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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

The 40-minute de facto president

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

For 40 minutes in the spring of 1891, George Anderson Wright -- mayor of the East Texas town of Palestine -- 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" from office.

The Palestine mayor and the governor left the train at Houston, and Harrison continued on to make speeches in Galveston, Austin, San 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" as President.


Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - March 10, 2016 Column

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