No, it wasn’t Lincoln. The future 16th president had this photo taken when he stopped by on his way to his first inauguration. But he was not the first sitting president to visit Chicago.

Library of Congress

Who was the first president to visit Chicago?

On Presidents Day, we can still explore presidential trivia, despite the Trump enormity.

When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, in the first wave of nauseating shock, my immediate, unfiltered thought was perhaps a strange one: Now he’s always going to be on presidential placemats. You know, those laminated arrays of placid male faces peering out from oval frames: Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Trump.

You can never unring that bell. Schoolchildren 100 years from now, assuming we still have a country, an increasingly shaky bet, will look at his leering orange visage and be presented the chirpy, sanitized tale that kids always get: Donald Trump, American Hero.

Opinion bug


Today being Presidents Day, it seemed appropriate to wonder if the White House has been so besmirched by a man utterly unfit for the office that the usual American affection and interest for presidents is gone. Did Donald Trump break the presidency? Who cares anymore about Washington’s false teeth or Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s stamp collection?

(Though the story of FDR’s postal scandal is dear to my heart. Just like Trump larding the government with lackeys, FDR picked a croney, James Farley, as postmaster general. In the knee jerk currying of favor that defined politics, then and now, Farley pulled a few sheets of the 1933 Mother’s Day stamp off the presses before they had been gummed or perforated and gave one to his philatelist boss, never pausing to consider he was creating hugely valuable philatelic rarity. Word spread, outrage ensued, and the post office figured out an ingenious fix: issuing sheets of ungummed, imperforate stamps, making the president’s private boon available to all).

See, that’s the thing about presidential history. It draws you in. The simplest question isn’t so simple.

For instance: Who was the first president to visit Chicago?

Go ahead, plug that query into Google. Nothing, right? Random stuff.

And if you confidently tossed off “Abraham Lincoln,” you are wrong. He was not the first president to visit Chicago.

Lincoln, as a Springfield lawyer and ambitious politician, certainly walked the streets of Chicago. He was first nominated here. President-elect Lincoln did stop by, on his way to his inauguration, pausing to have his photo taken by a Bavarian Jew, Samuel G. Alschuler. It is the first portrait of Lincoln in a beard, and I admire his arched eyebrow, a wry expression that our national convulsion would soon wipe off his increasingly worn and furrowed face.

But Lincoln was not yet the president. James Buchanan was. When Lincoln returned to Chicago, he was a former president’s corpse in a casket.

Previously, we had a chance to snag another former president, Millard Fillmore, who upon leaving office, toured the country, trying to shore up the shattering Union.

“We of Chicago want to see Millard Fillmore too,” the Tribune begged in 1853, republishing the Louisville Courier’s plea to clap eyes on “... the gentleman whom the ladies call handsome.” But he never showed.

The first sitting president to visit Chicago was Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, who came here in 1866 on his disastrous “swing around the circle” tour of the country, trying to sell America on his vision of welcoming the South back into the Union without any repercussions for that Civil War misunderstanding.

He dragged recent Civil War heroes along with him, including Gen. George Armstrong Custer.

Johnson’s visit here was pegged to the unveiling of the monument over the grave of Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas in what is now Bronzeville, and the Tribune welcomed the “traitor, recreant and apostate” with a blast of sarcasm.

“Andrew Johnson, the humble individual who has filled every office from village Alderman to President of the United States, and who seeing his way to proclaim himself Dictator, declines doing so until after the fall elections, is abiding in Chicago.” the paper wrote, noting those attending the ceremony will see the president “imitate patriotism” while remaining “a miscreant unfit to rule over a free people, and unworthy of the confidence of intelligent citizens.” The tour led to Johnson’s impeachment.

Speaking of unworthy, miscreants, twice-impeached Donald Trump was so intimidated by the hostile reaction greeting his attempt to hold a campaign rally in Chicago, he never came out on stage nor visited the city in a public capacity as president, except for stopping by in 2019 to address a police chief convention and make an appearance at private fundraisers.

Of course, Trump might yet visit as president during his second term, a real possibility that all Chicagoans, indeed all Americans, should worry about on Presidents Day and every other day, too.

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