Politics takes stage for Melrose event

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 17, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; &uot;Politics, politics is the theme now, eclipsing even the cotton crop,&uot; a gentleman was overheard saying Saturday as he strolled through the grounds of the antebellum house Melrose.

True enough, with Adams County elections just behind us, Concordia Parish elections set for next week and municipal contests on tap next spring on both sides of the Mississippi River.

Only this gentleman wasn’t talking about the political contests of this year, or even the next. Instead, he was referring to the presidential contest &045; of 1840, that is.

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The scene was &uot;Natchez in November: Politics on Parade,&uot; a program in which actors portraying Natchez residents of the 1800s described the politics of the day, gleaning their material from actual diaries.

For example, Angela Lurz-Atkinson &045; an interpreter for the National Park Service, which owns Melrose &045; portrayed Alice Austin McMurran, the daughter-in-law of the house’s owners.

She described in her act the political events others &045; mostly men, at that time &045; had described to her, from grand speeches to flag-raisings for candidates.

Jim Heaney, also of the Park Service, portrayed Col. Adam Bingaman, a former state representative and a friend and associate of Mr. McMurran, who gave colorful details about the 1840 campaign in Natchez.

As William Johnson, a free black man and local barber in the 1800s, did in his diary, Bingaman spoke of a giant ball that was rolled through the streets of Natchez to call attention to the William Henry Harrison campaign of 1840.

&uot;Tippecanoe and Tyler, too&uot; was the song the Whigs of that day would sing as they rolled the ball through the streets, Heaney said in his performance. The second part of that verse? &uot;Van, Van is a used-up man,&uot; he said, referring to Martin Van Buren.

With a wry smile, he even mentions the cabins Natchez Whigs &045; mostly bankers, merchants and planters &045; built on the river bluffs as part of the campaign effort, complete with raccoon-skin furnishings and jugs of hard cider.

Meanwhile, although Johnson, as a black man, could not vote in that day, he &uot;would place a wager on each candidate, sizing each one up as he would a thoroughbred,&uot; said Carolyn Tyler, portraying Johnson’s daughter, Catherine.

Speaking from the 1870s, Tyler described the excitement with which she witnessed, after the Civil War, the election of the black officials.

Park Service officials came up with the idea because they wanted to put together an event that was different from the Christmas program usually presented each year at Melrose, said Park Ranger Linda Rosenblum, who led the tour.

The program was attended by visitors from near and far, including friends Ben Willetts and Charlie Humphrey of San Diego, Calif., who made the house a stop on their bicycling trip across the country.

Although they were planning to leave later Saturday, Willetts said they were thinking about staying a day later. &uot;We were enchanted by the town and thought we’d stop a while,&uot; he said.

Patricia Allen of Pike County, who works at that county’s state welcome center, said she found out about the event from a brochure at work.

&uot;And I haven’t been to this (antebellum house) yet, so we thought we’d come over,&uot; Allen said.