This summer, a new national conversation emerged over the teaching of history. On July 19, the Florida Department of Education approved updated standards for social studies courses. These are the first in Florida to include a distinct curricular strand on African American history. One requirement for middle school lessons attracted widespread attention: “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

Some politicians, teachers, and others criticized what they saw as a defense of slavery. Last week protesters marched to the school board’s headquarters in Miami in an attempt to prevent the standards’ implementation in Miami-Dade County. The political scientist William Allen and the documentary historian Frances Presley Rice, members of the task force that wrote the standards, defended them against the criticism. They wanted students “to learn how slaves took advantage of whatever circumstances they were in to benefit themselves and the community of African descendants.” Omitting this information, they feared, “reduce[s] slaves to just victims of oppression [and] fails to recognize their strength, courage and resiliency.”

The debate caught my eye in part because Dr. Allen and Dr. Rice invoked a family I had mentioned in this blog. They named sixteen examples of “slaves [who] developed highly specialized trades from which they benefitted,” including Lewis H. Latimer. That draftsman and inventor was never in fact enslaved. But his parents, Rebecca and George W. Latimer, were. As I noted in January, Millard Fillmore received a letter about their flight from Virginia enslavers in 1842. They settled in Massachusetts, where Lewis was born. It is not clear that the parents found a use in freedom for skills developed under slavery; George, assigned by his enslavers to drive a dray and to run a grocery store, found work as a paperhanger once free. But thinking about the educational controversy and this connection with our letters got me wondering how else the letters can shed light on the skills of enslaved people. That question led me away from Fillmore and toward Taylor.


Zachary Taylor grew up around the Black men, women, and children whom his parents enslaved at their plantation outside Louisville. As an adult, he inherited or purchased well over a hundred enslaved people. They served him in many capacities and locations. The writer Walt Bachman, in The Last White House Slaves, uncovers the stories of those forced to work as personal servants for him and his White family at frontier army posts. They included children whom Taylor fathered with a woman he enslaved. Later, Taylor brought enslaved people to Washington to work in the White House. He was the last president to do so.

plantation and river with person in boat

Henry Lewis, Das illustrirte Mississippithal [1857]. Library of Congress.

Most of the people whom Taylor enslaved lived and worked on his plantations in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi. In his letters to Thomas W. Ringgold, a White man he employed as overseer, he often discussed the tasks he wanted them to complete at Cypress Grove Plantation in Mississippi. (We haven’t yet found Ringgold’s replies.) From those letters, we can learn about what skills those people developed—and why.

As in much of the antebellum Deep South, the chief product at Cypress Grove was cotton. Taylor often instructed Ringgold to have the enslaved people plant, harvest, gin, pack, and transport the cash crop. On June 18, 1845, he summed up his goal: “I have no fears if you have your health, & the servants keep pretty well . . . you will make fully as much cotton as you can secure, in a neat & proper manner.” Difficult work that drew on Eli Whitney’s recent invention of the cotton gin (which renewed cotton’s profitability and promoted the continuation of chattel slavery—another point made in the Florida standards), the forced cultivation of cotton created fortunes for many plantation owners.

Taylor also had the people at Cypress Grove grow other crops. In the same letter to Ringgold, he mentioned corn and “a small parcel of Muskeet grass seed” that he had ordered “sent to you, with directions how to propagate it, which I wish most carefully done.” Ringgold probably relayed the instructions, but enslaved people certainly did the “careful” job of growing grass to feed the livestock.

When discussing other agricultural tasks, particularly those involving timber, Taylor more explicitly recognized the skill of those whose labor he exploited. On December 16, 1845, he directed Ringgold to “select eight or ten good axmen, & keep them getting wood & tumber [i.e., timber or lumber], such as picketts, hogshead & barrel staves, or shingles after ascertaing which was the most profitable.” On February 23, 1846, he stressed the need to cover plantation expenses by selling wood. He directed Ringgold “to put six good axmen to cutting wood & keep them at it & hauling, until you want them for cotton picking.”

In referencing “good axmen,” Taylor acknowledged a skill that certain men at Cypress Grove had learned, presumably from each other. But only to the White overseer did he explicitly ascribe intelligence, telling Ringgold on September 15, 1845, “I feel easy . . . in confiding the management of my affairs to your good management-” Enslaved Black people, in his eyes, performed skilled manual labor. White managers determined what labor should be done, when, and how.

people on a horse-drawn cart in front of a building

Enslaved people on James Hopkinson’s plantation, Edisto Island, SC, possibly in front of their house [1862]. Library of Congress.

Enslaved people did not learn these skills by choice or because they derived a personal benefit. Those whom Taylor claimed as his property learned to pick cotton, fell trees, serve meals in the army, or decorate the White House because he deemed that work profitable to himself or to the government. They did receive compensation of sorts. Taylor allowed them housing (which they built), telling Ringgold on July 11, 1845, “to have their Houses dry & airy, frequently white-washed, & thoroughly cleaned.” He allowed them food (which they grew), often writing of the importance of their adequate sustenance. As he noted in the first letter I quoted above, he wanted “the servants keep pretty well.” Their basic physical wellbeing benefited both them and him.

Sometimes he gave them more than the basics. On June 18, 1845, he directed Ringgold to give ten dollars to enslaved people who had done extra work transporting cotton. That November 13 (as quoted in the Louisville Daily Courier, October 25, 1848), he had the overseer “DISTRIBUTE AMONG THE SERVANTS AT CHRISTMAS . . . FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS.” But Taylor granted them basic survival needs and occasional gifts within the context of their enslavement. Black people followed the directions of those who considered them property and received a minute portion of the wealth they created when the self-described owners chose to give it. Never were they given the option of leaving their enslavement to use their skills elsewhere.

