Fillmore doesn’t get much attention in popular culture. He’s appeared in a handful of historically themed films. John McRostie played him in 2010’s Lost River: Lincoln’s Secret Weapon, and Millard (yes, Millard) Vincent played him way back in 1939’s The Monroe Doctrine. A few television shows, including the 1980s classic Head of the Class, have featured schools named for the thirteenth president. But, unlike Lincoln and other chief executives associated with major monuments, he seldom makes it onto either the big or the small screen.

Until, that is, last month. Fans of the world’s most popular answer-and-question show noticed an uncommon category in its March 14 episode. Jeopardy! that day opened with “A Few Moments with Millard Fillmore.” Of the five clues—well, before I go on, in case you missed the show, here’s the clip:

Some may perceive a note of sarcasm in host Ken Jennings’s “oh, exciting” to describe the category, but we choose not to hear that. Fillmore is exciting! And we were excited to help out with a clue. As Ken noted (thanks for the shout-out!) we provided research for the $400 clue about Fillmore’s relationship with Zachary Taylor.

Last fall, Jeopardy!’s writing team reached out to us for information on that relationship and the two men’s correspondence. We explained that, before they were nominated on the same presidential ticket, they didn’t have a relationship. As odd as this may sound today, in the nineteenth century it was common. Party conventions selected vice-presidential nominees to balance their tickets, i.e., to attract voters who might not otherwise support their presidential nominees. That meant choosing someone from a different region, wing of the party, or professional background from the man at the top of the ticket. Hence the Whigs in 1848 nominated a New York lawyer and former congressman to balance a Louisiana planter and army general. That circumstance occasioned Fillmore’s first letter to Taylor, which we shared with our friends at Jeopardy! Our first volume of their letters, in fact, which will document their converging careers from 1844 through the convention, ironically is expected to end with that letter saying, essentially, “We’re running together, so it’s time to introduce ourselves!”

The writers liked the letter, Jeopardy! aired the clue, and the rest is, well, television history. The contestants got every Fillmore clue right (as did I, to my relief), and viewers learned five facts about one of the least known presidents. Here at American University, Adrienne Frank and Andrew Erickson were kind enough to share the project’s brush with popular culture in American, our alumni magazine, along with alumna Kate Kohn’s recent experience as a contestant on the show. AU is making quite the mark on Jeopardy!

That wasn’t even Taylor and Fillmore’s only video appearance this spring. The Institute for Citizenship Studies, at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, was kind enough to invite me to give this year’s Presidential Lecture. Each year the institute invites a researcher to discuss one of the Americans who have served as president. This year the series covered two! On March 22 I headed to Alva, Oklahoma, to discuss Taylor’s and Fillmore’s lives, relationships, policies, and impacts. I thank Aaron L. Mason and Eric J. Schmaltz, directors of the institute, for so hospitably welcoming me. After two years of Zoom meetings, it was a pleasure to hold this in-person conversation with Dr. Mason and to answer very thoughtful questions from NWOSU’s students. For those outside the Alva area, the conversation is now viewable on YouTube. I promise you’ll learn more than five facts from this one. You can also find previous Presidential Lectures on NWOSU’s channel.

On a very serious note, that conversation occurred one month into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The war and the decisions faced by American leaders made one issue in Taylor’s and Fillmore’s administrations salient. In a different historical context, as I noted in Alva, they had to make similar decisions about US involvement in Eastern Europe.

In 1848, a wave of revolutions swept Europe. From France to Poland to the many states of Germany and Italy, people attempted through arguments or armaments either to reform monarchies or to replace them with republics. Americans generally supported their causes, seeing them as emulating the US model of 1776. Officially, though, the US government followed its tradition of noninterference in European affairs.

Then Hungary had its revolution. Long ruled as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hungarians fought off the Austrians and, in April 1849, declared their independence under the charismatic governor Lajos Kossuth. Amid widespread American support for the Hungarians’ cause, President Taylor had to choose whether officially to recognize the new government. Willing to do so—and to incur Austria’s ire—only if confident that Hungary would survive, he sent a diplomat to assess the situation. Around the time the diplomat reached Budapest, Austria enlisted Russia’s help in reconquering the rebel nation. Hungary stood little chance against the combined Russian and Austrian armies. The United States did not recognize it, and it soon fell.

Reception of Lajos Kossuth in New York City, December 6, 1851. Lithograph by Nathaniel Currier, 1851. Library of Congress.

Kossuth, though, hoped to reignite the revolution. He sought aid in Europe and the Middle East before, in 1851, crossing the Atlantic. Americans greeted him with dinners, speeches, and parades. Members of Congress and even Secretary of State Daniel Webster celebrated him and his people. But when Kossuth visited the White House, President Fillmore reminded him of this country’s noninterference policy. The US government would not help Hungary in any concrete way. In his annual message to Congress (what we today call the State of the Union) of 1852, he reminded legislators and citizens of George Washington’s insistence that the United States remain neutral. In the 1850s, it was not the world power that it would become. (For more details on Taylor’s and Fillmore’s responses to the Hungarian revolution, see the biographies cited here and here.)

We really do spend most of our time editing Taylor’s and Fillmore’s letters, not lecturing in Oklahoma or chatting with television writers. Opportunities to engage with college students and broader audiences, though, help me to reflect on the guiding aim of the project—to enable historical understanding through primary sources—and on the similarities and the differences between American culture and government in the nineteenth century and today.

The new year, at our project, began with some excitement. On January 10 we released our first-ever teaching guide. It features four previously unpublished letters written by or to Millard Fillmore between 1844 and 1848. They discuss the US annexation of Texas and the closely related debate over slavery. Short introductions and questions for discussion and writing accompany the letters. Educators can use the guide to teach students in eleventh- or twelfth-grade US history courses about these key issues in antebellum history and about the use of primary sources to understand the past. Furthermore, with volume 1 of The Correspondence of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore still a few years away (but progress moving apace!), the guide is our very first publication of letters. Anyone interested in America before the Civil War can begin using these newly accessible documents.

Sharing these primary sources got me thinking about how we find them in the first place. I mentioned in a previous blog entry that most of our work early in 2021 comprised two tasks: locating Taylor’s and Fillmore’s letters and transcribing them. I spent most of the entry describing the transcription process and its perils. I only briefly outlined the location process—or the canvass, as we call it—which at the time consisted almost entirely of remote service requests to repositories that had curtailed visits by researchers to slow the spread of COVID-19. Given their immense help, both in identifying collections that include Taylor or Fillmore correspondence and in scanning that correspondence for our project, I cannot adequately praise the dedicated archivists and librarians.

In the fall, between the pandemic’s Delta and Omicron surges, the world of research started to return to normal. We finally were able to visit some repositories in person. Associate Editor Amy Larrabee Cotz went to the New York Public Library and the US Army Heritage and Education Center, and I went to Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Contracting for us, Ed Bradley hunted for letters at the Library of Congress, and David Gerleman did so at the National Archives. This seems like a good time, then, to explain what we editors really do when we “go to the archives.”

