On a hot day in late spring President James K. Polk set out from a state visit in Raleigh to address the UNC graduating class of 1847. It was a nine-hour journey to Chapel Hill by horse and carriage with stops along the way to speak to admiring crowds. More than a century and a half later, on a bright October day in 1993, President Bill Clinton arrived by jet and motorcade to give the bicentennial speech in UNC's Kenan stadium.In the years between those two visits 11 other U.S. presidents, presidents-to-be and ex-presidents visited the UNC campus, along with one first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.
'Extremely agreeable' visit
The first president to speak in Chapel Hill knew the town and campus well. Polk graduated from UNC with first honors in mathematics and the classics in 1818 and gave the commencement address in Latin.Twenty-nine years later Polk returned to Chapel Hill with "a splendid brass band," heading his procession to the Eagle Hotel. Nancy Hilliard, the hotel's proprietress, greeted him warmly and he noted that his visit was "an extremely agreeable one." Hundreds of visitors filled the town, and the New York Herald carried an account of his two-day stay, climaxed by his commencement address to a capacity crowd in Gerrard Hall. Twelve years later, in May of 1859, UNC President David Swain welcomed the second U.S. president to visit Chapel Hill. James Buchanan arrived after a grueling trip from Washington -- horse and carriage to Baltimore, boat to Norfolk, train to Raleigh and stagecoach to Chapel Hill. Even so, one of his cabinet members noted, "The old gentleman was perfectly delighted with his trip."After delivering the graduation speech Buchanan greeted admirers under the Davie poplar, shaking hands and kissing the girls. However, there was a serious note in Buchanan's speech, for the shadow of secession and the issue of slavery hung over the nation at the time. "Let the Union separate," he said prophetically, "and it would be the most fatal day for the liberties of the human race that ever dawned upon any land."
In the aftermath of those fatal days Andrew Johnson became the third president to visit Chapel Hill. He spoke at the commencement exercises of 1867, two years after the end of the Civil War. Born in Raleigh, Johnson had run away from home at 17, and he explained to a sympathetic audience how as a tailor's apprentice he had escaped from his master and headed west to Tennessee. At the outset of his trek he had walked down Franklin Street, hungry and tired, and at the edge of town "begged for supper and lodging." Given food and shelter for the night as well as bread and meat for the journey next day, he always remembered the kindness he had found in Chapel Hill. "North Carolina has not been, in the language of school men exactly my alma mater, but she is my mother and, God bless her, I am proud of her," he said.It would be 71 years before another U.S. president in office came to Chapel Hill. In 1909, however, a president-to-be spoke here. Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton, came to Chapel Hill to address the UNC student body. Wilson urged the young men to become leaders of the future. A few years later, in 1915, ex-President William Howard Taft spoke on a similar subject when he inaugurated the Weil Lectures on American Citizenship. Almost 70 years later, in 1984, ex-president Jimmy Carter was another Weil lecturer.
In December of 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made his way to Chapel Hill for that year's commencement ceremony. His motorcade was cheered by crowds along the way, and in Pittsboro school was let out for the day and school children waved homemade flags to welcome him. Inside the newly constructed Woollen Gym a packed audience of 12,000 saw him awarded an honorary LLD degree. His address was carried by 225 radio stations and broadcast overseas by short wave. He told the audience he associated himself with the younger generation that would have to address the great challenges of the day, and "that is why I am happy and proud to become an alumnus of the University of North Carolina, typifying as it does American liberal thought through American action."Earlier the same year Gerald Ford, a young law student from Yale, attended summer classes at UNC's law school. Ford later returned to UNC's campus in the spring of 1942 in the Navy's V-5 Pre-Flight program. The same program brought another president-to-be, George H.W. Bush, to campus. In the 1960s Ford returned to deliver an address, and in 1968 Richard Nixon made a campaign stop in Chapel Hill.Eleanor Roosevelt visited Chapel Hill several times, first in 1935 when she became the first woman to deliver the commencement address.
'Centuries of progress'
It wasn't until Oct. 12, 1961, that a fifth U.S. president in office arrived in Chapel Hill. John F. Kennedy landed at Raleigh-Durham airport and traveled by motorcade, accompanied by Gov. Terry Sanford, to speak to a crowd of 40,000 students and townspeople in Kenan Stadium for the University Day convocation. Introduced by UNC President William Friday and awarded an honorary LLD, Kennedy made a direct appeal to the young people in his audience, like Roosevelt before him: "I want to emphasize, in the great concentration which we now place on scientists and engineers, how much we will need the men and women educated in the liberal traditions, willing to take the long look, undisturbed by prejudices and slogans of the moment, who attempt to make an honest judgment on difficult events."Exactly 32 years after JFK's speech the sixth U.S. president in office to visit Chapel Hill arrived to thrill a huge crowd in Kenan Stadium and honor UNC's 200th birthday. On Oct. 12, 1993, President Bill Clinton received an honorary LLD from Chancellor Paul Hardin and gave the bicentennial address. "On October 12th in 1793, when General Davie laid the foundation for this university, he laid a foundation for two centuries of progress in American education," Clinton said.
The eve of a new century
UNC President Emeritus Paul Hardin remembers Clinton's visit as the high point of the bicentennial celebrations. Sitting beside Clinton on the podium, Hardin noticed that the president marked up his speech and, in fact, added an ad-lib section advocating effective gun control. This was a risky and controversial topic, but Clinton handled it with such ease that the crowd rose to its feet with a standing ovation. Hardin said Clinton was "a face to face politician," eager to engage his audience in considering his ideas. After the ceremonies at an Alumni Center reception, Clinton refused to leave until he had greeted each guest individually. "That's his oxygen," Hardin said."We honor today the men and women who had the courage to create a new university in a new nation," Clinton told the crowd. "We must, like them, be builders and believers, the architects of a new security to empower and embolden America and the University of North Carolina on the eve of a new century."The 21st century has yet to welcome a U.S. president to Chapel Hill, but perhaps the wait will not be long.