As you’ve probably noticed, all the letters I’ve mentioned are by White men: Taylor’s surviving letters and Ringgold’s missing ones. None are by the enslaved Black people themselves. There’s a reason for that. Literacy was not among the skills that enslavers valued among Blacks. Many associated the ability to read and write (and particularly the ability to study the Bible) with the potential for rebellion. Colonial Georgia, in 1770, passed a law forbidding anyone to teach enslaved people to read or write. In the 1830s, motivated by antislavery rebellions led by literate Blacks, other states followed suit. Although Mississippi, the location of Taylor’s Cypress Grove, did not, enslavers there nonetheless discouraged Black literacy.

Yet some Americans forced into servitude did gain an education. Frederick Douglass began learning “the A, B, C” from one of his enslavers and continued studying after her husband ended the lessons. A British visitor to Cypress Grove in 1849 met a “very remarkably intelligent-looking youth” who “had taught himself to read and to write.” According to Taylor’s son, who had spied on the young man, he had “saved every candle-end he could find, and deprived himself of sleep night after night to accomplish his design.” Linking literacy with rebellion and invoking the name of a Haitian revolutionary, the Briton speculated that this man might “become a Toussaint l’Ouverture in time.” Some enslaved people even wrote letters. James K. Polk, Taylor’s presidential predecessor and a fellow Mississippi planter, received one shortly after his election from Long Harry, a blacksmith he enslaved. Likely dictating to an amanuensis, Harry reported on November 28, 1844, that he had campaigned for Polk, winning him “some votes,” and had won money and goods by betting on the White man’s election.

So, yes, Americans who were considered property and forced into lives of permanent servitude did develop skills. They learned and taught each other agricultural and mechanical skills that profited those claiming to own them and that preserved the institution that deprived them of freedom. But the lessons came about neither by the Black people’s choice nor for their benefit. Enslavers dictated them for their own purposes and rewarded them as they unilaterally deemed fit. (Refusal to perform the skills, as when a man repeatedly escaped from Polk’s plantation, was rewarded with an instruction to “beat him well.”)

Learning to read—or, for that matter, to escape—was, indeed, Black Americans’ choice. They did hope to benefit from those skills, whether as free men and women who could earn an independent living or as enslaved ones who could spread religion and perhaps start an uprising. Those chosen and potentially beneficial lessons, however, were not the purposes of slavery. They were its antithesis. Enslavers and lawmakers—even those, such as Taylor, who expressed a commitment to enslaved people’s health and contentment—had an interest in those people’s staying put and developing skills that cultivated cotton and timber, not ideas and rights.

Eventually, slavery ended. Most who lived under it never saw that happen. A few, including Douglass, successfully escaped. For the rest, it ended when Union troops went south and masses of Blacks joined their camps during the Civil War. Thereafter, within the strict limits of an incipient sharecropping economy, formerly enslaved Americans could use their abilities for purposes of their choosing. We know little, so far, of the postwar fate of those whom Taylor had enslaved. Matilda Graham died in Cincinnati in 1875 (Cincinnati Daily Times, June 22), and C. A. Combs died in St. Paul, MN, in 1896 (at the age of 112, according to the Ely Miner, April 22), but they left few records of their activities. Bachman, in The Last White House Slaves, concludes that Taylor’s theretofore enslaved son William H. Taylor was sent to Ontario, Canada, and became a farmer when his father became president.

Beyond the Taylor communities, freedpeople could now potentially use their skills for “personal benefit.” But the emancipation that enabled this, like reading and fleeing during slavery, was antithetical to the system that had taught those skills. Besides, the vast numbers of formerly enslaved Americans who built and attended schools and colleges, so they could learn new skills, shows that they considered those acquired under slavery to be wholly inadequate. Slavery, unintentionally, had helped teach them the benefits of the skills they were denied.

students in front of a university building

Black students at Howard University [1867–1920], photograph by Joshua W. Moulton. Library of Congress.

Today, for the first time, we present a joint entry with the Massachusetts Historical Society’s blog, The Beehive. Neal Millikan, a historian and editor at the society’s Adams Papers, looks at where Fillmore shows up in John Quincy Adams’s diary. In a postscript, I look at where Adams appears in Fillmore’s letters. Enjoy! Also note that Dr. Millikan will be speaking about Adams and his diary at the online and in-person conference we’re hosting on June 22–25 (see my recent mini-entry for details), so register (it’s free) by June 5 to hear more!

Neal Millikan

Series Editor, Digital Editions, The Adams Papers

Massachusetts Historical Society

The Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society has been editing the John Quincy Adams Digital Diary since 2016. Adams kept his diary for 68 years, starting when he was twelve and continuing until his death. In total it comprised 51 diary volumes and over 15,000 pages. As you can imagine, his diary mentioned lots of people: some famous and some obscure. As we have been transcribing the diary for digital publication, we have also been identifying and tagging individuals at their first mention within each date entry. Millard Fillmore and Zachary Taylor both appeared in the diary; we have tagged Fillmore’s name 211 times and Taylor’s name 20 times. In this post I want to highlight some of the mentions of Fillmore, all of which occurred after Adams’s (1825–1829) and before Fillmore’s (1850–1853) presidencies and focus on their years serving together in the U.S. House. This blog pairs nicely with a recent post on Fillmore, Taylor, and Congress.

Apart from the fact that both men served as president, Adams and Fillmore had some other things in common: they were both Unitarians, both members of the Whig party (after each had briefly flirted with the Anti-Masonic party), and both represented northern states in Congress (Adams Massachusetts, Fillmore New York). While there was an age gap between the two congressmen—Fillmore was born about the same time as Adams’s eldest son (George Washington Adams, 1801–1829)—they served together in the U.S. House during the 23d, 25th, 26th, and 27th congressional sessions.