Well before we leave home, we plan out where we’ll go and what we’ll do there. Online databases, such as ArchiveGrid, the Social Networks and Archival Context Cooperative, WorldCat, and the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, help us identify repositories and specific document collections containing relevant materials. Our own research in bibliographies, historians’ writings, and known primary sources supplement those. Once we contact the repositories’ staff—again, so much comes down to those amazing archivists and librarians—they help us narrow down which boxes and folders full of documents, or even which individual letters, we need to see. By the time we get in a car or an airplane, we have a pretty specific plan of action.

On arriving at the facility—after, maybe, taking a research selfie—it’s simply a matter of going through the documents. Staff, in many cases, have kindly set aside the containers we need so that they’re ready to bring into the reading room. We go through the boxes, folders, and bound volumes, page by page, following the repository’s procedural guidelines to protect the documents while determining what is and what isn’t a Taylor or Fillmore letter. When we find such a letter, we photograph or scan it for the project’s records, making sure also to record the collection and container it’s in so that we can properly cite it and, if necessary, locate it again. After hours or days of this, we’re back on a plane with a camera full of manuscript images.

the author at a library entrance

Your editor at Duke’s Rubenstein Library

a book of bound letters

A volume of bound manuscript letters at the National Archives, College Park, MD











Back home, we accession the newly found documents into our project’s database. In the old days—three years ago, for me, when I was finishing up a documentary editing project launched in the 1950s—that “database” was made of paper. Each document was printed out (or just photocopied in the first place) and placed in a folder; each was described on a 3″ x 5″ card inserted into a card catalog. For the Taylor-Fillmore project, launched in the digital age, the database is electronic. Different projects use different software to manage their collections. We use DocTracker, a FileMaker Pro solution developed at the University of Virginia (with support from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, a generous sponsor of our own project) specifically to accommodate the needs of documentary editors. Once we enter the basic data for a letter—including who wrote it, who received it, the date, and the repository location—we easily can review and search all the letters to select which to publish and to track our progress in transcription and other tasks. The images of the manuscripts, meanwhile, are stored electronically and identified with the corresponding records in DocTracker.

Even when travel is safe, not all parts of the canvass require in-person visits to repositories. Many documents have been preserved on National Archives microfilm reels, which we can review at home, or on the Millard Fillmore Papers, a microfilm series of which the University of Virginia’s Miller Center has generously shared digital scans. Many repositories, meanwhile, have digitized their own collections and posted the images online. Several of the Taylor letters from Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library are featured in Yale’s Digital Collections, for example, and the Library of Congress has digitized many of its presidential collections, including the Taylor Papers and the Fillmore Papers. Fold3, a massive digital collection of military records, includes Taylor documents from the National Archives. Several other databases, including the Library of Congress’s open-access Chronicling America website, feature searchable historical newspapers in which many of the presidents’ letters were published. Pouring through these, we find ever more letters.

The result?  We’ve located, imaged, and accessioned thousands of letters written by or to Taylor and Fillmore between 1844 and 1853. We’re adding more all the time. And we could not do this so efficiently and thoroughly without the prior work and current aid of archivists and librarians who gather and organize historical documents, digital humanists who create online databases of documents and repositories, and editors and public servants who build tools such as DocTracker. Following up on their contributions and our canvass, we’re able to transcribe, proofread, annotate, index, and publish primary sources for the use of all students of history.


Speaking of students (pardon the forced segue), this month we welcomed two new graduate students to our staff. Nicholas Breslin is earning his MA in public policy here at American University’s School of Public Affairs. Ian Iverson is earning his PhD in history at the University of Virginia. As editorial assistants, they are helping us to transcribe and, yes, to locate Taylor’s and Fillmore’s letters. It had been a pleasure beginning to work with them over the past few weeks.

Those of us who celebrate are counting down the days until Christmas. So I’d love to write a blog post about the holiday festivities enjoyed by Taylor and Fillmore. I’d love to share the greetings they exchanged with family and friends. But, for the most part, I can’t. That’s because Christmas was very different in the 1840s from the holiday we know today. In many ways, it was less important.

Let’s look at the letters. So far, Amy Larrabee Cotz, our student contributors, and I have read several thousand letters that the two men wrote or received. Of those, at least five mention Christmas. You read that right: five. And those mentions aren’t all jolly. For Taylor, Christmas was a convenient marker in the calendar of slavery-based agriculture. On December 29, 1845, he told overseer Thomas W. Ringgold that he hoped the men and women who worked his Mississippi plantation had picked six hundred bales of cotton by the twenty-fifth (Beinecke Library, Yale University). Planning ahead on April 2 of the following year, he noted that “the crop usually should be finished by Christmas” and directed Ringgold to assign “the good axmen” to chop wood after the holiday.

Fillmore’s references to Christmas are more cheerful. On November 28, 1847, he told his daughter, Mary Abigail (called Abby), that he and wife Abigail Powers Fillmore “hope to have the pleasure of spending Christmas with you and [son Millard] Powers.” A week later, apparently seeking assurance that the feeling was mutual, he added that they hoped to see her “in Albany at Christmas. . . . Will you not be glad to see us? I think you will.” With Abby and Powers away at school, the family looked forward to a holiday reunion. (Both letters are at SUNY–Oswego.)

That’s pretty much it. Another letter, written to Fillmore, merely notes that a man and a woman married on Christmas Day. Even letters written on that day don’t mention it as such. Given how little is there, it’s no wonder that even the rather well sourced “White House Christmas Cards” website admits “there is no information as to how the President [Taylor] and his family celebrated the holidays” and has little more to say about Fillmore.

Other historians have found a little more about how they spent the day. Mike Henry, in the children’s book Christmas with the Presidents, notes that relatives of the Taylors visited the White House for coconut cake on Christmas Day 1849 and that Fillmore joined a “bucket brigade” to fight a fire at the Library of Congress on Christmas Eve 1851. Robert J. Scarry, author of Fillmore’s most thorough biography, tracked down letters from earlier years—before our project begins in 1844—about the gifts Millard and Abigail gave to their young children. In 1837, while away in Washington owing to Millard’s service in Congress, they sent back to New York a wax doll for Abby and a book for Powers. Five years later Millard gave everyone books that he had purchased at an auction on Christmas Eve: Album Des Salons for Abigail, Gift of Fairyland for Abby, and Shakespeare’s plays for Powers. At least once the husband and father’s late shopping trips turned what he meant as Christmas presents into “New Year’s presents.”

Why not more? Given that the large majority of White and Black Americans in that era were Christian, Americans of today who see Christmas as the most recognized day of the year may wonder why it’s not more prominent in the correspondence. The answer is that Americans did not celebrate the holiday consistently or in the modern way until after the Civil War. Christians since the fourth century had commemorated Jesus’ birth on December 25, and most of the English and French colonies that would become the United States marked it with religious services, feasts, games, or dances. But, notes Penne L. Restad in Christmas in America: A History, my go-to history of, well, Christmas in America, Americans after the Revolution celebrated fewer holidays than they had before it. Fanny Kemble, an actress accustomed to festive Christmases in her native England, lamented while among Americans in 1832 that “Christmas day is no religious day and hardly a holiday with them” (17).

