239 Days in America

A Social Media Documentary following 'Abdu'l-Bahá in 1912

Day
17
 | 
April 27, 1912
Washington, DC
Storify Feature

At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

THE PARSONS’ HORSES clopped along the driveway at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue shortly after noon on Sunday, April 28, 1912. Through the trees ‘Abdu’l-Bahá could see the large pediment, supported by eight white ionic columns, that sheltered the western entrance to the executive mansion. The carriage, which carried him, Dr. Fareed, and Mrs. Parsons, rolled forward beneath the mottled shadows in the cool afternoon air.

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President Taft had invited ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to visit him at the White House at 12:30. On Friday morning ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had spoken at the President’s church, All Souls Unitarian on Harvard Street. Then, on Saturday, members of the Taft family had attended an evening reception that Mrs. Parsons had held for 300 dignitaries in the capital.

William Sulzer, the Democratic Congressman from New York, had also come to the Parsons’ for a private interview with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. He was Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and said later that he felt he had just talked with the prophet Elijah, and Moses. Shortly afterward, another invitation arrived: this one came from Champ Clark (D-Missouri), the Speaker of the House of Representatives, who asked ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to address Congress the following week on his vision of world peace.

The horses came to a halt under the main entrance portico of the executive mansion. But before ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had a chance to dismount, a White House aide rushed out from the executive offices to make President Taft’s apologies. He had been campaigning in Boston this week in advance of the Massachusetts Republican Primary, which was coming up on Tuesday. But he had only arrived back in Washington at 4 a.m. this morning and would have to leave again for New England on the 6:35 p.m. train. Politics was an unpredictable business, and the President had to postpone.

As for addressing Congress, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was the one who had to decline. He had to be in Chicago. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had invited him to give a major address to their Fourth Annual Conference on Tuesday, and he was scheduled to lay the cornerstone for a new Bahá’í temple in the village of Wilmette, Illinois, on Wednesday afternoon. He was leaving Washington by train tonight.

From the White House, the carriage drove south to the Ellipse, an oval-shaped park just beneath the White House’s south lawn. Eleven years from now President Coolidge would start a new American tradition here by lighting the first National Christmas Tree. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Mrs. Parsons, and Dr. Fareed took a walk through the American elms that ringed the oval roadway, and then drove back to her home at 18th and R Streets for lunch. After several more interviews and a few last minute visits, the horses trotted down Massachusetts Avenue and back to Union Station, where ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and his party departed on the 5:25 p.m. train to Chicago.

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  • Delores Robinson-Smith

    This brings tears of joy to my heart!!!  We are so fortunate to be able to follow Abdu’l-Baha’s journey and witness the impact he had on all who met him and who had the bounty of speaking with him.  Thank you so much for this!!  Delores Robinson-Smith, Holland MI

  • Dean Hedges

    there is much to be said here … Let’s party … notice how, in this case, how politicking stopped someone from seeing a personal visit from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and how later said politicking will lead to such heights only ultimately to be rejected.

  • Tonyb

    If only the President Taft and the congress could have known what they missed?

    These snippets of Abdul’baha are always wonderful

    Regards Tony Bristow-Stagg Far north Queensland Australia

  • guest

    I wish you had indicated your source. When people want to use your material for their research they need sources.

  • Brent Poirier

    Hi. These are very far-reaching and significant events if they occurred — but I don’t think that some of them did. As to the Speaker of the House inviting Abdu’l-Baha to address Congress – I would appreciate knowing your source for that.  And what could possibly have been more important to Abdu’l-Baha that it would take Him away from addressing Congress, if He was in fact invited? Allan Ward quotes a news writer of the day in his book “239 Days” who stated that Congress adjourned in Abdu’l-Baha’s honor.  However, I checked the Congressional Record for 1912 and there is no reference to Congress adjourning in Abdu’l-Baha’s honor (that’s not how Congress honors a person, anyway). I also wrote to the Archivist of the US Supreme Court and verified that it did not adjourn in His honor either, and both of these adjournments are mentioned in the book “239 Days.” I spoke by phone with that book’s author Allan Ward in the early 1980s and he agreed that neither of these events (Congress or Supreme Court adjourning) occurred, but he said he put the article in his book because he thought it was newsworthy that such an article was written.  I would have thought that at least a footnote casting doubt on these events would have been in order. As far as President Taft inviting the Master to the White House, there is reference in Mason Remey’s notes about Abdu’l-Baha in Washington from the US National Baha’i Archives that the wife of a US senator arranged for a meeting at the White House between Abdu’l-Baha and the President — not that the President invited Abdu’l-Baha.  The rest of the story Remey provides is as you indicate; the President was busy and Abdu’l-Baha was informed as His carriage came to the White House that the President was busy.  The article quoted in the book “239 Days” says that Abdu’l-Baha went to the White House as if He owned it — which is far from the truth, He was never haughty towards government officials — and while you do not mention this it seemed appropriate to mention it here because it involves the same event.  I am with the person below — with statements of such magnitude it would be most helpful if you could cite sources.  Otherwise, instead of solid facts being spread through the community, myths can propagate. If you have solid sources, great — please let us know With appreciation