Carte de visite of daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams by Brady’s National Photographic Portrait Galleries. Massachusetts Historical Society.

Fillmore first showed up in Adams’s diary on 7 December 1833, where Adams recorded his first name as “Mellerd” in the list of individuals with whom he visited on that date. This was not unusual, as Adams often wrote a name one way (how he believed it was spelled) and then adjusted his spelling in later diary entries. Interestingly, while he started spelling Fillmore’s first name correctly, Adams used the spellings of “Fillmore” and “Filmore” interchangeably. Beginning in January 1834, Fillmore routinely appeared in the diary as Adams reported on congressional activities.

The next significant mention of Fillmore was on 25 December 1837 when Adams noted that he, along with three other representatives from New York (Richard Marvin, Charles Mitchell, and Luther Peck), “came and requested me to draw up a paper to address to their Constituents assigning their reasons for voting against the resolution for laying all abolition petitions on the table.— They said they wished to guard against the amputation of favouring abolitionism, but to adhere inflexibly to the right of Petition,” one of Adams’s pet congressional causes, as he waged his years’ long fight against the gag rule. “I drew up accordingly a sketch of an address to the People of the State of New-York—according to their ideas.” Adams gave the document to Fillmore on 26 December.

Photograph of Millard Fillmore by Frederick De Bourg Richards. Library of Congress.

Over the next several years Fillmore is consistently mentioned in the diary. Adams noted that he, like other representatives, championed the causes and concerns of his constituency in the U.S. House. On 12 March 1838, Fillmore “presented a Memorial from a meeting of Inhabitants of his District, where the capture of the Steam boat Caroline took place, complaining of that act, and praying for defensive military force.” This memorial was about the Caroline affair, an international incident during which an American vessel was destroyed by Canadian militia in December 1837.

Adams was critical of Fillmore’s attitude toward the Seneca Nation of New York, stating his belief on 23 May 1838 that Fillmore “had by some unnatural influence been induced to assume the defence of Schermerhorn’s swindling practices.” This comment related to John Schermerhorn’s part in the 1832 Treaty with the Seneca and Shawnee Nations. The following day his diary entry compared Fillmore to James Graham, a North Carolina representative who supported Cherokee removal from that state. According to Adams, while Fillmore and Graham’s “judgment and feelings” were “fair, just and humane in all cases which touch not the immediate interests and passions of their Constituents,” they were “unseated when Cherokee or Seneca Indians are parties concerned in the question.”

Not all the references to Fillmore dealt with political issues; he is mentioned in the diary for other reasons as well. For example, on 18 May 1838, Adams recounted that he returned a book to the Library of Congress—an English edition of Father Louis Hennepin’s Description de la Louisiane—because Fillmore had requested to check it out. By the 1840s, the two men were on friendly terms with each other. When Adams visited Niagara Falls in July 1843, now former congressman Fillmore invited him to also tour Buffalo, New York, while he was in that state. When Adams arrived in Buffalo on the 26th, Fillmore introduced him to a gathered crowd, and the two men then rode around the city together. When Adams again visited Buffalo that October, Fillmore “invited us to tea at his house . . . and offered us seats in his pew at the unitarian church,” both of which the former president accepted. Adams’s last mention of the future president was on 20 August 1847, when Fillmore visited Boston and they had dinner together. Adams died on 23 February 1848, so he did not live to see Fillmore’s presidency.

One of the interesting aspects of the work of documentary editing is analyzing primary sources like Adams’s diary and learning that the sixth and thirteenth presidents were well acquainted with each other. From Adams’s diary and from Fillmore’s letters, we get a sense of how the lives of these two presidents intertwined in the nineteenth century.

The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding for the John Quincy Adams Digital Diary was provided by the Amelia Peabody Charitable Fund, with additional contributions by Harvard University Press and a number of private donors. The Mellon Foundation in partnership with the National Historical Publications and Records Commission also supports the project through funding for the Society’s Primary Source Cooperative.

Postscript: Millard Fillmore on John Quincy Adams

Michael David Cohen

Editor and Project Director, The Correspondence of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore

American University

Millard Fillmore’s relationship with John Quincy Adams continued after their time together in Congress. The Correspondence of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore, at American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, has been locating and editing Taylor’s and Fillmore’s letters since 2020. Our forthcoming edition is more temporally constrained than the John Quincy Adams Digital Diary. We are preparing a three-volume, print and digital edition of letters that the two men wrote or received between 1844 and 1853. That decade began with General Taylor’s preparing to lead U.S. troops into the Republic of Texas, continued through the Mexican-American War, and concluded with Taylor’s and Fillmore’s presidencies. Taylor entered the White House in 1849 but died in 1850; Fillmore, his vice president, completed the term.

During those years, until his death in 1848, Adams continued to serve in the U.S. House. Not surprisingly, his fellow Whig and former House colleague Fillmore exchanged occasional letters with or about him. But let’s start with Taylor.

Although Taylor ran for president as the Whig Party’s nominee in 1848, he had never served in civil office before and often foreswore any partisan identity. He may never have voted. Before his candidacy he corresponded with a few national politicians, including Senators John J. Crittenden (a Whig) and Jefferson Davis (a Democrat and his son-in-law), but not with many. Of the more than 1,300 letters our project has found by or to Taylor between 1844 and Adams’s death, none was exchanged with Adams. Only one mentioned him.

Taylor’s single reference to Adams came in a letter of August 10, 1847, to F. S. Bronson. Answering Bronson’s request for “my views on the questions of national policy now at issue,” Taylor denied being a presidential candidate and mostly refused to disclose his opinions. But he did repeat Bronson’s praise for a list of Whig and Democratic politicians. As amended by the Washington Daily National Intelligencer, which published the letter on October 5, Taylor shared “your high and just estimate of the virtues, both of head and heart, of the distinguished citizens [Messrs. Clay, Webster, Adams, McDuffie, and Calhoun] mentioned in your letter.” So, apparently, he respected Adams.