Library of Congress

Some areas did observe it, though, and it became more prominent nationally over the next decade. By Christmas 1841, when St. Paul’s Cathedral in New York was “‘jammed’” (32) with Catholics, some previously reluctant Calvinist clergymen had begun referencing the day in their sermons. Green flora and candles became cross-denominational symbols of the day; alcohol increasingly “fueled” its “amusements” (37). St. Nicholas, almost never mentioned in colonial times, gradually became associated with Christmas in the United States after Washington Irving included him in Knickerbocker’s History of New York (1809) and an anonymous poet, either Clement C. Moore or Henry Livingston Jr., introduced his more-or-less modern image in “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” (1823). German immigrants, meanwhile, brought the notion of Christmas trees to America.

Whites in the agricultural South enjoyed feasts and games on the post-harvest holiday. Many enslaved Blacks got a few days off from work and gifts of clothing or feasts from the masters who dictated their lives. We have yet to find evidence of whether Taylor allowed the Black families on his plantations such holiday benefits, though his general wish to maintain their health and thus their ability to labor for him makes it likely. Some enslaved people, as Robert E. May explains in Yuletide in Dixie: Slavery, Christmas, and Southern Memory and this article, endured harsh physical abuse on Christmas—as on other days—or were forced to wrestle or drink alcohol for White people’s “amusement.”

Library of Congress

In short, Christmas in the 1840s was still in development. Celebration among US Christians was far from universal, let alone uniform. Traditions and images that we consider iconic were just coming into fashion. Christmas cards existed then but didn’t become common until after the Civil War. The Fillmore family’s separation while Millard served in government posts and the children boarded at school, and the Taylor family’s separation while Zachary served in Mexico, created particular obstacles against sharing what would become known as holiday traditions. So, while the Fillmores at least seem to have recognized and valued Christmas, it makes sense that it played a minor role in both families’ lives and in both men’s letters.



Today many families, friends, worshipers, and coworkers do gather (when safe amid pandemic concerns) to honor Christmas, other winter holidays, and each other. I wish all who do so a happy and healthy celebration and end of the year.

Earlier this month, we at the Taylor-Fillmore project held our own gathering. This wasn’t about a holiday, but rather about introducing ourselves. I have had the pleasure this semester of working with six staff and student colleagues to locate, transcribe, and proofread the presidents’ letters. But, as they work in different locations and on different tasks, they had not all met each other. So, finally, we came together virtually for all to share their interests and what they’ve found in the correspondence. Several have completed their time on the project, and all have made essential contributions to making primary sources widely accessible. I genuinely thank associate editor Amy Larrabee Cotz, editorial assistant Alaysia Bookal, volunteer associate editor Cameron Coyle, and interns Brendan Lawlor, Abigail Peterson, and Leila Rocha Fisher.

Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore appreciated literature.

Fillmore, in this regard, had the edge over Taylor. He never attended college, instead training for the legal profession through an apprenticeship, and claimed to be “no scholar myself” (Fillmore to Harper & Brothers, May 26, 1847, Yale University Beinecke Library). Committed to education, though, he helped found the University of Buffalo in 1846 and became its first chancellor, a post he retained while president. During his term, he and Abigail Powers Fillmore—the teacher who had educated and then married him—created the first White House library. It comprised a wide variety of genres, from history and biography to fiction and poetry. (The White House still has a library, though it includes only a single work from the Fillmores’.)

References to books suffuse Fillmore’s personal correspondence. In the letter where he labeled himself “no scholar,” he advised a publisher of Noah Webster’s dictionary on what types of words it should include. I have mentioned before his and Abigail’s interest in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In 1844 a friend recommended he read Mysteries of Paris, likely referring to the Frenchman Eugène Sue’s recently translated novel; in 1847 he sent his daughter, Mary Abigail, a copy of Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son. (All Fillmore documents not otherwise cited are at the State University of New York, Oswego.)

Taylor, an absentee cotton planter and an army officer since his twenties, never went to college, either. But he nonetheless highly valued education (for both genders) and reading. From his camps in the Mexican-American War, he often wrote to his daughter and son-in-law advising them on the education of his and Margaret M. Smith Taylor’s grandchildren. “It is very important,” he asserted, “to give” a boy “a taste for reading.” At least once he went into great detail about the number of hours necessary each day for reading or study and the specific works—including Shakespeare’s plays and the Bible—that children should read.

Given both men’s appreciation for literature, Taylor and Fillmore likely welcomed correspondence from self-styled literary Americans. And they received it—especially Fillmore. Some of his most interesting mail came from poets. These writers (and, in one case, a writer’s mother) sent original works of verse both before and after the recipients’ election as president and vice president. Sometimes they wrote the poems specifically for or about the two men and their political cause.

To be clear, when I say “poets,” I’m not talking about the greats. Taylor and Fillmore didn’t correspond (as far as I know at this point in the project) with Dickinson or Longfellow. Some of the poems they received were downright mediocre. One anonymous correspondent sent Fillmore a composition titled “Monarchs of England.” The title says it all:


First William the Norman,

Then William his son,

Henry, Stephen, & Henry,

Then Richard and John


And so on. Except perhaps as a mnemonic for schoolchildren (and I can’t honestly say it helps me to remember), the piece’s literary merit is limited.

Somewhat more mature is Samuel Hare’s “The Banks of the Dee,” written “To Charles Coan” but apparently given to Fillmore. Perhaps Hare’s musing on the British river helped relax the president:


’Twas summer, and softly the breezes were blowing,

And sweetly the nightingale sung from the tree;

At the foot of a rock where a river is flowing,

I sat myself down on the Banks of the Dee.


More often, poets sent the politicians verses praising their achievements or goals. On July 30, 1848, another anonymous writer sent Fillmore—at this point Taylor’s running mate—a printed copy of “The Star of Zachary Taylor.” The cover letter asked Fillmore to energize the Whig Party either by singing the lines himself or by having a better singer do so. It also complained of the difficulty of writing a poem when “your name is absolutely unrhymeable.” Aside from the author’s best attempt to rhyme “Fillmore,” those lines mainly celebrated Taylor’s leadership in the Mexican-American War:


The field of the Mexicans shaded,

Their troops in the Rio Grande waded,

Their visions of glory all faded

At the Star of Old Zachary.

. . .

To add to their brilliancy still more,

Inscribed on our banner is Fillmore;

They float in the breezes of glory,

With the Star of Old Zachary.


This songwriter was not alone. The same month, John A. Gould mailed Fillmore his “Whig Song,” written to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne.” He believed it would “sing you and Gen Taylor into office.” After they did get elected, the Baltimore poet and playwright Henry Clay Preuss (who came to be known for his works about politics and Washington life) set to work on a composition in honor of their upcoming inauguration. Preuss’s mother sent Fillmore a copy of the resulting “For Taylor and Millard Fillmore!” It called for the peaceful revolution and nonpartisan government that some has expected from their election:


Awake freemen, ’wake! for now is the hour

The thraldom of party to end—

Let us crush in our might the foul demagogue’s pow’r

And show to the world we are men!


Too long we’ve been ruled by political “big-bugs,”

Who’ve regarded nor justice nor right;

Too long we’ve been duped by political humbugs—

Let the people now rise in their might!


