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How travel changed presidents’ perspectives

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Stewart D. McLaurin

Eighty years ago this month, President Franklin Roosevelt became the first sitting president to travel by airA secret flight hopscotched 7,000 miles across South America and Africa to Casablanca, where FDR met with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to discuss wartime strategies that would shape the world to come.  

It was also a decisive moment for the development of the modern presidency. For more than two centuries the evolution of travel has given our presidents a broader view of the world, made them more accessible to the people they serve, and propelled America’s rise from a nascent and rather isolated country into a global leader.  

For the earliest presidents, presidential travel typically meant riding in a carriage, pulled by horses that were a key element of pre-industrial life.

This illustration from 1868 was published by Joseph Hoover of J. Hoover & Son and shows President Ulysses S. Grant and Robert Bonner riding in a horse-drawn carriage in New York. Bonner was a horse owner and publisher of the "New York Ledger."

Many attended horse races, and Zachary Taylor and Ulysses S. Grant brought their wartime mounts with them to the White House. Stables were a feature of the White House grounds, with horses on standby 24/7 for messengers.

The use of trains post-Civil War

By the time of the Civil War, trains had become the new normal. President Abraham Lincoln – who promoted railway construction as a state senator and had served as an attorney for the Illinois Central Railroad – traveled by locomotive from Springfield to Washington, D.C., for his first inauguration, stopping along the way to make speeches reassuring Americans that the Union would persevere.  

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