Adams showed up a bit more often in Fillmore’s correspondence. Of nearly 1,000 letters between 1844 and Adams’s death, four involved Adams or his close family. On June 5, 1844, the Washington, D.C., artist Elizabeth Milligan wrote to Fillmore about her recent work. Reflecting on her experience painting Dolley Madison, she remarked that the former White House hostess “and J. Q. Adams seem to be the links that connect ours with a past age” (SUNY-Oswego/Millard Fillmore Papers). A year later Fillmore received a letter from Charles Francis Adams, John Quincy Adams’s son, reporting a Massachusetts convention’s opposition to the annexation of Texas. (We published that letter last year as part of our teaching guide on Texas annexation.)

The remaining letters came near the end of Adams’s life. On February 10, 1848, Fillmore wrote to Adams himself—the letter is now preserved in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Adams Papers—to introduce a friend “to the ‘Old Man Eloquent.’” Fillmore expressed pleasure that Adams continued to serve in Congress “in this great national crisis.” Thirteen days later, Representative Nathan K. Hall informed his friend Fillmore that “Mr Adams cannot survive many hours” (SUNY-Oswego/Fillmore Papers). Indeed, having suffered a stroke on the House floor, John Quincy Adams died that day.

Fillmore and Adams’s relationship ended with the latter’s death. Fillmore, Taylor, and others were left to carry on the brief political career of the Whig Party. We at the Taylor-Fillmore project are proud to be contributing, along with the Adams Papers, to expanding access to primary sources from both prominent and obscure individuals in that pivotal era of U.S. history.

The Taylor-Fillmore project at American University thanks the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) and The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, our current sponsors. We also thank our past contributors: Delaplaine Foundation Inc., the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, the Summerlee Foundation, and the Watson-Brown Foundation. The Mellon Foundation in partnership with the NHPRC supports our project through funding for the University of Virginia Digital Publishing Cooperative.

people sitting at picnic table

Photograph of picnic dinner by Joseph John Kirkbride [1889]. Library of Congress.

Over the past three years, I’ve kept you up to date on the Taylor-Fillmore project via this blog and Twitter. I will continue to do so. But next month, for the first time in our project’s history, we will host an in-person (and virtual) event! On June 22–25 you can come visit us, and our colleagues on other documentary editing projects, either at American University in Washington, DC, or on the screen of your favorite electronic gadget.

Our project, and more generally AU’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies (CCPS), will host the annual conference of the Association for Documentary Editing (ADE). I’ve mentioned this organization before. It connects professionals who locate and publish historical and literary documents—from Adams to Einstein, from Mary Baker Eddy to Martin Luther King Jr. At their annual conference, last held in-person in 2019, they share what they’ve found in the documents, what techniques they use to edit them, and what it’s like to do that work. This year’s hybrid event, with the theme “Modalities of Text and Editing,” will highlight both the variety of documents that editors are making accessible and the variety of technologies and strategies that they’re employing.

Please register here to attend either in person or virtually. Because the ADE wants this conference to be welcoming and equitable for all attendees, it is not charging registration fees and is using ADE funds to keep the banquet and breakfast fees as low as possible.

Sessions will include a roundtable with Shelly Lowe, chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and other federal and international leaders in the humanities; a panel on first ladies’ papers by the First Ladies Association for Research and Education (FLARE); and a breakfast talk by Mia Owens on her experience as AU’s inaugural graduate fellow on the History of Slavery and Its Legacies in Washington, DC. You may even get to hear me talk a little about this very blog. The evening of June 22, CCPS will co-sponsor an opening reception, along with digital publishing cooperatives at the University of Virginia and the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Please preregister by June 5. This is not required but will greatly aid our planning. Preregistration is required for the banquet, the breakfast, and housing; to guarantee spots on tours; and to receive the virtual sign-in links. Sessions will be held at AU’s Katzen Arts Center, AU’s Washington College of Law, and the Embassy Suites Chevy Chase Pavilion.

A limited number of assistantships, with free meals at the banquet and the breakfast, are available for students who assist at the registration desk.

You can read more about the conference, including housing options for those traveling and an outline of the program, here. (Note that the conference hotel rate is available until May 22. Residence hall reservations are open until June 5.) If you have any questions or are interested in an assistantship, please contact me at

The death of Tyre Nichols and the charges of murder against five Memphis police officers have reignited debates about policing in America. Amid other African Americans’ deaths following actions by law enforcement, including those of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, this tragedy involving a Black victim and mostly Black officers again brings questions of race to the fore. Earlier in this blog I discussed Taylor’s and Fillmore’s roles in the history of racial oppression. They participated in the enslavement of Blacks and the violent expulsion of Native Americans from the East. But it is worth getting more specific. Both men made key decisions about the policing of People of Color.

Taylor’s relationships with Native Americans did not end with the US-Indian wars in which he commanded troops. Assigned to a succession of western army posts, he was responsible for keeping peace among the various Indian and White inhabitants on the frontier. Sometimes that meant contributing to major negotiations, as when, in 1829, he attended a council at Fort Crawford in what is now Wisconsin. It ended with Ojibwe, Ottawa, and Bodewadmi leaders’ ceding eight million acres of their peoples’ land to the United States.

