It’s remarkable how two unrelated historical events sometimes converge to form a new piece of history. In one such North Country connection, the job choice of a future president became linked to a famous encounter on Lake Champlain. The future president was Warren G. Harding (1921–23), and the lake event was the Battle of Valcour Island (1776). The results weren’t earth shattering, but the connection did spawn coast-to-coast media stories covering part of our region’s (and our nation’s) history.
In 1882, Harding (1865–1923) graduated from Ohio Central College. Among the positions he held to pay for schooling was editor of the college newspaper. In 1884, after pursuing various job options, he partnered with two other men and purchased the failing Marion Daily Star. Harding eventually took full control of the newspaper, serving as both publisher and editor.
In time, the failing enterprise was turned around and became profitable. Harding’s success and affability earned for him a widespread, positive reputation. He eventually entered the world of politics, sometimes returning to newspaper work, but always maintaining a link to the business through partial ownership.
After rising through the ranks of the Republican Party, Warren Harding famously became the compromise candidate in the 1920 election, which he won with the highest percentage of votes in American history up to that time.
We’ll depart the Harding story here to address the Battle of Valcour Island (October 1776). Some of the American ships in that fight were built a few months earlier at Whitehall, New York. Benedict Arnold, a heroic figure at the time, opposed a superior British fleet at Valcour (south of Plattsburgh) and inflicted significant damage, but far less than the American side suffered.
When nightfall arrived, the Brits formulated plans to finish off the rebels the next morning. Instead, they awoke to find Arnold’s tattered fleet had slipped away quietly in the night and headed south.
The Brits gave chase, and a running battle ensued. In the end, only five American ships, including the schooner Revenge, made it to safety at Ticonderoga. Some historians claim the surviving ships were burned shortly thereafter to prevent their falling into enemy hands. It was a common, drastic defense tactic, but usually employed only if capture were imminent. Though British ships did approach, Americans held the fort through year’s end.
In July 1777, the British recaptured Fort Ticonderoga, including the Revenge and a couple of other ships if they were, in fact, still afloat. A few months later, Colonel John Brown (of Massachusetts) led a failed attempt to retake Fort Ti. He did, however, inflict heavy damage on the enemy, including the burning of more than 150 watercraft. It’s presumed that the Revenge was among their number.
Whether it was burned by Arnold in 1776 or by Brown the following year, the Revenge was at the bottom of Lake Champlain by late 1777, and there she lay for more than 130 years. In 1909, during the Pell family’s restoration of Fort Ticonderoga, the Revenge was retrieved from the lake bottom, brought ashore, and eventually put on display there in a glass case.
Returning now to 1920, we find Warren G. Harding has just been elected president. That news was received with great pride by America’s newspaper editors, for Harding was the very first in the profession to attain the nation’s highest office.
Woodrow Wilson, Harding’s predecessor, left office accompanied by his famous cabinet chair, which was purchased and presented to Wilson as a keepsake. An idea was soon hatched, the brainchild of newspaperman Ernest Birmingham, editor and publisher of The Fourth Estate. Enlisting the aid of editors across the country, Birmingham solicited subscriptions of $1 each to provide the new editor–president with his very own chair for cabinet meetings.
The idea caught on, and as the money rolled in from 600 donors, Birmingham began the quest to somehow make the chair unique. The answer was found in the person of Stephen Pell, whose family was restoring Fort Ticonderoga. Pell offered a large rib of the Revenge for the chair’s construction.
On July 13, 1921, a ceremony was held on the White House lawn. Among those present were a number of editors from the country’s top newspapers. Proudly accepting their gift was President Harding, deeply appreciative of their thoughtfulness and well aware of the chair’s historic connections.
Among his comments: “What a strangely fitting appropriateness there is in the change of a bit of the rugged old oak of the Revenge into a friendly offer such as this. If it is not unseemly, I want to say it is fitting to give it to me, because in thirty-seven years of newspaper connections, I have never once allowed my paper to manifest a suggestion of revenge.”
Nearly 40 years later, the Revenge was once more in the news during the weeklong celebration of Whitehall’s Bicentennial. Whitehall is among several communities laying claim to the title “birthplace of the US Navy,” and on Navy Day, July 18, 1959, a highlight of the festivities featured new Secretary of the Navy William B. Franke. Presented to him by John Pell (of the Fort Ticonderoga Pells) was a piece of wood from the Revenge, built at Whitehall 183 years earlier during the Revolutionary War.
A slightly different version of the ship’s origins comes from Alfred Bossom, the architect chosen by the Pells to oversee Fort Ticonderoga’s reconstruction. He was also commissioned to design Harding’s chair.
In 1921, Bossom described the chair and its historical links: “The wood the chair is made of is a part of the schooner Revenge, one of the first ships of the first American Navy, built on Lake Champlain to repel the advances of the British. This boat was built by the British, but was captured from them and taken to Whitehall by the colonists, and there refitted.
“It was one of the main vessels on the American side in the battle of Valcour, from which fight it retreated and returned to Ticonderoga in company with two smaller vessels, the Trumbull and the Enterprise….
“The chair is symbolic of the collection and distribution of news. These points are symbolized by a hand grasping the electricity out of the air on the one side, and a young woman blowing a trumpet, giving the news to the world on the other, under the protection of the American Eagle, symbolizing the government. The leather of the chair came off the hide of an Ohio steer.”
Site Manager Sherry Hall of the Harding Home Presidential Site in Marion, Ohio, was kind enough to confirm that the chair is now part of the Harding Collections. Though it’s not currently on display, it may be part of an exhibit planned for summer 2013.
Photos (from Library of Congress): Warren G. Harding; Harding in his chair on the White House lawn; the Harding chair