Two Governors Welcome a President to Omaha

James E. Boyd (1834-1906). RG2411-536

John M. Thayer (1820-1906). RG2720-4

In 1891 President Benjamin Harrison visited Omaha on a return trip to Washington, D.C. from the Pacific Coast. Omaha’s Morning World-Herald on May 14 noted that thousands of people had turned out the day before to welcome him to the city and hear him speak on the need for foreign markets for agricultural products. Harrison and his entourage arrived by train and traveled from the depot in carriages along a decorated parade route toward a grandstand from which he delivered his address. One political oddity characterized the official parade: Both Republican John M. Thayer and Democrat James E. Boyd participated. Boyd, a resident of Omaha, had been elected governor in 1890, but when he tried to assume the office in January of 1891, Thayer refused to vacate it on grounds that Boyd, born in Ireland, was not an American citizen and therefore ineligible to serve. The Nebraska Supreme Court advised otherwise, and Boyd took office on February 6, 1891. However, the same court rendered a decision in May sustaining Thayer, whereupon he was reinstated.

Edward F. Morearty in his Omaha Memories, published in 1917, recalled the difficulties caused by the participation of both Boyd and Thayer in ceremonies welcoming Harrison to Omaha. Morearty said: “A few days prior to his arrival I introduced in the city council a resolution which was adopted, which in substance placed the council on record as declaring that one John M. Thayer, being an usurper of the office of Governor of this State, that on that occasion he be treated and classed as a private citizen, and that James E. Boyd be recognized as the Governor of the State, and that he be accorded that honor. This resolution met with the hearty approval of the people of Omaha.” When Thayer and his entourage arrived at the Omaha depot to join the festivities, only “shrewd diplomacy” on the part of councilman Tom Lowry, who had charge of the parade, prevented a scene, “as Mr. Thayer had read of the action of the city council and, being a pompous and fiery old gentleman, he manifested a firm determination to resent what he termed an insult to his high official position. Without his knowledge he was placed some twenty carriages behind Mr. Boyd, and he never knew the difference until the day he died. Had he been in front I am confident his presence would have created a riot.” President Harrison apparently took no official notice of Nebraska’s delicate gubernatorial situation during his brief visit to Omaha.

On February 1, 1892, the Nebraska Supreme Court’s decision sustaining Thayer as governor was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which declared Boyd a citizen and eligible to serve as governor. Boyd then reassumed his position for the remainder of his term.

More information on Nebraska’s political history is available in the Nebraska History Magazine, a benefit of a History Nebraska membership. Both full members and subscription-only members receive four issues yearly. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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