More often, Taylor and his subordinates settled local disputes through diplomacy or military force. After overseeing the construction of Fort Scott in 1842, for example, he dealt with the conflicts that arose among Native peoples as Whites pushed them from their previously expansive separate territories into a confined space in today’s Kansas. In 1844, while commanding the Second Military Department, he resisted an effort by an Arkansas sheriff to arrest two Cherokee men for the 1839 murder of another. Despite a grand jury’s indictments, he told Adjutant General Roger Jones on February 14, he feared that pursuing the old case would “cause great excitement in the [Cherokee] nation.” Over the next three years, while in Texas and Mexico, Taylor occasionally received complaints from White residents about violence or theft by Native peoples. When able, he responded by trying to arrest the offenders. On July 25, 1844, for instance, he reported to Jones on an “expedition” he had sent against a “small party of Indians who committed an outrage.” His soldiers had destroyed a camp, but the targets had escaped. Taylor considered that result adequate. (Both letters are in the National Archives.)

Back in the East, police efforts often targeted African Americans. The historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has argued that the United States’ tradition of gun ownership rights developed from the perceived needs to expel (or exterminate) Natives and to enslave Blacks. Regardless of the causality, Whites expended much time, ink, and weaponry on Indian removal and the enforcement of slavery. Taylor regularly corresponded with Thomas W. Ringgold, whom he employed to oversee the people he enslaved on his Mississippi plantation. His instructions did not mention punishment. He noted what tasks the enslaved people should do and insisted that Ringgold “preserve . . . the health of every se[r]vant on the establishment.” But the overseer was there to force them to stay and work. He was successful, as no one is known to have escaped. Men and women did escape from the plantations of Taylor’s presidential predecessor, James K. Polk. Polk regularly paid Whites to capture and return them, and he instructed his overseer, on retrieving an escapee, to “beat him well.”

Curiously, Fillmore more explicitly involved himself in the policing of Black people than Taylor. The New Yorker who privately called slavery a “curse” (to Hiram Ketchum, May 9, 1848, SUNY–Oswego) built his career and his legacy in part on support for using force to control the lives of African Americans. Advocating a popular plan among Whites, known as “colonization,” he hoped that Blacks eventually would be freed from bondage and sent—voluntarily or forcibly, he did not say—to their “native Africa.” More immediately, he promoted the use of federal police forces and White civilians to return those who had escaped from servitude back to their enslavers.

The Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause, enacted in 1789 when the national charter took effect, required that enslaved people who escaped to other states be returned. Congressional legislation laid out the details. Enslavers, such as Polk, could pursue their human property or pay other private actors to do so. Federal, state, and local judges were responsible for certifying the escapees’ capture and return. Of the thousands of people who fled slavery each year, a few attracted legal and popular scrutiny. Over time Fillmore played increasing roles in those debates.

image of George W. Latimer

George W. Latimer, lithograph by Thayer & Co. New York Public Library.

Friends of Fillmore wrote to him about one fugitive case while he was seeking the Whig vice-presidential nomination in 1844. In 1842 George W. and Rebecca Latimer, a husband and wife owned by different enslavers in Norfolk, Virginia, had fled together to Boston. James B. Gray, who owned George, pursued them and notified Boston authorities. George, though not Rebecca, was arrested and charged with larceny. Protests erupted across Massachusetts, and Black men surrounded the courthouse to prevent his return south. A legal battle ended with his release as a free man. Virginia’s governor nonetheless called on Massachusetts governor John Davis to return him to slavery. Davis’s refusal upset Southern Whites and hurt Davis’s prospects of being nominated as vice president. The Washington publishing firm Gales & Seaton, on May 1, 1844, advised Fillmore that this could work in his favor: not having taken a stance against the re-enslavement of escapees, he might be a more acceptable nominee to Southern Whigs (SUNY–Oswego). That hope did not pan out—neither Fillmore nor Davis got the nod—but the affair did influence Massachusetts politics. The state legislature passed the Latimer Law, which forbade state officers to aid the arrest or return of those claimed as fugitives from slavery.

Four years later, the fugitive slave question impacted Fillmore more significantly and prompted him to address it. Opponents of slavery, by then, were helping escapees to reach Canada and freedom through a network labeled the “Underground Railroad.” Soon after his nomination as vice president in June 1848, Fillmore’s critics accused him of having aided or at least “countinanced” that network. He responded with disgust. The charge that he had allowed Black people to become free, he told his friend Nathan K. Hall on June 15, was “infamous” and clearly false. “I should as soon think,” he wrote, “of denying the charge of robbing a hen roost.”

Once in the White House, Fillmore put his support (or at least acceptance) for re-enslaving escapees into practice. In 1850 Congress and the president—first Taylor and then, after his July death, Fillmore—were developing legislation to create state and territorial governments in the West. Most Southern politicians wanted slavery permitted there; most Northern ones wanted it banned. The final compromise made California a free state but allowed slavery in the territories of New Mexico and Utah. It also banned most slave trading in the District of Columbia. Finally, to gain Southern support, it included a new and stronger Fugitive Slave Act. The act assigned federal commissioners to enforce it and, most controversially, enabled them to force private bystanders to help arrest people suspected of having escaped from slavery. State provisions such as the Latimer Law, designed to shield both state officers and Black Americans from the enslavement process, were thus circumvented.

Political cartoon of posse chasing Black men on farm

Armed posse pursuing Black men under the Fugitive Slave Act, lithograph by Hoff & Bloede, 1850. Library of Congress.

President Fillmore promoted the Fugitive Slave Act during the congressional debate. Some biographers have inferred his reluctance from his waiting two days before signing it; he signed the other compromise bills without delay. But his known writings (our project is always hunting for more) reveal few if any moral qualms. During the remainder of his presidency, he enforced the law and opposed its repeal. Late in his term, as a lame duck unconcerned with reelection prospects, he did pardon two White men convicted of aiding a large-scale escape from slavery years earlier. Some thought this showed another side of his mindset. But for the men and women who were returned—or, if falsely charged as fugitives, sent for the first time—to slavery, the Fugitive Slave Act was Fillmore’s most important legacy. It also contributed to the escalation of sectional political tensions that led to the Civil War. A police force of the United States, and even its private citizens, had been officially deployed to keep Black people in perpetual servitude.

