The week of my previous blog entry, George Floyd died. Since then Minneapolis police officers have been charged with committing, or aiding and abetting, murder. Both peaceful protests and violent confrontations between activists and police have spread across the country and beyond. So have critiques of what many describe as systemic racism in law enforcement and discussions of how to combat racial inequality more generally. American University, including faculty here in the School of Public Affairs, have joined actively in these conversations.

History matters. Monuments to Confederate leaders, controversial long before 2020, became centers of debate and action. Should we continue to celebrate men who fought a war against the United States to perpetuate the enslavement of African Americans? Some protesters, deciding we should not, have torn statues down. Others have criticized or dismantled statues of historical figures, from Christopher Columbus to Andrew Jackson, whose legacies included the murder, enslavement, or dispossession of nonwhite people. Opponents assert that the statues, built mostly in the twentieth century, are essential for us to remember the history of the nineteenth.

But history’s role goes beyond monuments. Centuries of decisions by Americans with varying levels of power have created today’s racial disparities. As we all strive to learn the history of race, Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore are neither irrelevant nor innocent. They lived and governed during the decades before (and, in Fillmore’s case, after) the Civil War. Whites then vociferously debated, and nonwhites cautiously protested, the nation’s treatment of Native and African Americans. Taylor made his name in the military fighting wars against the Shawnee, the Seminole, the Sauk, and other Native peoples. The scholar Barbara Alice Mann titled her recent book about him and other officer-politicians President by Massacre: Indian-Killing for Political Gain. From the White House, he oversaw the continued removal of Natives from their ancestral lands east of the Mississippi River. Some of those impacted wrote to him complaining of the injustice, as Doctor Big Deer and other Munsees did in a June 5, 1849, letter now held by the National Archives.

Meanwhile, born into a southern planter family, Taylor enslaved scores of black men, women, and children on plantations in Louisiana and Mississippi. He brought some of them to Washington to live and work in the White House. Sarah Fling, a graduate student in public history here at AU, has written about these people for the White House Historical Association. At our project, Zoe Golden recently transcribed a letter Taylor wrote, while commanding troops in Texas, to his overseer at Cypress Grove plantation in Mississippi. For reasons as easily attributed to economic self-interest as to humane consideration, he told Thomas W. Ringgold how much he valued the health of his slaves: “that the servants were generally well, & those who had been complaining were for the most part on the mend, . . . afforded me much pleasure to know; health being the first consideration on a plantation.”

As I mentioned last time, Taylor was father-in-law to Jefferson Davis. He did not live to see Davis lead the Confederate States of America. But Gabriella Siegfried and Gretchen Ohlmacher have transcribed letters he wrote to Davis in the 1840s about slavery, the danger to the Union, and what he considered unfair criticisms by northern abolitionists of southern slaveholders such as himself. The biggest debate then was over whether to expand slavery into the new western lands that Taylor had helped win in the Mexican-American War. As a candidate and as the president, he avoided public statements that put him firmly on one side or the other.

Taylor to Jefferson Davis, July 27, 1847 (Zachary Taylor Papers, Library of Congress)

Fillmore never fought Indians; he never served in the military. He never owned black people; he lived in New York after it had begun the process of emancipation. As a politician, however, he enabled or promoted these policies. Indian removal continued during, and after, his administration. Although critics claimed, when he ran for vice president, that he was an abolitionist, he truthfully denied the charge; both he and his opponents considered hostility to slavery a bad thing. Like an increasing number of white Northerners, he did express disquiet about the ownership and forced labor of fellow humans in a democratic republic. In the letter to Mrs. S. M. Greeley that I mentioned last time, he called slavery an “ever-disturbing subject.” He considered “whether by wise and prudent counsels, the bonds of the slave may not be gradually relaxed” before black Americans were expelled to Africa. Gretchen transcribed another letter, to H. Marshall, in which he chronicled the history of emancipation in New York while avoiding any expression of an opinion on slavery. But Fillmore’s policy as president, when he tried stringently to enforce the new Fugitive Slave Act—recapturing escaped slaves and penalizing those who aided them—put him firmly on one side of the issue.

