In late summer 1817, a president came to town.
James Monroe visited Columbus as the first president to see Ohio's capital city.
He would not be the last, but the city he saw was considerably different from the city we see today.
Ohio became a state in 1803, and its first capital was in Chillicothe. After moving briefly to Zanesville, the capital returned to Chillicothe. But by 1810, pressure was mounting from northern Ohio to move the capital to a central location.
Confronted with a problem it could not solve easily, the Ohio General Assembly did what it sometimes does: It appointed a committee to solve the problem. The committee looked at such places as Circleville, Newark, Delaware and Worthington, but in the end, it recommended the Sells Plantations, where Dublin is today.
Then, as it sometimes is wont to do, the Ohio General Assembly disregarded the recommendation of its committee and chose the "high banks at the forks of the Scioto" instead.
At that place, four "proprietors" had offered the legislature 10 acres for a statehouse, 10 more acres for a penitentiary and $50,000 for buildings.
On Feb. 12, 1812, the Ohio General Assembly chose the site to be the new home of the capital city. Shortly thereafter, due to the strenuous lobbying effort of local legislator Joseph Foos, the new town came to be called Columbus. Foos was a great admirer of the "Admiral of the Ocean Sea."
Across the Scioto was frontier Franklinton. The village had been established in 1797 and by 1812 was a thriving place with several hundred residents. However, it was to the new capital city that the president of the United States would pay a visit.
The town he came to was little more than a rough frontier village of a few hundred people. A two-story brick statehouse had been erected on the southwest corner of Statehouse Square. North of it along High Street was a brick state office building euphemistically called "Rat Row," and immediately north of that building stood an imposing state and federal courthouse. The balance of the square was a cornfield variously tended by the first mayor of Columbus and sometimes visited by the local pig population.
High Street by 1817 had been cleared of the tree stumps that had impeded traffic since the town was founded five years earlier. The rest of the streets in the town still were full of stumps. Much of what is now downtown Columbus remained a dense forest of walnut, oak, maple and other sorts of native trees.
The ground generally was wet, and ponds and natural springs fed into creeks that swept through deep ravines to the river below.
The town was populated by about 700 people who generally made their living by running stores, inns and taverns that catered to the locals and the occasionally present Ohio General Assembly members.
Monroe was not coming to Ohio to pay a social call. Elected in 1816, Monroe was at the peak of an extraordinary career in public service. As a soldier in the American Revolution, he was wounded in the Battle of Trenton. As part of the Virginia dynasty allied with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Monroe had served as a U.S. senator and governor of Virginia. As a diplomat, he had helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase and had served as secretary of state and secretary of war under Madison during the War of 1812.
In 1817, the new president was 59 years old, happily married, the father of three children and the owner of town and country homes in Virginia. He also was a man with a mission.
As secretary of war, he was aware of the vulnerability of the country's coastal defenses. He had hoped his tour of the northern states in 1817 would help build support for strengthening America's military. He also knew local Federalists had not liked the War of 1812. He had hoped his tour would help end partisan divisions in the country.
In 1858, William T. Martin wrote of the president's visit to Columbus:
"In the latter part of August, 1817, President Monroe and his suite passed through this county on their return from Detroit after his northern tour of inspection of public fortifications, etc. They were met at Worthington by the Franklin Dragoons, commanded by Captain Vance and escorted to Columbus ... "
After speeches of welcome at the Statehouse, " ... the President made a suitable reply, complimenting the 'infant city' as he called it and its inhabitants. They traveled on horseback ... They rode fast, generally in a canter. Mr. Monroe wore the old fashioned three cornered cocked hat -- his dress otherwise was in plain, citizen style. His face was effectually sunburned from exposure."
The tour was a success. Monroe's administration came to be called the Era of Good Feelings, and Columbus had played a small part in making it so.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.