The removal of Native Americans and the enslavement of Blacks were major uses of the US government’s police power before the Civil War. But the law enforcement choices by Taylor and Fillmore that I just narrated are vignettes in a complex and multifaceted history. Many now, after watching the news, want to learn about the goals and decisions that shaped the policing practices Americans variously depend on, admire, question, and fear today. Books by historians such as Laurence Armand French and Robert C. Wadman and William Thomas Allison trace that history, including its racial facets. Bryan Vila and Cynthia Morris edited a collection of historical documents on The Role of Police in American Society; as a fellow editor, I particularly invite readers to explore those primary sources. For a quick introduction, though, one might begin with another blog. Ten years ago Gary Potter, at East Kentucky University, wrote a handy six-part “History of Policing in the United States.” It covers the story succinctly but far more broadly that I can do here.

US Capitol

US Capitol, ca. 1848, lithograph (Library of Congress)

A new Congress, elected last November, takes office this week. This seems a good time for a post about Taylor’s and Fillmore’s thoughts on Congress. Other documentary editions, such as The Papers of Henry Clay, The Papers of Daniel Webster, and the Correspondence of James K. Polk (the only House Speaker to become president) feature the writings of nineteenth-century politicians while they served in Congress. Ours does not. But it does document two candidates and then presidents who paid close attention to Capitol Hill.

Fillmore began his national political career in the US House. After three years in the New York legislature, he served in the House (initially as a member of the Anti-Masonic Party and then as a Whig) from 1833 to 1843. During his last two years there, he chaired the powerful Committee on Ways and Means. Perhaps his most notable accomplishment in Congress was shaping the tariff of 1842, a protective tariff that aided US producers by charging high taxes on foreign goods.

Our series begins in 1844. By then, Fillmore’s congressional days were behind him. He could not have been more pleased. Several friends wrote that year congratulating him on his freedom from the cares of a legislator. As the Washington artist Elizabeth Milligan put it on January 22, “How much you must congratulate yourself on your absence from Washington during this session of Congress, especially as the sett of men now assembled I should think were any thing but congenial to you.” Kate Williams added from Boston, on May 26, that both Millard and Abigail Fillmore must be “rejoiced . . . that you are not a member of Congress while that miserable John Tyler rules.” Certainly Tyler, a Whig president whose political views diverged from most Whigs’, was no ally of Fillmore. (Both letters are at SUNY–Oswego.)

We have not found Fillmore’s reply to Williams, but on March 10 he agreed with Milligan: “I have seen nothing that induced me to regret that I was not a member of congress this winter. I feel that I have enjoyed myself much better in my own domestic circle with my family around me” (Princeton University). On December 17, 1846, he elaborated to Oliver L. Barbour on his post-congressional attitude: “When I left Congress I determined to pursue my profession, and not suffer myself, to be diverted from that object by the prospect of any political preferment whatever- I have seen so much of political life & partizan strife that I am wearied with its excitiment” (SUNY–Oswego).

As pleased as he was not to be in Congress, Fillmore kept in touch with those who were. He wanted, and they furnished, insider news. Nathan K. Hall, his former law partner and a current congressman, was among his most regular correspondents. Hall updated him on both the progress of legislation and the electoral conversations among House Whigs. Eventually, Hall came to share his old friend’s perspective. Hall’s “experience here,” he wrote on March 5, 1848, “makes me more and more inclined to think I shall get enough of Washington in this Congress” (SUNY–Oswego). Indeed, he did not run for reelection.

Fillmore even stayed involved, from the periphery, in congressional politics. Invited to a local Whig congressional convention in Upstate New York in February 1844 (SUNY–Oswego), he obliged (auctioned letter). He was vocal on some issues facing the national government, especially Texas annexation. Although he expressed his opposition to it in the context of presidential politics, supporting the anti-annexation candidate Henry Clay in 1844, he thereby took a stance on how both Congress and the president should govern.

Taylor viewed Congress from a very different perspective. He had never served there or in any other civil office. He may—this is uncertain—never even have voted in a congressional race. Still, he was a general in Texas during its annexation by the United States and in Mexico during the Mexican-American War. In those positions and as a candidate for the presidency, he had good reason to monitor activities at the Capitol.

Throughout his time at the southern border, Taylor watched and reacted to relevant legislation. At the beginning of 1844 he was in Louisiana waiting for Congress to act on Texas annexation. His troops’ movements, he wrote his brother Joseph on January 29, depended on that congressional decision. One day earlier he wrote to Edmund B. Alexander about how much money Congress might allocate to certain Cherokees. Taylor spent most of his life in regions populated largely by Native Americans, where US policy toward them helped dictate his military decisions. Though he stayed far from the Pacific Northwest, he told his daughter Mary Elizabeth on January 9, 1846, that he was following newspaper reports about the border dispute with the United Kingdom (which controlled Canada). “Judging from the excitement throughout the Country & particularly in Congress,” he concluded, “war with Great Britain is almost reduced to a certainty in less than twelve months” (Morgan Library & Museum).

Taylor occasionally commented on specific legislation that Congress had passed or that he thought it should. On February 9, 1847, for example, he wrote his son-in-law Robert C. Wood that he doubted “the propriety” of the bill Congress was passing to create ten new army regiments (Huntington Library). A year later, on February 16, 1848, he made a more general criticism of the nation’s legislators. That election year, he told Senator Jefferson Davis, they were spending too much time on “President making. I would greatly prefer seeing them attending to their appropriate duties in making . . . appropriations . . . as well as passing such laws as were necessary for the good of the country” (Boston Daily Evening Traveller, Sept. 30, 1863).