Fillmore to H. Marshall, September 17, 1845 (Millard Fillmore Papers, Library of Congress)

These decisions, albeit less prominently than Jackson’s or Davis’s, resonate amid today’s reckonings. Buffalo, Fillmore’s home for most of his life, has named buildings for him and erected a statue outside city hall. Now authorities are considering whether to preserve those honors to the man who signed the Fugitive Slave Act. Port Townsend, Washington, has little connection to Taylor but has named streets after him and other presidents. A local politician now has proposed replacing the name of the slaveowner and Indian fighter with that of Martin Luther King Jr.

Fillmore statue, Buffalo, N.Y. (© Matthew Trump;

We must remember our nation’s past, including the parts that appall us. Our goal at the Taylor-Fillmore project is to aid historical understanding by expanding access to documents by the presidents and by the supporters and detractors who wrote to them. As we reexamine monuments and mourn tragedies such as Floyd’s, the American people must decide—informed by history—how best to improve their society today.


Before I go, I want to thank Gretchen and Zoe for their work as interns this summer. Today they finish two months spent transcribing dozens of manuscript letters. Gretchen also translated several letters that Taylor and Fillmore received in French. Zoe, as part of our ongoing canvass, hunted out new letters previously unknown to the project. Both brought enthusiasm, diligence, and increasing skill at deciphering challenging nineteenth-century handwriting. The Taylor-Fillmore project has richly benefitted.

These have been a busy couple of months at the Taylor-Fillmore project. True, they have not been busy in exactly the ways I had planned. I haven’t visited closed libraries and archives to locate new manuscripts. I haven’t flown on canceled flights to confer with other editors. COVID-19 has had its impact. But that impact has been negligible compared with the medical, economic, and emotional challenges that so many people today are facing.

Taylor, perhaps, can offer a glimmer of hope. In his first and only Annual Message to Congress—what we today call the State of the Union—he reflected on the cholera pandemic that in recent years had ravaged America and the world. “[T]he destroying angel,” he lamented, “for a time visited extensive portions of our territory with the ravages of a dreadful pestilence.” By the end of 1849, however, “the Almighty has at length deigned to stay his hand and to restore the inestimable blessing of general health to a people who have acknowledged His power, deprecated His wrath, and implored His merciful protection.” Though long before the development of a cholera vaccine, that pandemic had abated.

For our part, fortunately, preventive measures such as social distancing have not prevented progress in assembling and toward publishing the twelfth and thirteenth presidents’ letters. Years of work by archivists and librarians have enabled us to move forward. Employees at the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and other repositories around the country have digitized many of their collections. We will visit those facilities, when doing so is safe, to find the numerous letters that exist only in manuscript form. But, while sheltering in place, we can find, view, and transcribe the letters available in digital format. Our database of letters thus is growing by the hundreds. (And my cats get to help.)

Taylor and Fillmore corresponded with both the famous and the obscure. Among the biggest names I’ve encountered recently are the future Confederate president (and Taylor’s son-in-law) Jefferson Davis, the Mexican military and political leader Santa Anna, Britain’s Queen Victoria, and France’s Napoleon III. The lesser-known ones include Mrs. S. M. Greeley (likely Susan M. Herring Greeley, of Maine), who in 1852 sent President Fillmore a copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s new book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Fillmores were avid readers and established the first White House library. Millard’s wife, Abigail Powers Fillmore, enjoyed the antislavery novel. The president himself, in his response to Greeley, wondered ominously whether the debate over slavery “may not rend this Union asunder.” Like the many white Americans who believed that free blacks and whites could never live together in peace, he also speculated whether gradually emancipated African Americans might be expelled from the United States to Africa. The original manuscript of that response is part of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation’s digitized collection.