Once he took office, Taylor may have received a poem about the political challenges he faced. In 1850, as he and Congress struggled to resolve the escalating conflict over whether to expand slavery into the West, Richard T. Brown wrote “The Crisis.” He dedicated it to the president and sent a copy to his friend Eleanor Parke Lewis. Brown asked her, if she approved, to send Taylor a copy. His motives may have been partly selfish: “I shall expect a dignified consulship in return,” he told Lewis, perhaps in jest or perhaps not. But the poem nonetheless captured the precarious state of the country and the arduous duties that had devolved upon Taylor:


Stand fast, brave pilot! at thy post,

And grasp the wavering helm,

The good ship nears a rocky coast

Where laboring sore and tempest-tossed

The running seas o’erwhelm!

. . .

So long the empress of the waves

The refuge of the free,

Dark treason on her proud deck raves,

And soon her crew may make their graves

Beneath an angry sea.



Here at the project, our staff has grown to its largest size to date. This is primarily thanks to new and continuing student contributors. Alaysia Bookal continues this fall as our graduate editorial assistant, and Cameron Coyle, who just began his college career at Yale, continues to volunteer. Meanwhile, for the first time, we have three new interns. Brendan Lawlor is a junior at American University; Abigail Peterson is a sophomore and Leila Rocha Fisher is a junior at St. Olaf College. All three, through transcription work, already are making important contributions to our efforts to expand access to primary historical sources.

What do people talk about the most? Sports? Politics? Literature? I don’t know about you, but I find that one of the most common topics to come up in work and social conversations, at least briefly, is the weather. It may be forest fires in the American West, a hurricane in the Southeast, drought in the Midwest, or merely the hope for a sunny day.

This is nothing new. Although we don’t know the content of most historical conversations, we do know what people of the past wrote down. In their diaries, journals, and letters, they, too, often discussed the weather. Henry David Thoreau famously recorded conditions in Concord, Massachusetts. His detailed journals, which scholars are editing and publishing, have helped biologists track climate change from the 1840s to the 2000s. Figures often linked with politics, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, also commented on the weather in their diaries. Those observations, scattered throughout the manuscripts and the published editions of those men’s papers, have been assembled in an open-access climatic dataset by the National Centers for Environmental information. Historical Americans, like us, loved to talk about (okay, write about) the weather.

Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, and their associates were no exceptions. They, especially Taylor, regularly shared local weather conditions and the consequences of regional climates in their letters. Sometimes they did so merely in reference to the feasibility or enjoyability of social visits. On March 10, 1844, Fillmore lamented to Elizabeth Milligan that friends had been unable to visit him in Buffalo recently due to “little or no sleighing here” at a time of year when other forms of transportation came to a halt. Eight days later, his cousin Ann L. Dixson invited him and his wife Abigail to visit that summer, “the most pleasant season” in her home of Ebensburgh, Pennsylvania. That June 10 Joseph C. Luther, a U.S. diplomat in Haiti, complained to his friend Fillmore of the heat in that island nation. (These three letters are on the microfilm Millard Fillmore Papers.)

lithograph of man and woman in horse-drawn sleigh

Lithograph by O. Knirsch, published by Currier & Ives, 1853. Library of Congress.

More often, in the letters, the weather influenced people’s lives or livelihoods. Taylor, on December 16, 1845, expressed concern to overseer Thomas W. Ringgold that the enslaved people on Taylor’s plantation “have not been able to do much in the way of picking cotton, as it has been unusually wet & remarkably cold for the season & climate.” Recognizing the weather’s impact on their ability to harvest crops, he suggested other tasks, such as felling trees to build a bridge and fences, if the temperature stayed too low. A year and a half later, he wrote to his brother Joseph with a more serious concern about the plantation: it had flooded. “[M]y worst apprehensions,” he lamented, “have been more than realized.”

flooded plantation in Louisiana

Flooded plantation in Louisiana, in Harper’s Weekly, May 26, 1866, 329. Library of Congress.

Weather, the medical authorities of the day recognized, also influenced health. Doctors urged those recovering from illness or injury, in particular, to travel to favorable climes. In September 1847 Taylor, having learned that some of Joseph’s children suffered from whooping cough, shared his brother’s hope that, “as you say the weather was favorable, . . . they would soon recover.” The following July he reminded Jefferson Davis of the northern states’ “reputation for restoring invalids from the South” and advised that Davis’s ill brother “ought to go North every season, as the preservation of his health & life is of more importance to his family friends and country than all the wealth he could accumulate for the former.”

Taylor, however, most often wrote about the weather in reference to its challenges to the army units he commanded. On July 17, 1844, he asked Adjutant General Roger Jones to send more medical officers to support the troops in and around Louisiana’s Fort Jesup. Both the possibility of battle and “the approaching sickly season,” he stressed, produced a need for medical care. Two years later, during the Mexican-American War, he told his son-in-law Robert C. Wood that “[i]n a climate like” that on the Rio Grande, “there must be a great deal of disease, which as a matter of course must result in some deaths, & we will be fortunate indeed if no contagion gets among us that does not carry off hundreds.” His superiors in Washington, though not attentive enough to the army’s needs for Taylor’s taste, appreciated the importance of weather to the campaign. “Much apprehension,” Secretary of War William L. Marcy wrote him in June 1846, “is felt as to what is called the unhealthy season.” He told Taylor what the general knew well: that “[y]our positions should have a particular reference to” the weather and associated diseases in the regions of northern Mexico. Weather in the nineteenth century, as in the twenty-first, helped shape life, death, and the actions of governments.


The Taylor-Fillmore project has had a sunny and productive summer thanks to the contributions of students to our work. Alaysia Bookal, a graduate student in American University’s School of Education and School of Public Affairs, is our editorial assistant this summer. Annika Quinn, a senior at St. Olaf College majoring in history and Asian studies, is our intern. Both have done excellent work toward bringing these primary sources to students, scholars, and the public.

I want to begin today’s entry by announcing a major addition to our staff. (Drumroll, please.) At the beginning of May, after an extensive search, Amy Larrabee Cotz joined the Taylor-Fillmore project as associate editor. She had just completed her role as senior associate editor of the Dolley Madison Digital Edition, an award-winning edition of the pioneering first lady’s papers. Part of the University of Virginia Press’s American History Collection, the DMDE already has published over three thousand documents. Look for its thirteenth and final digital volume later this year. Ms. Larrabee Cotz also has researched the lives of Black Americans for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the Montpelier Foundation. For more on her background, see our staff page. Her expertise in documentary editing and social history already are enhancing our work improving access to the letters of Taylor and Fillmore. I’m delighted to welcome her to the project.

Reviewing my new colleague’s previous work reminded me of the value, often underappreciated, of long-established documentary editions. The Taylor-Fillmore project is barely a year old, but other projects have been hard at work for decades. They’ve published paper and digital volumes of primary sources that scholars, teachers, students, and history buffs have used to learn about the past. Sometimes we do so without realizing it. When I read a good history book, such as James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, I may not notice that its author relied on editions including The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, The Papers of Jefferson Davis, and The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant.