Indeed, in 1848, Taylor watched what members of the House and Senate were saying about his own run for the White House. He reported to Joseph Taylor on March 10 that he had received letters “from distinguished members of Congress, saying there had been a great falling off & fluttering among my Whig friends in Congress.” Having often denied any interest in becoming president, he did not seem concerned. When pressured to weigh in on campaign issues, he gave the constitutional and noncommittal response about the separation of powers that I mentioned earlier in this blog. Congress alone, he asserted, crafted legislation. A president might suggest laws, but that officer played such a small role in the process than a presidential candidate needed not reveal his political beliefs.

Then, of course, Taylor became president. Fillmore became vice president and president of the Senate. Both constantly dealt with Congress in those roles. Our project is still in the earlier years, but we’ll get there.


In case you’re looking for something to watch, we have two new additions on our Videos page. First is the roundtable on “Editing Documents in US Political History” at last June’s American Political History Conference. Jack McKivigan, Neal Millikan, William diGiacomantonio, Michael E. Woods, and I discussed the process of editing, primary source editions’ value to understanding history, and our projects’ relationships with students and the public. Second is November’s Symposium on Constitutionalism at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. I spoke about Taylor and the Constitution in the session on “Constitutional History,” but I encourage you to watch all the sessions. Although most were outside my own field, I found them fascinating.


Oh, in case you’ve been watching the news and wondering, it was around this time that the House set its record for the most ballots required to elect a Speaker. In 1855–56, as Fillmore ran for a second term as president, the House voted 133 times—over two months—before choosing its leader.

With Americans getting ready to vote, it seems a good time for another post about Zachary Taylor’s and Millard Fillmore’s letters discussing elections. Two years ago I wrote about the process of choosing a president in 1848 and Taylor’s reluctance to seek the White House. But he, Fillmore, and their correspondents had much more to say about elections in general. Some of their concerns mirror those expressed by politicians and citizens today.

For one thing, Taylor wasn’t the only politician who hesitated to run for an office. Candidates’ protests against their own nominations are a recurring theme in the letters. Fillmore, in the years before he joined Taylor’s presidential ticket, resisted fellow Whigs’ efforts to nominate him for statewide office in New York. In 1844, when they promoted him for the governorship, he insisted that they find someone else. In a letter to the politician and journalist Thurlow Weed, published in Weed’s Albany Evening Post on May 21, he announced his “unwillingness” to run “for reasons partly of a public and partly of a private character”—including his lack of “ability.” In a private letter to the former congressman Francis Granger, he was more frank. Fillmore accused his opponents within the party of “killing me with kindness”: they were pushing him as governor, he believed, to keep him away from the vice presidency, which he wanted (Library of Congress). In the end he was nominated as governor but lost to the Democrat.

Three years later, Fillmore again won the Whig nomination for an office he said he didn’t want. His party called on him to become comptroller, New York’s highest financial officer. He swore to State Senator Gideon Hard on September 23, 1847, that his legal business kept him too busy (SUNY-Oswego), but he got the nod anyway. This time he won the election. He grudgingly embarked on its duties, still writing on January 7 to Albert Gallatin, a former US Treasury secretary whom he asked for advice, that he was “too young and inexperienced to rely upon my own judgment” (New-York Historical Society).

German-language newspaper political ad

Advertisement for Whig candidates in Der Liberale Beobachter, a German-language newspaper in Reading, PA (Chronicling America/Library of Congress)

In other letters, politicians discussed strategies to win rather than avoid office. Those were largely concerned with getting out their party’s message. As accelerating immigration grew the United States’ diverse ethnic communities, parties needed to campaign in languages besides English. Several of Fillmore’s letters stressed the need to promote Whig candidates in the German-language press. In January 1844 the Whig operative Samuel Lisle Smith put him in touch with a young politician by the name of Lincoln to discuss setting up German newspapers in New York and Illinois (SUNY-Oswego). In New York, meanwhile, although Whigs as a group by no means opposed slavery, they wanted to attract votes from the small minority of White men who did. So Fillmore worked with his colleagues to bring in Cassius M. Clay, a famous Kentucky abolitionist, to speak in towns where he could help.

cartoon of man drinking hard cider under a log cabin

Political cartoon criticizing Whigs for their use of hard cider in the election of 1840 (Library of Congress)

Campaigning wasn’t only about educating voters on a party’s policies. It also involved getting them to the polls, sometimes by unscrupulous or allegedly illegal means. Alcohol, used as a lure by both Democrats and Whigs, was a big part of nineteenth-century election days. The Whig judge Thomas C. Chittenden warned Fillmore on October 29, 1844, that Democrats would make good use of “the productions of the distillery” to bring out voters (SUNY-Oswego). Other Whigs, who paradoxically both courted immigrant voters and engaged in nativism, accused Democrats of winning elections with noncitizens’ votes. Taylor, on February 18, 1848, complained to his son-in-law Robert C. Wood that an “immense influx of foreigners . . . are carried to the polls & are permitted to vote immediately on their arrival, naturalized or not.” Of those, he asserted, “nineteen out of twenty if not more, vote the democratic ticket” (Huntington Library). Unlike today, some states’ laws then allowed unnaturalized White male immigrants to vote, though usually not “immediately on their arrival.”

ballot naming James K. Polk for president

Maryland Democratic ballot from 1844 (Library of Congress)

Politicians also discussed the basic mechanics of voting. Not until the 1880s did US jurisdictions begin printing their own ballots, a protocol adopted earlier in Australia and England. Before then, Americans voted either by voice (as required, for example, by Virginia’s constitution) or, more often, by bringing their own ballots to polling places. Parties and their affiliated newspapers were only too happy to distribute ballots listing their candidates’ names. Fillmore and his allies had to ensure that those were ready and in the correct form. On November 2, 1844, Alexander Kelsey wrote to him frantically that some of the ballots that New York’s Whig Party had printed might not pass legal muster. They needed to be quickly replaced (SUNY-Oswego). One couldn’t vote for Whig candidates if he didn’t have the right ballot in hand.