Besides the fascinating letters, exciting developments at the project have included new additions to our staff. Earlier this month we welcomed Gabriella Siegfried as our editorial assistant. A graduate of Mars Hill University, Gab is now working toward her M.P.A. here at American University’s School of Public Affairs. She’s also a sustainability coordinator for a consultancy group in Orlando. She brings enthusiasm and meticulousness to her work here, and her degree in political science and Spanish is coming in handy. Taylor and Fillmore received letters in numerous languages, including Spanish ones from diplomats and politicians throughout Latin America. Our edition will include English translations of those, which Gab is helping to make possible.

What’s more, two undergraduate summer interns joined us just this week. Zoe Golden and Gretchen Ohlmacher both study at St. Olaf College. Zoe is a junior double majoring in history and psychology; Gretchen is a senior majoring in history and Russian. We’re delighted to partner with St. Olaf, which recently introduced a public history area of interest within its history major, to give students experience in making historical resources broadly accessible. Given their zeal for and rapidly growing skills at deciphering nineteenth-century manuscripts, we look forward to Zoe’s and Gretchen’s making valuable contributions to the project.

We’ve also begun working with colleagues to develop an innovative digital editing and publishing platform. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in partnership with the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, is funding collaboratives of documentary editors across the country. You can learn more about ours from this press release; in short, the University of Virginia–based collaborative aims to find efficient ways for us to do our work and sustainable ways for us to publish primary historical documents online. Over the coming years, it will help us to bring you Taylor’s and Fillmore’s letters as quickly, accurately, usefully, and affordably as possible. Since March I have been meeting with members of the other participating projects and institutions—virtually, of course. (My cats occasionally participate in those meetings, too.)

Finally, this week Americans celebrated Memorial Day. We honor those who have given their lives in service to their country, including members of the military who have succumbed to COVID-19. We thank them and their loved ones for that immeasurable sacrifice. Taylor, who served for four decades as an army officer, saw far too many soldiers and officers die from violence and disease. During the Mexican-American War, yellow fever was particularly lethal. In his official reports and private letters, the general frequently bemoaned the casualties and honored the bravery of the dead. On May 9, 1846, for example, after victories at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, he wrote to the army surgeon Robert C. Wood. The letter is now part of the Huntington Library’s Zachary Taylor Letters collection. “So brilliant an achievement,” Taylor acknowledged, “could not be expected without heavy loss on our side, we have many killed & wounded. . . . Majr Brown died to-day from a severe injury he recd from a shell; which has thrown a gloom over the whole affair.”

Welcome! Over the past several weeks, we’ve begun this new project to edit the twelfth and thirteenth U.S. presidents’ letters. Like other activities of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies (CCPS), this one is committed to ties between scholarly research and public education. In the coming years, we’ll publish thousands of historical documents, heretofore inaccessible to most readers. Students, teachers, scholars, and all interested in U.S. history will be able to learn about the 1840s and 1850s from the words of two presidents and of the diverse men, women, and children who wrote to them.

We begin, of course, in strange times. Zachary Taylor entered the White House in 1849 amid a global cholera pandemic. That disease claimed the lives of nearly one-tenth the populations of some U.S. cities. Even Taylor’s predecessor, James K. Polk, succumbed to it soon after returning home from Washington. The Correspondence of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore, likewise, commences its work amid a global pandemic. The spread of COVID-19, though far less deadly, has endangered many and upended the lives of all. Technology enabled me to work remotely even before the crisis struck. Now, as at universities everywhere, all of American’s faculty, staff, and students who are able to are working from home. I share everyone’s gratitude and admiration for those workers, on campus and around the world, who continue going outside to provide healthcare, food, and other essentials.

We want you to know what we’re up to. So, in the spirit of CCPS’s tradition of active public engagement, I’ll be writing every couple months to share the latest progress at the Taylor-Fillmore project. What better time than now, with so many of us stuck at home, to outline via this website what we hope to accomplish? Beyond this brief introduction, please explore other pages on the site to learn more about Taylor, Fillmore, and the project.