So I thought I’d use this blog entry to spread the word about a few other quality editions. That plan leaves me plenty of choices, from The Papers of Thomas Jefferson—the first modern documentary edition, begun in 1943 and now up to sixty-two volumes produced by two projects—to the Race & Slavery Petitions Project to In Love and War: The World War II Courtship Letters of a Nisei Couple. You can read lists of (and links to) well over a hundred projects curated by the Association for Documentary Editing and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

The Lady and the President: The Letters of Dorothea Dix and Millard Fillmore

Likely of interest to this blog’s readers are those projects that already have published letters of Taylor and Fillmore. The vast majority of their correspondence remains unpublished—we have plenty of work to do!—but some correspondence with a few major historical figures has appeared in editions focusing on them. By far the most substantial case is The Lady and the President, Charles M. Snyder’s edition of letters exchanged between Fillmore and Dorothea Dix. Fillmore corresponded with the mental health care reformer from 1850 to 1869. Fortunately he did not, as she asked at the very beginning, “destroy all my letters” (p. 84). Thanks to Snyder, we now easily can read many of them.

Other editions feature smaller numbers of Taylor or Fillmore letters. Both Ms. Larrabee Cotz and I previously worked at projects focusing on individuals who corresponded with them. The Dolley Madison Digital Edition includes two letters from Madison to Taylor. In that of June 8, 1846, she introduced a Jesuit priest who was accompanying the U.S. army to Mexico. The Correspondence of James K. Polk includes several letters from the late 1840s between President Polk and president-to-be Taylor, regarding the Mexican-American War and honors conveyed by Congress upon the successful general. The final volume summarizes the single known extant letter from Fillmore to Polk, accepting an invitation to dinner at the White House as he prepared to take office as vice president.

Taylor and Fillmore were Whigs, and unsurprisingly corresponded more often with fellow Whig politicians than with Democrats such as Polk. The Papers of Henry Clay includes partial or full texts of eight letters from and seven letters to them in its volume covering 1844–52. The Papers of Daniel Webster, now part of the online American History Collection, has 110 letters to or from Fillmore. The Seward Family Digital Archive, online and free to all users, includes two dinner invitations from Fillmore to Frances Miller Seward and William Henry Seward, including this one from shortly before Christmas 1850.

The Papers of Jefferson Davis - CoverAnother Whig of the 1840s gained fame later as a Republican. The Papers of Abraham Lincoln Digital Library features four letters from the Illinois legislator and congressman, usually cosigned with others, to Taylor. Among them is this one of January 1, 1849, congratulating Taylor “on your Elevation to the Presidency of this great and growing Republic”—and recommending someone for a cabinet post. Lincoln’s future Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis, was a Democrat but also Taylor’s son-in-law. He did correspond with his Whig kinsman, as I’ve noted in this blog before, and hence The Papers of Jefferson Davis includes some of those letters.

The Papers of John C. Calhoun, another Democrat associated with slavery and sectionalism, has two letters from the South Carolinian to President-elect Taylor. Calhoun wrote both in February 1849. Moving outside politics and into Fillmore familial fare, Stanley and Rodelle Weintraub’s Dear Young Friend: The Letters of American Presidents to Children features four letters from Millard to his daughter Mary Abigail.

I encourage you to take a look at these editions and others. We can learn so much about history—including but well beyond the twelfth and thirteenth presidents—from the words of those who experienced it. As we prepare to celebrate the United States’ birthday in a couple weeks, what better time could there be to read some original letters from the nation’s past?

When I introduce myself as a “documentary editor,” I tend to arouse confusion. Few people recognize the term. As a colleague noted in one of my favorite lectures on the topic, children never say that they want to be documentary editors when they grow up. So, unfamiliar with the title, my unfortunate interlocutors try to parse the words. A documentary editor, they surmise, must edit documentary films. Surely I know Ken Burns!

Alas, no. With all respect for the Alliance of Documentary Editors, an organization of people who do edit documentary films, I am not one of them. I instead belong to the Association for Documentary Editing, whose members edit historical or literary documents. That is, we documentary editors, unlike those documentary editors, make primary sources accessible to a wide audience. We turn inscrutably written, sometimes faded, and occasionally crumbling manuscripts into easily read books or websites. Then anyone can learn about history from the words of the people who lived through it.

I outline the basic process of our work editing Zachary Taylor’s and Millard Fillmore’s letters on the Our Project page of this website. But it seems worthwhile to explain, in a little more depth, what we editors do on a daily basis. So far, at this project, most work has fallen into two categories. The first is locating letters. Both Taylor’s and Fillmore’s correspondence was scattered widely during and after their lives. The letters they wrote ended up with the recipients, and subsequently with recipients’ descendants, presidential autograph collectors, and libraries and archives across the country and the world. The letters they received were initially in one place, but were afterwards scattered, too. It didn’t help that Union troops ransacked Taylor’s Louisiana home during the Civil War or that Fillmore’s son ordered in his will that his father’s letters be burned. (Luckily, the executor disobeyed.)

So, we editors contact librarians, archivists, collectors, and auctioneers to find the letters. Most kindly share scans—and the time required to make them—so that we can add them to our database and, ultimately, to our edition. During the COVID-19 pandemic, as I’ve mentioned before, repositories have been especially generous in finding and scanning documents, so as to minimize the number of people like us who otherwise would visit their reading rooms. For Fillmore, the search began back in the 1970s when Lester W. Smith and Arthur C. Detmers, at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society (now the Buffalo History Museum) assembled a microfilm edition of Fillmore’s papers. Now we continue their work and add Taylor into the mix.

Our second major task so far has been transcription. On its face, this sounds pretty simple. We read the text of a manuscript and type it into a computer. Those who have seen many nineteenth-century letters, though, know that this is far more difficult and complex than it sounds.

Consider, for example, this letter:

Thurlow Weed to Fillmore, September 19, 1844 (SUNY–Oswego)

Fillmore received it from Thurlow Weed, a leader of New York’s Whig Party, in September 1844. Even if able to decipher “Dear Fillmore,” at the top, few could read every word without some long pauses. Not only is Weed’s penmanship less than award-winning, but either a pen low on ink or decades of storage have left his fifth line faint. And don’t get me started on the perennial dilemma of what’s a comma and what’s a period. The students who initially transcribe letters like this one put admirable effort and time into rescuing the text from its cursive cage. I then proofread their transcriptions, filling in any words or punctuation that they found especially opaque.

Conventions of handwriting further complicate transcription. For instance, the words at the end of Weed’s second and the beginning of his third line may appear particularly confusing. But notice the tiny horizontal mark at the end of the second line. That’s a hyphen: Weed divided a word into two. His “call-” and “ed” together form “called.” Sure, we may have been taught in school not to split single-syllable words like that. But Weed either wasn’t or didn’t care. Then, near the end of the fourth line, a word is struck out with three hashes. Weed changed his mind and canceled that word. We editors must decide how to deal with such notations, which are easy to write by hand but not to print in a book or on a website. Some editions omit canceled text, considering it not part of the final document as envisioned by the author. At Taylor-Fillmore we include it, but with a single strikethrough—standard computer formatting—rather than whatever hashes or squiggles or shading the author used. Weed’s canceled word becomes “his.”

