A new Congress, elected last November, takes office this week. This seems a good time for a post about Taylor’s and Fillmore’s thoughts on Congress. Other documentary editions, such as The Papers of Henry Clay, The Papers of Daniel Webster, and the Correspondence of James K. Polk (the only House Speaker to become president) feature the writings of nineteenth-century politicians while they served in Congress. Ours does not. But it does document two candidates and then presidents who paid close attention to Capitol Hill.
Fillmore began his national political career in the US House. After three years in the New York legislature, he served in the House (initially as a member of the Anti-Masonic Party and then as a Whig) from 1833 to 1843. During his last two years there, he chaired the powerful Committee on Ways and Means. Perhaps his most notable accomplishment in Congress was shaping the tariff of 1842, a protective tariff that aided US producers by charging high taxes on foreign goods.
Our series begins in 1844. By then, Fillmore’s congressional days were behind him. He could not have been more pleased. Several friends wrote that year congratulating him on his freedom from the cares of a legislator. As the Washington artist Elizabeth Milligan put it on January 22, “How much you must congratulate yourself on your absence from Washington during this session of Congress, especially as the sett of men now assembled I should think were any thing but congenial to you.” Kate Williams added from Boston, on May 26, that both Millard and Abigail Fillmore must be “rejoiced . . . that you are not a member of Congress while that miserable John Tyler rules.” Certainly Tyler, a Whig president whose political views diverged from most Whigs’, was no ally of Fillmore. (Both letters are at SUNY–Oswego.)
We have not found Fillmore’s reply to Williams, but on March 10 he agreed with Milligan: “I have seen nothing that induced me to regret that I was not a member of congress this winter. I feel that I have enjoyed myself much better in my own domestic circle with my family around me” (Princeton University). On December 17, 1846, he elaborated to Oliver L. Barbour on his post-congressional attitude: “When I left Congress I determined to pursue my profession, and not suffer myself, to be diverted from that object by the prospect of any political preferment whatever- I have seen so much of political life & partizan strife that I am wearied with its excitiment” (SUNY–Oswego).
As pleased as he was not to be in Congress, Fillmore kept in touch with those who were. He wanted, and they furnished, insider news. Nathan K. Hall, his former law partner and a current congressman, was among his most regular correspondents. Hall updated him on both the progress of legislation and the electoral conversations among House Whigs. Eventually, Hall came to share his old friend’s perspective. Hall’s “experience here,” he wrote on March 5, 1848, “makes me more and more inclined to think I shall get enough of Washington in this Congress” (SUNY–Oswego). Indeed, he did not run for reelection.
Fillmore even stayed involved, from the periphery, in congressional politics. Invited to a local Whig congressional convention in Upstate New York in February 1844 (SUNY–Oswego), he obliged (auctioned letter). He was vocal on some issues facing the national government, especially Texas annexation. Although he expressed his opposition to it in the context of presidential politics, supporting the anti-annexation candidate Henry Clay in 1844, he thereby took a stance on how both Congress and the president should govern.
Taylor viewed Congress from a very different perspective. He had never served there or in any other civil office. He may—this is uncertain—never even have voted in a congressional race. Still, he was a general in Texas during its annexation by the United States and in Mexico during the Mexican-American War. In those positions and as a candidate for the presidency, he had good reason to monitor activities at the Capitol.
Throughout his time at the southern border, Taylor watched and reacted to relevant legislation. At the beginning of 1844 he was in Louisiana waiting for Congress to act on Texas annexation. His troops’ movements, he wrote his brother Joseph on January 29, depended on that congressional decision. One day earlier he wrote to Edmund B. Alexander about how much money Congress might allocate to certain Cherokees. Taylor spent most of his life in regions populated largely by Native Americans, where US policy toward them helped dictate his military decisions. Though he stayed far from the Pacific Northwest, he told his daughter Mary Elizabeth on January 9, 1846, that he was following newspaper reports about the border dispute with the United Kingdom (which controlled Canada). “Judging from the excitement throughout the Country & particularly in Congress,” he concluded, “war with Great Britain is almost reduced to a certainty in less than twelve months” (Morgan Library & Museum).
Taylor occasionally commented on specific legislation that Congress had passed or that he thought it should. On February 9, 1847, for example, he wrote his son-in-law Robert C. Wood that he doubted “the propriety” of the bill Congress was passing to create ten new army regiments (Huntington Library). A year later, on February 16, 1848, he made a more general criticism of the nation’s legislators. That election year, he told Senator Jefferson Davis, they were spending too much time on “President making. I would greatly prefer seeing them attending to their appropriate duties in making . . . appropriations . . . as well as passing such laws as were necessary for the good of the country” (Boston Daily Evening Traveller, Sept. 30, 1863).
Indeed, in 1848, Taylor watched what members of the House and Senate were saying about his own run for the White House. He reported to Joseph Taylor on March 10 that he had received letters “from distinguished members of Congress, saying there had been a great falling off & fluttering among my Whig friends in Congress.” Having often denied any interest in becoming president, he did not seem concerned. When pressured to weigh in on campaign issues, he gave the constitutional and noncommittal response about the separation of powers that I mentioned earlier in this blog. Congress alone, he asserted, crafted legislation. A president might suggest laws, but that officer played such a small role in the process than a presidential candidate needed not reveal his political beliefs.
Then, of course, Taylor became president. Fillmore became vice president and president of the Senate. Both constantly dealt with Congress in those roles. Our project is still in the earlier years, but we’ll get there.
In case you’re looking for something to watch, we have two new additions on our Videos page. First is the roundtable on “Editing Documents in US Political History” at last June’s American Political History Conference. Jack McKivigan, Neal Millikan, William diGiacomantonio, Michael E. Woods, and I discussed the process of editing, primary source editions’ value to understanding history, and our projects’ relationships with students and the public. Second is November’s Symposium on Constitutionalism at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. I spoke about Taylor and the Constitution in the session on “Constitutional History,” but I encourage you to watch all the sessions. Although most were outside my own field, I found them fascinating.
Oh, in case you’ve been watching the news and wondering, it was around this time that the House set its record for the most ballots required to elect a Speaker. In 1855–56, as Fillmore ran for a second term as president, the House voted 133 times—over two months—before choosing its leader.