I know of no better way to learn history than by examining the things people created in the past. If you have visited a historic home, viewed photographs of horse-and-buggy-filled streets, seen artwork recovered at an archaeological site, or heard music recorded centuries ago, you know that these artifacts—the surviving items documenting people’s lives—can speak to us in a way that no historian’s books or articles can. Historians, indeed, get their information from the original sources. (So please don’t think I’m denigrating historians—I am one!) And no sources are more important than the words that people wrote. Letters, diaries, constitutions, newspapers . . . these expose the thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and worries of those who lived a decade, a century, or a millennium ago.

Yet these primary sources, as historians call them, are not always easy to find or use. Even the letters of presidents, better preserved than most, are scattered and damaged with time. Union troops during the Civil War ransacked Taylor’s Louisiana home. Fillmore’s son ordered his father’s papers burned. Both men’s letters survived, but ended up distributed among archives, libraries, and private collections. Those who manage to find them must contend with sometimes-nearly-illegible handwriting. Even after reading the words, one may wonder who the writer or recipient was, who the people he/she casually mentioned were, and what vague references to once-obvious events meant. The manuscript here, for example, of a letter from Taylor to Senator John M. Clayton (copied in another’s hand), is hardly a model of visual clarity. Deciphering the mention of “the expedition said to be now on foot for the separation of some of the Northern states of Mexico” still leaves most of us unsure of Taylor’s reference.

Zachary Taylor Papers, Library of Congress

Documentary editing, as we call our field of work, solves these problems by making primary sources usable for research and study. Editors locate documents, transcribe them, select those of most likely value to readers, and write annotations providing background and context. They thus produce printed volumes and digital resources through which twenty-first-century readers easily can use documents of centuries past. A documentary edition will present, not the bled-through manuscript above, but instead a clear transcription such as this of its first paragraph. Furthermore, it will decode the author’s references. In this case, an editor would explain in a footnote that Americans in the summer of 1848 were invited to participate in a so-called “Buffalo hunt” that was actually an armed attempt to aid a Mexican civil war and to annex much of that republic to the United States. Taylor, then a candidate for the presidency, explained in this letter that he would enforce the neutrality laws that any such attempt would violate.

Editors have begun or finished publishing the papers of fourteen out of forty-four presidents. Get ready for two more. We aim to build an edition of Taylor’s and Fillmore’s letters from 1844 to 1853. During that decade, as major national figures, they made their most important contributions to history and wrote and received their most important letters. Taylor led U.S. troops into the Republic of Texas, commanded them in the Mexican-American War, and, in 1848, got elected president. Fillmore sought but lost the New York governorship, became the University of Buffalo’s founding chancellor and New York’s comptroller, and got elected vice president. He took over in the White House after Taylor died (not of cholera, though he had ignored public health advice on food safety) in 1850. Both presidents tried to broker a compromise between supporters and opponents of slavery over whether to extend the ownership of African Americans into new western lands won from Mexico.

We expect to locate about thirteen thousand letters. Taylor and Fillmore wrote many of those. But most came to them from others. These included politicians, diplomats, military officers, and women who accompanied armies and participated in political dinners. They also included Native American leaders, poor farmers and laborers, male and female authors, and teenaged students. At this time in U.S. history, literacy was high, postage to the White House was free, and white Americans increasingly viewed the president as their direct representative in government. The letters reflect a broad range of people’s ideas about what mattered to their lives and their country.

As we track down and transcribe these letters, we will publish them all digitally. You’ll be able to read each and every one as we grow the online collection. Keep an eye on this website and on our Twitter feed, @ZTandMF, to hear more details and to know when letters go up. In addition, we’ll select about eleven hundred letters that seem most interesting, important, and illuminating. We’ll annotate these, with the types of notes I mentioned above, then assemble them in a multivolume set. The University of Tennessee Press will publish it in print; the University of Virginia Press’s Rotunda imprint will do so online.

So stay tuned. Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore may not be the best known presidents today. But they led the federal government during important times that shaped the nation. They and their contemporaries made key decisions about slavery, national expansion, Indian removal, sectional tension, and, yes, the global pandemic. Depending on one’s interpretation, they may have helped bring about the Civil War or delayed it for a decade. We are excited to make resources available that will enable readers in the twenty-first century better to understand America in the nineteenth.