A plethora of other issues show up. Financial accounts make for formatting fun. Text like this, included in a letter Fillmore received from his friend Day O. Kellogg in late 1848 about real estate sales and rent, cannot be “simply” typed into a word processor:

Day O. Kellogg to Fillmore, November 30, 1848 (SUNY–Oswego)

Working with print and digital publishers, editors need to decide how best to represent lines that aren’t in paragraph form and how best to input them to achieve the desired appearance. Some editing projects, such as the George Washington Financial Papers Project, encounter these questions every day.

Perhaps the starkest challenge in transcription is language itself. The vast majority of letters by or to U.S. presidents were written in English, but Taylor and Fillmore received some in French, Spanish, Italian, or Russian. Earlier, when I was working on James K. Polk’s correspondence, I encountered letters written in the Dakota Indian language—read, sadly, by few today—and in such bad German that colleagues who teach German for a living found it a worthy challenge. I’ve seen letters written in phonetic English, usually because the authors were semiliterate and occasionally because they thought it was cute. At my first editing job, with the Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, I worked on a series of letters by Anthony that survived only in her secretary’s shorthand—a type of shorthand that no one had used in many decades. Colleagues of mine, though fortunately (fingers crossed) not I, have dealt with letters that seem to be in normal English but turn out to be in code. The authors wanted their messages kept private. But it’s our job, centuries later, to overcome their precautions and bad handwriting to make primary sources accessible to the public.

So, please give a hand for our student transcribers.

Embed from Getty Images

Zachary Taylor has become an unlikely symbol of the attack of January 6 on the U.S. Capitol. In an attempt to overturn the result of the presidential election, Americans forced their way into the seat of the federal government. They assaulted police and threatened the lives of the vice president and members of Congress. One police officer, allegedly assaulted by two men, died of strokes the next day. The rioters also damaged works of art. Grotesquely, someone smeared a red substance on a bust of the twelfth president. Capitol staff have since wrapped it in plastic, but commentators including journalists and an art historian have drawn public attention to Taylor’s apparently bloodied face.

The targeting of Taylor is meaningful. True, the perpetrators may not have known whose image they were defacing. Few people today would recognize him. Still, intentionally or not, they singled out a president who himself had struggled over whether to challenge the peaceful operation of government. As a general and as commander-in-chief in the 1840s and 1850s, he swore allegiance to the Union. Yet he also contemplated the need to disrupt that Union with violence.

Taylor campaign poster, engraved by Thomas W. Strong, 1848 (Library of Congress)

Imagine this scenario. It’s 1847. General Taylor has won enormous popularity from his army’s victories in the Mexican-American War. He concludes that the American people want him to become president. He sends subordinate officers around the country to confirm that. Assured that the majority do prefer him over the incumbent, James K. Polk, he decides not to wait for next year’s election. He simply marches to Washington and takes over the government.

No, that didn’t happen. When Maris B. Pierce, a Seneca Indian chief and lawyer, described these hypothetical events in a February 1849 letter to Polk, he presented them as an absurdity. U.S. law would “[c]ertainly not” recognize such a coup as “a ligitimate change of Government.” Furthermore, Pierce might have added, Taylor never would have attempted it. He revered the Constitution and recognized that changes in the administration must follow legitimate elections and peaceful inaugurations.

Yet, in that era, violations of U.S. legal principles were not unthinkable. Pierce contrasted the absurdity of a Taylor coup with what he saw as the reality of a Seneca one. A group of New York Senecas, in 1848, had decided to replace their traditional government of hereditary chiefs with one of elected officials. The Polk administration quickly had recognized the latter. Pierce, one of the ousted chiefs, argued that in doing so, the U.S. government undemocratically had accepted the assertions of a dissatisfied minority over both established law and the wishes of the majority. If Taylor couldn’t launch a coup, why could those Senecas? Pierce, however logical, failed to sway President Polk.

Threats to U.S. law extended beyond Indian relations. We often hear that, in our time, Americans are more divided than they have been since the Civil War era. The benchmark is apt. After the United States annexed western lands from Mexico in 1848, White Americans sharply split over whether to expand slavery into the region. While Democrats and Whigs continued to fight across party lines, Northerners and Southerners increasingly fought across regional ones. Those fights were not always verbal. Long before the actual Civil War, and even absent a coup like the one Pierce imagined, violence was becoming a common feature of U.S. politics. Last week, at a virtual conference celebrating the completion of the John Jay Papers (congratulations to our fellow editors there!), I had the pleasure to hear a keynote lecture by the historian Joanne B. Freeman. Author of two books on political violence, Freeman noted both the riots common to polling places in the 1850s and the brawls that broke out in the halls of Congress among impassioned, intoxicated, and armed politicians.

Americans understood that law, peace, and the Union itself were in danger. In 1850 Andrew Lane, who lived in Connecticut but owned slaves in (probably) Louisiana, published a letter to the president warning what would happen if slaveowners did not get their way. He predicted a division of the states, through either peaceful separation or all-out war, with New England becoming a free republic and the rest of the country continuing to enslave Black Americans. Fillmore himself, as I have noted before, wondered in the White House “whether this ever-disturbing subject may not rend this Union asunder” through a “war of races.”

Taylor’s own musings on slavery and disunion are fascinating and, frankly, shocking. He is often quoted (well, insofar as one can say Zachary Taylor is “often quoted”) as vowing while president to command troops himself against any Southern rebels and to “hang them with less reluctance than he had hung deserters and spies in Mexico.” The quotation, published a quarter century later by political boss Thurlow Weed and disputed by other supposed witnesses, is dubious. The firmly unionist sentiment, though, is likely accurate, and the language of violence certainly fit the times. President Taylor, it appears, had no patience for those who would break the United States’ laws and overturn its political processes.

But that was President Taylor. Before he took office, he expressed more nuanced views. On one hand, he worried about the country’s future. As he told his brother in January 1848, he feared “the slave question, . . . if not speedily arrested will lead to great confusion, if not to disunion.” On the other hand, he revealed privately that he might support such a move. An August 1847 letter to his son-in-law, the future Confederate president Jefferson Davis, startled both transcriber Gabriella Siegfried and me. Taylor lamented Americans’ inability calmly to discuss their differences, particularly over slavery: “the moment any thing of the kind is attemp[t]ed, men appear . . . to lose their temper as well as their reason, . . . only adding fuel to the flames, & to widen inste[a]d of healing the breach between the parties.” He hoped sober debate would resume. But if antislavery Northerners argued too fervently, he contended, “let the South act promptly, boldly & decisively with arms in their hands if necessary, as the union in that case will be blown to atoms, or will be no longer worth preserving.” This future president, later celebrated as a staunch unionist, was contemplating a violent breakup of the republic.

Taylor’s inauguration, engraved by W. W. Butt, 1849 (Library of Congress)

Fortunately for Taylor’s election prospects, that letter did not become public. Once he become president, he seems to have grown less tolerant of proslavery disunionists and more so of antislavery Americans. In his inaugural address, he called for “attempts to assuage the bitterness which too often marks unavoidable differences of opinion” and urged on Congress “such measures of conciliation as may harmonize conflicting interests and . . . perpetuate that Union which should be the paramount object of our hopes and affections.” Henry Clay Preuss, in a poem celebrating Taylor’s inauguration, likewise called for unity:

Whigs, Democrats, all—oh! why should ye pause,
As brothers of one common band
To join heart and hand in this glorious cause,
And drive party strife from our land.

