincent had been friends since the 1850s, when Grant was trying to make a living in a leather business with his brother and Vincent was his pastor at the Methodist church in Galena, Ohio. The nascent, little-known community consisted mostly of tents, and as Vincent had counted on, Grant’s visit brought national attention to the Chautauqua Assembly.

Although Grant offered only a few words on a hot summer day, the press followed his journey from Long Branch, New Jersey, to Jamestown by special train, and from Jamestown to what was then Fairpoint, New York, in a flotilla of yachts, Evans said.

Chautauqua was on the map.

Theodore Roosevelt, the next sitting president to come to Chautauqua, had visited the Institution before, as governor of New York. In 1899, he delivered an address about civic duty from a balcony on the grounds. In 1905, he was a regularly scheduled speaker for the morning lecture at 10:45 a.m., a tradition that continues to this day and has come to define the Chautauqua experience.

Roosevelt’s lecture that day was not especially noteworthy (“He talked about himself,” Evans said), unlike the address delivered on Aug. 14, 1936, by his cousin, the famous “I Hate War” speech.

“I have seen war,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt said from the stage of the Amphitheater on that hot summer night. “I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen 200 limping, exhausted men come out of line — the survivors of a regiment of 1,000 that went forward 48 hours before. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war.”

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had been coming to Chautauqua for many years. The president was a good friend of Arthur Bestor, the president of Chautauqua from 1915 until his death in 1944 for whom Bestor Plaza is named. Eleanor Roosevelt had spoken at the Amphitheater and was a favorite guest of the Chautauqua Women’s Club. Roosevelt “strategically” chose Chautauqua, Evans said, because of the access it offered him to reach the American people both in person and over the airwaves.

“F.D.R. took the Chautauqua platform and gave it national reach,” said Evans, a lifelong Chautauquan who grew up on the grounds. “It was an exceptional moment because he was not only addressing the huge audience in the Amphitheater, he was addressing a much bigger live audience on the radio. It gave him a national reach.”

Roosevelt’s was not the last presidential radio address from Chautauqua.

Bill Clinton spoke at the Athenaeum Hotel in 1996 as part of the traditional presidential Saturday radio address. Clinton had decided on the spur of the moment to book the Athenaeum for three days to prepare for a televised debate with the Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Bob Dole, of Kansas, with George Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader, serving as his practice partner.

“The Athenaeum, for three days in October 1996, was America’s White House,” Evans said.

Clinton’s visit was the only one by a sitting president during the off-season. He and Hillary Clinton, the former New York senator and U.S. secretary of state and current presumptive Democratic nominee for president, had visited Chautauqua several times before, the first time as lecturers when Clinton was governor of Arkansas. They also stopped off in August 1992 during Clinton’s campaign bus trip with Al Gore. Hillary Clinton lectured on “The Human Family” at the Hall of Philosophy in 1991. Over the years, the Clintons had become friends with Daniel Bratton, the president of the Institution from 1984 to 2000, and with other prominent Chautauquans.

“They came here for the same reasons you and I do,” Evans said of the Clintons’ 1996 visit. “To retreat, regroup, relax and move forward.”


The author David Geary

David Geary has been a reporter and editor for more than 40 years. He retired in 2015 from The New York Times, where he was the late-night news editor. He also has worked for The Boston Globe and other newspapers. He currently freelances for the Times and for The Trace, a nonprofit journalism website focused on gun violence and gun policy in America. He lives in Westfield with his wife, Karin Henry.