Presidential Footsteps Can Be Found All Across Florida
Around the State
While Florida remains one of the most pivotal states in American politics, the Sunshine State has never produced a single president, vice president or even a candidate or running mate on a national party’s ticket. Despite this record, Florida has been an important place for many of the presidents.
The president with the most ties to Florida may be Andrew Jackson. One of the nation’s most decorated heroes from the War of 1812, Jackson led American forces that invaded Spanish Florida in a campaign against the Seminoles in 1817 and 1818. Jackson’s actions, which had the ambiguous blessing of President James Monroe, led to America purchasing Florida from Spain in 1819 after negotiations conducted by then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. Jackson would serve as military governor of Florida in 1821 before running for the White House in 1824. While Jackson would lose to Adams, he would crush the incumbent in a rematch in 1828.
Other presidents also saw military action in Florida. Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders were stationed in Tampa before heading off to Cuba in 1898 and James Garfield, then an up-and-coming congressman in uniform, was penciled in to command Union forces in Florida in the Civil War before he was ordered elsewhere.
While Jackson may have been the president with the most links to Florida, other commanders in chief also had connections to the Sunshine State. In 1933, Joseph P. Kennedy would purchase beachfront property in Palm Beach -- and his second son, John F. Kennedy, the nation’s 35th president, would return to the family home there to relax and hold important meetings. JFK was in Palm Beach when he mulled over who to name to his Cabinet.
President Richard Nixon would buy a home in Key Biscayne from retired U.S. Sen. George Smathers in 1969 which became the Florida White House. Not too far from the home of his close friend, Florida banker Bebe Rebozo, Nixon would visit the Florida White House more than 50 times during his presidency.
While he did not approve of his daughter’s marriage to Warren G. Harding, Ohio businessman Amos Kling let his son-in-law vacation in his winter home in Daytona Beach. Kling built the house in 1907 and the Hardings would leave Ohio to vacation there in the winters as Harding rose the political ladder until he was elected president in 1920.
Other presidents would head to Florida to vacation. Ulysses S. Grant would vacation in Florida, traveling on riverboats after his years in office. Trying to cope with Bright’s disease, Chester A. Arthur headed to Florida in 1883, only to worsen his condition which would lead to his death in 1886. Both Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft would vacation in White Springs in the northern part of the state. Herbert Hoover, an avid fisherman, would head to the Sunshine State to pursue his hobby in his long post-presidency. Before he contracted polio in 1921, Franklin Delano Roosevelt would sail off the Atlantic coast, keeping a boat docked in Jacksonville. FDR would also barely escape an assassination attempt in Miami in February 1933, less than a month before he took the oath of office.
Harry Truman loved heading to Florida, setting up the “Little White House” in Key West. Truman would spend half a year during his two terms in office at Key West, heading down to Florida during the late fall and late winter. Truman would keep returning to Key West during his years after the presidency.
Presidents also had familial connections to Florida. Jeb Bush, son of one president and brother of another, served two terms as governor of the Sunshine State. Hugh Rodham, Bill Clinton’s brother-in-law, ran against U.S. Sen. Connie Mack in 1994 and was utterly routed at the polls. Banker Rutherford Platt Hayes, son of Rutherford B. Hayes, lived in both Umatilla and Clearwater and was active with Republicans across Florida.
There are also haunting reminders of our presidential past in Florida beyond the mess which helped Rutherford B. Hayes beat Samuel Tilden in 1876 or the memorable hanging chads as Florida went for George W. Bush over Al Gore in 2000. Out in the Gulf is Fort Jefferson on Dry Tortugas where Dr. Samuel Mudd was imprisoned. Mudd attended John Wilkes Booth who broke his leg after shooting Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theater in 1865 -- which led to the doctor being convicted of aiding in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Andrew Johnson, who became president after Lincoln’s death, pardoned Mudd in 1869 during the dying days of his term since the doctor had helped a yellow fever outbreak at Fort Jefferson.
There are a lot of presidential footprints in Florida -- and tourists can always go to the Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World and the Presidents Hall of Fame in Clermont.
Kevin Derby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Having memorized all the presidents, in order, when he was 5 and having been obsessed with Florida's history since he moved here when he was 9, Kevin is still surprised at finding presidential footsteps all across Florida.