(“For Taylor and Millard Fillmore!” [1849?], SUNY–Oswego)

When I launched this blog last spring, I did not intend to engage so directly with events of today. I aimed to spread word of the Taylor-Fillmore project’s progress, to share some of our findings, and to promulgate knowledge of antebellum America. Those remain my goals. But life has drawn links between now and then that I cannot ignore. The past year has seen a global pandemic, racial debate and violence, a heated presidential election, and political strife that prompted President Joe Biden to plead in his inaugural, “disagreement must not lead to disunion.” All that, with just Taylor’s slightly different phrasing, was also true of 1848–49. Now 2021 has even put Taylor’s bloodied face on the newspapers. History never quite repeats itself, nor does it present a simple blueprint to guide our actions. But I hope that, by assembling and publishing primary sources, we documentary editors can enable a deeper understanding of the past to inform all who contemplate America’s present and future.


To end on a happy note, I have two announcements. First, you now can subscribe to this blog! Enter your email address in the field on the left (in the drop-down menu if you’re using a phone or tablet) to get an announcement each time we post a new entry. Second, this month Cameron Coyle joined our project as a volunteer. A high school senior (and recently admitted to Yale—congratulations!), Cameron is founder and director of the Zachary Taylor Project. He educates about Taylor on its website and hopes to establish a Taylor historic site. With his enthusiasm for preserving history and talent for transcribing letters, I’m glad to have him aboard.


Note: An earlier version of this article asserted that rioters on January 6 had murdered a police officer, as was initially proposed by investigators. A medical examiner has since concluded that Officer Brian Sicknick died of natural causes, and the article has been updated.

“The New England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day,” in Lydia Maria Child, “Flowers for Children” (Boston, 1845), 28. Library of Congress.

Thanksgiving arrives tomorrow. The holiday, for many of us, brings turkey, stuffing, and pie; this year, it also brings safety measures as we stay home and gather with loved ones by virtual means. At its heart and in its name, however, the day is about the objects of our gratitude. That tradition goes back centuries. Many early U.S. presidents proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving in autumn. George Washington began the tradition on Thursday, November 26, 1789. Thanksgiving became a more official holiday during the Civil War and was fixed as the fourth Thursday in November during World War II.

So I got to wondering: what were Taylor and Fillmore thankful for? Neither proclaimed a national holiday. But both expressed gratitude on behalf of the nation in their annual messages to Congress. Taylor entered office as European nations endured violent struggles between republican revolutionaries and reactionary monarchs. He noted, in December 1849, these “distractions and wars which have prevailed in other quarters of the world.” He concluded, “It is a proper theme of thanksgiving to Him who rules the destinies of nations that we have been able to maintain . . . an independent and neutral position toward all belligerent powers.” Three years later, Fillmore alluded to the cholera pandemic of 1848–49 and to other deadly illnesses. “Our grateful thanks,” he wrote, “are due to an all-merciful Providence, not only for staying the pestilence which in different forms has desolated some of our cities, but for crowning the labors of the husbandman with an abundant harvest and the nation generally with the blessings of peace and posterity.”

Both men also gave thanks in their private correspondence. Most often, they thanked their friends and families simply for writing to them. But our project’s student contributors and I have found more substantive gratitude in the letters, too.

Taylor, at the height of his military career in the 1840s, was grateful for Americans’ support of their troops. In April 1847 he thanked Sarah Moulton Wool, through her army general husband, for her concern about Taylor’s wellbeing. More generally, he praised “her warm & generous hart & kind feelings towards those who peril their lives for their country.” A month later, he announced himself “truly greatful for” several men’s “kind congratulations . . . [on] our successes against the enemy” and their assertion that America “must more than repay us for many of the dangers, toils, & privations we necessarily encounter in the public service.” General Taylor, and surely his subordinate officers and soldiers, appreciated recognition from those back home.

Other thanks followed specific favors and services. Fillmore’s letter about Uncle Tom’s Cabin (as you’ve probably guessed from my repeated mentions of that letter, it’s one of my favorites) begins simply by thanking Susan Greeley for sending the president that antislavery novel. Taylor, who regularly corresponded with the overseer on his Mississippi plantation, thanked Thomas W. Ringgold for sharing good news about himself and the people whom Taylor enslaved. “[I]t was,” he told Ringgold in 1845, “truly gratifying to me to learn you continued to enjoy your health . . . , also that the servants were generally well, & those who had been complaining were for the most part on the mend, which afforded me much pleasure to know.” And Fillmore, after learning that a student debating society at Rutgers College had elected him an honorary member, asked the secretary “to express to the society my grateful sense of this flattering testimony of their respect.”

Many of the letters we’ve transcribed lately have discussed Taylor’s run for the presidency. Much of his gratitude reflected that campaign. As early as October 1847, he offered William C. Bullitt his “sincere thanks” for showing “interest . . . in my reaching the first office is the gift of a great & free people.” But, five months earlier, he shared with a fellow officer his oft-repeated doubts about serving. Should someone else win the presidency, Taylor wrote, he would “be thankful that one more worthy of the office had been found to fill it, & relieve me from even the prospects of embarking in the responsible duties connected with that office.” Perhaps the voters who elected him the next year were thankful for the modesty with which he sought the White House.


Moving on from presidential gratitude, I owe my own thanks. In this blog I often highlight those people, particularly students, who make the Taylor-Fillmore project possible. Please indulge me as I expand those expressions on this week of thanksgiving. Yesterday marked the end of Alyssa Moore’s and Alex Kiprof’s tenures as project interns. Both St. Olaf College seniors, by transcribing letters carefully and accurately yet as quickly as I could send them out, moved the project forward more than I had hoped. I thank them especially for their diligence and enthusiasm despite the challenging environment of COVID-19. Owing to their work and that of the summer’s participants—interns Zoe Golden and Gretchen Ohlmacher and editorial assistant Gab Siegfried—the inaugural year of the Correspondence of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore has been a success. Our corpus of transcribed letters from the pre-presidential years has grown rapidly. Stay tuned for their online publication.

Those essential to the project extend beyond its own staff. Numerous archivists and librarians have helped me to locate letters by or to Taylor or Fillmore. I hesitate to name them only because the list would be long and unfairly incomplete. Every one deserves a shout out. These professionals’ expertise, generosity, and kindness in sharing the historical resources they preserve always earn my gratitude. In today’s world, they are doing so ten times over. As staff have returned to their facilities this fall, after months working at home, they have expanded digital services to enable people such as me to access documents safely and remotely. Moreover, they have done so amid a backlog of service requests from the months the buildings were closed. For this herculean labor, which has brought hundreds of newly scanned letters into my inbox, I give thanks, admiration, and awe.

The project could not operate without generous financial support from both public and private sources. I am deeply grateful to the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, and Delaplaine Foundation, Inc., for awarding it grants this year. I am equally grateful to the Watson-Brown Foundation and the Summerlee Foundation for announcing grants to the project for next year. My colleagues and I are honored to partner with these organizations in making primary sources widely accessible.

