1909 Presidential visit
The president left New Orleans on Tuesday morning, November 2. He stopped to deliver a speech at the Industrial Institute and College in Columbia, Mississippi before arriving at Birmingham's newly-opened Birmingham Terminal Station in the afternoon. An unsigned remark in the Birmingham Age-Herald of that day reported that, "it is understood that the Terminal Station is so commodious that no alterations have been made necessary to permit Taft to enter."
Taft had been invited to deliver remarks during a Birmingham Chamber of Commerce banquet at the Hillman Hotel. Also in attendance were Governor B. B. Comer and U.S. Senator (and former Governor) Joseph Johnston. After accepting the podium, he joked that the "peculiar politics" of the South obliged former Governors to accept a term of "purgatory" in the Senate.
Taft expressed admiration for Birmingham as one of the handful of cities experiencing unlimited growth, and distinguished it from Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle and Los Angeles because of its mineral wealth, which he called, "something substantial and tangible at your doors upon which you can base your future with even more certainty than those other cities."
The President went on to caution that the material progress of the nation, of which Birmingham was a prime example, must be matched by efforts to improve the individual, to raise business standards, and to improve the moral character of the nation. He went on to observe that Birmingham's "cosmopolitan" business community, with many leaders drawn from the North and from other nations, was helping shepherd the U.S. out of its longstanding sectionalism, but without sacrificing its "noble traditions."
On Wednesday, November 4, Taft was honored at a breakfast at the Birmingham Country Club at Lakeview Park. No speech was made at the event. At noon he was given a parade, "one of the largest ever seen in Birmingham," during which his car processed with 300 others. A choir of school children sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" as he passed by the Paul Hayne School. Once his car reached the Southern Club the president was escorted to a reviewing stand to witness the numerous fraternal, civic, business and youth organizations participating. Lunch was served in the club building afterward.
As he returned to his car Taft paused to greet groups of Confederate and Union veterans in two lines, shaking hands alternately with members of each group. A Confederate told him, "Mr President, you have captured the secessionists, the Ku Klux and the cranky Democrats, all of them." and Taft smiled and replied, "Well, that's a whole lot."
He delivered a public speech at Capitol Park that 2:00 that afternoon to, "an immense and demonstrative crowd." Recognizing that the Southern states had overwhelmingly supported his opponent William Bryan in the 1908 general election, Taft welcomed the adulation, saying, "The fact that you had so little to do with putting me where I am makes me appreciate the warmth and sincerity of your reception all the more."
He went on to advocate for continuing Theodore Roosevelt's popular initiatives to encourage honesty and integrity in business. He evaded a question about where he stood on the issue of alcohol prohibition by likening himself to Br'er Fox. Instead he offered on opinion on the game of golf, praising its potential in promoting health and hygiene and hoping that its reputation as an aristocratic pursuit had passed and that, "in any future campaign golf will figure rather as a reason for electing a candidate who is addicted to it, than to defeat him."
Taft's speech also included measured encouragement for suffragists: "The truth is I am not in favor of suffrage for women until I can be convinced that all the women desire it. When they desire it I am in favor of giving it to them, and when they desire it they will get it, too."
The presidential train left Birmingham at 4:10 in the afternoon of November 3 with brief stops in Opelika and Columbus, Georgia before a scheduled evening appearance at the Georgia State Fair in Macon.
- "Blue and Gray Give Taft Greeting." (November 4, 1909) The New York Times
- "Taft expresses love for the South." (November 4, 1909) Associated Press/Los Angeles Times
- "Speech at the Chamber of Commerce Banquet, Birmingham, Ala.", Chapter 49 of William Howard Taft (1910) Presidential Addresses and State Papers, from March 4, 1909 to March 4, 1910. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co. pp. 399-402