    • http://jmenon.com/ Jonathan Menon

      Hi Brent, thanks for your comment.

      Let me address it in detail. 

      First of all, the journalist who wrote about Congress and the Supreme Court adjourning was Elbert Hubbard, and he wrote that in 1915, three years later. Robert Stockman’s new book on ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in America makes it clear in a footnote that no adjournment ever happened. But we have not written here anything about Hubbard’s claim about this adjournment happening, so there was no need for us to mention it.

      As for the invitation to the White House and to address Congress, these events are recorded in a letter that Alice Ives Breed sent to Thornton Chase on May 1, 1912. The letter is in the Thornton Chase Papers in the National Bahá’í Archives in the United States. She writes the following:

      “Khan [i.e. Ali-Kuli Khan, her son-in-law] had it so arranged that Pres. Taft sent a request for Abdul-Baha to call at the White House Sunday at 12:30, but Taft was called to Mass. on politics; so it is postponed until Abdul-Baha returns.”

      This letter of Breed’s provides a second source to Remey’s about the invitation to the White House, so there seems no reason to doubt that this invitation took place. Mason Remey’s memoir about the event is the only account we have found that actually talks about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in fact going to the White House that afternoon, and pulling up underneath the portico of the West Wing. But Agnes Parsons, on page 58 of her published diary, writes about visiting the Turkish embassy on that Sunday morning, and that, “After this visit we drove to the White Lot and then home to luncheon.” The White Lot is the Ellipse just south of the White House, so this confirms Remey’s account that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was in Agnes Parsons’s carriage near the White House at that time.

      Also, according to the Sunday evening edition of the Washington Times, Taft returned to Washington from Massachusetts at 4 a.m. on Sunday the 28th. He had several meetings that day: with Secretary of State Knox on the Mexican revolution, and then he met with the Attorney General and Senator Crane about the controversy with Roosevelt. The Washington Times continues: 
      “Several others called on the President during the early afternoon to discuss politics, and after luncheon he made immediate preparations for again leaving the city this afternoon.”"The train on which Mr. Taft goes back to New England leaves the city at 6:35 o’clock this afternoon.”

      So this article explains why President Taft had to cancel on ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. There seems to be no good reason to doubt what Remey reports to have happened. Unlike Breed and Parsons, who were very sensitive to protocol and were very careful of what they wrote down, Remey was far more candid about what he was willing to put on paper, so it is not surprising that he would have written this down while no one else did. He also writes in his memoir that he is surprised that more people don’t know about this visit, since it impressed him greatly at the time.

      As for the invitation to Congress, Alice Breed’s letter to Thornton Chase also documents this. She writes:

      “Mr. Sulzer, Chairman of Foreign Affairs [he was the Democratic Congressman from NY], had a private interview with Abdul-Baha, and he told me afterwards he felt he had talked with Elijah and Moses. He got an invitation from Champ Clark [i.e. the Speaker of the House] for Abdul-Baha to speak to Congress on The Most Great Peace this week, but he left Washington Sunday on the 1,25 train to Chicago.”

      Actually, Alice Breed gets the train time wrong here, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá actually took the 5:25 p.m. train, as is mentioned in other sources.

      Finally, you mention the comment published in the book by Allan Ward about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá going to the White House “as if He owned it.” Again, we don’t think that was very accurate, either, so we just didn’t print it.

      • Brent Poirier

        Jonathan, thank you for this careful and illuminating explanation.  I see that there is legitimate foundation for everything you wrote, and I very much appreciate knowing these sources.  Please post this message as a comment on my behalf.Warmest greetings and thanksBrent