Finally, I thank those here at American University who have supported and built this new project. Colette AbiChaker and Dave Marcotte, in the Washington Institute for Public Affairs Research; Stephen Petix, in the Office of Sponsored Programs; Sam Alarif, in Grants and Contracts Accounting; Heather Kirkland and Adam Whitehurst, in the School of Public Affairs (SPA); Edith Laurencin, formerly in SPA; Hannah Purkey, in the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies (CCPS); Becky Prosky, formerly in CCPS; James Helms, in the Department of Government; and Chay Rao, in Strategic Communications & Public Relations, all have worked hard to get the project up and running and to continue its success through this and into next year. Most of all, I thank David Barker, director of CCPS and executive director of the project, for inviting me to launch it at CCPS and for enthusiastically supporting and promoting it ever since. I am delighted to be locating and publishing the letters of these two presidents in such a perfect institutional home.

Americans were preparing to choose a president. One candidate, an exceptionally wealthy man, was a political outsider. If elected, he would be the first to enter the White House having held no prior political office. He was also a partisan outsider. He only recently had joined his party, yet he had beaten well-known establishment figures for the nomination. (His running mate was a dependable partisan and a former congressman.) He faced a Democratic opponent with a long political record. That former senator and cabinet member also had the support of the outgoing commander-in-chief. Prominent Democrats expressed high confidence that their candidate would win. But they were wrong. Voters chose the outsider. That’s right: Zachary Taylor won.

Finding parallels can be fun, a sort of historian’s parlor trick. I’m not the only one to have noted the commonalities between the elections of 1848 and 2016. But this trick has limited analytical value. The Whig Zachary Taylor and the Democrat Lewis Cass, on one hand, and Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton (or Joe Biden), on the other, lived and ran for office in vastly divergent historical contexts. In 1848, the most important issues were the incorporation of new land—the United States had just won everything from Texas to California in the Mexican-American War—and whether White agriculturalists would be allowed to enslave Black laborers there. The candidates themselves did not campaign, except through an occasional open letter or greeting to well-wishers, instead leaving that responsibility to supporters. Neither did the voters choose candidates via primaries; convention delegates freely selected them.

The differences from today, far more than the similarities, can help us to understand the electoral and cultural world of antebellum America. Take, for instance, the first thing I wrote above about Taylor: he was rich. That doesn’t mean he earned money through real estate and entertainment, or through the law and writing books, like recent well-off chief executives. Taylor owned over 130 human beings. His correspondence during the campaign shows his continued attention to the plantations where those enslaved men, women, and children earned him profits. Slavery became so central an issue that, though both major parties generally defended it, some former Democrats and Whigs split off to form a third party around that issue. Free Soilers, who nominated Martin Van Buren, shared opposition to slavery’s expansion into the new territories (though not usually to its existence). Taylor remained publicly vague on that question. Vice-presidential nominee Millard Fillmore, meanwhile, was accused by opponents of being an abolitionist. His supporters defended him from that false and, in the racist politics of the day, libelous charge.

Taylor’s outsider status also reveals how different his time was from ours. Besides an absentee planter, he was a career soldier who had risen to become one of the army’s top generals. Today we see such a career as a path to the White House, one pursued by Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ulysses S. Grant (though he had also acted as secretary of war), and Taylor himself. But not in 1848. True, several former army officers had become president, from George Washington to Andrew Jackson to William Henry Harrison. But each of them also had held civil government posts. General Taylor, who had not, thus appeared unqualified to some despite his military attainments. His own commander-in-chief, James K. Polk, declared him a “poor old man . . . [who] is totally ignorant of public affairs.”

Not only had Taylor never held civil office. Until his own election, he had never voted. That history, without context, seems to feed into detractors’ image of him as ignorant and undeserving. But, in fact, he rarely had the opportunity to vote. Taylor spent election days wherever the War Department posted him, often at frontier forts and almost always away from his Kentucky and Louisiana homes. Absentee or mail-in ballots garner much attention today, but few states offered them before the Civil War. Most members of the military stationed away from their places of residence, however patriotic and however politically opinionated, could not vote.

Curiously, even in 1848, when Taylor commanded his army division from his hometown of Baton Rouge, he may not have cast a ballot. The New Orleans Delta reported, possibly in jest or possibly not, that he spoke after the election with a stranger who did not recognize him. In anonymity he declared, “I did not vote for General Taylor; and my family, especially the old lady [wife Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor], are strongly opposed to his election.”

Taylor to Unknown, December 16, 1847, denying interest in and qualifications for the presidency. Zachary Taylor Papers, Library of Congress.

Taylor’s indifference or opposition to his own election runs throughout his letters. Even in private correspondence, which had little chance of becoming public and thus little value in deceiving voters, we keep finding his expressions of reluctance. In 1847 he told brother Joseph P. Taylor, “I deeply regret” that “my friends had connected my name with the presidency,” and told son-in-law Jefferson Davis that he hoped the party conventions, when selecting candidates, “will pass me by if not unknown, at least unnoticed.” He went so far as to tell another correspondent—in effect agreeing with his opponents—not only that “I have no aspirations for the presidency” but also that “my pursuits through life have not been such as to qualify me for civil office.” He was willing to serve if chosen, but claimed neither interest in nor joy about the prospect. How honest his humility and selflessness were is up to the reader. We look forward to publishing our transcriptions of these letters online next year, so you can read them in entirety and decide for yourself.

In some ways, elections in Taylor and Fillmore’s day were becoming more like ours. By 1832, nearly every state held a popular vote for president. (Only South Carolina’s legislature still appointed electors without the people’s input.) The election of 1848 was the first when, under a law of 1845, every state voted on the same day—as today, the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. In previous years, states had voted on different days spread as much as weeks apart. Partly as a result of this change, Americans learned relatively quickly—within four days, unofficially—whom they had elected.

New York Weekly Herald, November 11, 1848

One other change created an awkward situation hardly imaginable today. In 1847 the United States introduced its first federal postage stamp. Until then, Americans had paid to receive mail rather than to send it. Now correspondents could choose whether to send letters postage paid or postage due. Taylor preferred the former. He informed his local postmaster, in fact, that he would not accept any postage-due mail. As a result, when the Whig National Convention nominated him for president in June 1848 and sent him a letter, stamp-free, notifying him of that result, he never got it. Weeks later, not having heard back from him, they sent another letter—postage paid.


The letters I cite above reflect the diligent work of students who have been busy transcribing the original manuscripts. Last month Alyssa Moore and Alexander Pando Kiprof, both seniors at St. Olaf College, joined our project as interns for the fall semester. Both already have added new letters to the corpus that we’ll begin publishing next year.

Meanwhile, in August, Gabriella A. Siegfried completed her summer as the project’s editorial assistant. I thank her for the enthusiasm and hard work she brought to the job. Gab both transcribed letters and, using her degree in Spanish, translated those that Taylor and Fillmore received from Latin American heads of state. She made major contributions to our progress, and I wish her well as she continues to pursue her MPA here in American University’s School of Public Affairs.