When Americans show up at the polls this November 8 (or before, for early voting), they can expect to find government-issued print or electronic ballots. Those, unlike the partisan tickets of the nineteenth century, will list all candidates for each office. Taylor, who despite his Whig proclivities often lamented the parties’ control of politics, may have appreciated that change had he lived to see it. In any event, he and Fillmore would surely encourage you, whichever boxes you check off on your ballot, to—shameless plug—click the button on the left side of your screen now and subscribe to this blog.

parchment copy of the US Constitution

United States Constitution

This Saturday is Constitution Day. It commemorates September 17, 1787, when thirty-nine politicians in Philadelphia signed the US Constitution. More broadly, the day recognizes the document itself and the federal government—and, once it was later amended, individual rights—that it established when it took effect in 1789. Since 2004, when Congress legally created the holiday, communities and institutions across the country have held educational or celebratory events. The National Constitution Center’s are among the most prominent. Here at American University, the School of Public Affairs will today (5:30 to 7:00 ET) host a conversation between Yale’s Steven Smith and our own Sarah Hauser on “Is Patriotism Worth Preserving?” You can register to watch it live here.

Two future presidents signed the Constitution: George Washington and James Madison. Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore played no role, for the simple reason that Taylor was two years old at the time and Fillmore was not yet born. (Taylor’s father and Fillmore’s grandfather did fight with the colonists in the Revolutionary War.) Once they entered political life, however, they engaged with and wrote about the document quite a bit, long before taking their oaths as president and vice president to protect and defend it. We have found many of their thoughts on the Constitution in their pre-presidential letters, especially Taylor’s during the Mexican-American War and the early presidential campaign. This seems a good week to share some.

Fillmore discussed the Constitution chiefly in the context of Texas annexation. In 1844, when many White Southerners supported incorporating that republic into the United States, many Northerners who opposed slavery’s expansion or slaveholders’ political power wanted to keep it out. A group of Ohioans led by Samuel P. Chase—who later served in Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet and on the US Supreme Court—wrote to Fillmore on March 30 with their views. Annexing Texas with slavery legal, they averred, would come “at the expence of . . . a violated Constitution.” On June 25, 1845, a “Convention of the People of Massachusetts opposed to the Annexation of Texas” added their voices that “the Constitution has been violated . . . for an unconstitutional object.” They argued that the process used for annexation, a joint resolution of Congress, ignored the document’s requirement that it be done by treaty. For his part, Fillmore told another Ohio committee on June 14, 1844, that he opposed the expansion of US slavery into Texas, the increased power of slaveholders, and the potential for “civil war.” But he mentioned the Constitution only in general terms, recalling “that our ancestors have bequeathed to us a free Constitution, heretofore blessing and binding together a united and happy people,” without opining on what it dictated regarding Texas. (All Fillmore letters not otherwise cited are at the State University of New York–Oswego.)

As a candidate for vice president, Fillmore continued to invoke the founding document in a celebratory but vague and, by the standards of the day, moderate way. He told Erastus D. Culver on June 15, 1848, merely that a president should “stand by the constitution & all its guarantees.” On May 9 he wrote to Hiram Kitchum with a little more substance: “with Slavery in the States we have nothing to do, but to abide by the compromises of the Constitution.” Although he didn’t specify what those compromises were, he knew that they included sending those who escaped from plantations back to their enslavers and counting three-fifths of enslaved Black Americans when calculating congressional representation for the White Americans living nearby.

Taylor, the presidential candidate who kept saying he wasn’t interested in or qualified for the presidency, was even vaguer than Fillmore on his constitutional views. Occasionally he opined on the document’s application to military matters. On September 3, 1846, early in the Mexican-American War, he wrote to his son-in-law Robert C. Wood. He insisted that “Volunteers,” as opposed to professional soldiers, “were never intended to invad or carry on war out of the limits of their own country, but should be used, as the constitution intended they should be for enforcing the execution of the laws, & repelling invasion” (Huntington Library, Taylor Papers). He also sometimes used it to criticize the Democratic Party and the James K. Polk administration. On March 25, 1848, he told Whig senator John J. Crittenden that “if the present party are to rule the destinies of the Country for a few years longer, there will be nothing left of the Constitution but its name.” He didn’t specify which constitutional provisions he thought the Democrats had violated (Library of Congress, Crittenden Papers).

first page of a letter

Taylor to John J. Crittenden, March 25, 1848 (Library of Congress)

More often, Taylor merely promised that, if elected, he would follow the Constitution’s guidance and its limits on presidential power. In a letter to F. S. Bronson, for example, dated August 10, 1847, and published in numerous newspapers and pamphlets, he refused to make any “pledge” regarding his actions in the presidential office beyond “discharging its functions to the best of my ability, and strictly in accordance with the requirements of the Constitution.” He often made similar assertions, arguing that voters should support him (or not) based on his character rather than his political views. In another oft-published letter, dated March 29, 1848, he went so far as to assert “that my opinions, even if I were the President of the United States, are neither important nor necessary” (Washington Daily Union, October 14, 1848). Elsewhere he privately explained his reasoning. He told Kentucky planter William C. Bullitt, on October 10, 1847, that “the President [should] confine himself to the duties confided to him by the Constitution.” These, he continued, were limited to suggesting “measures” to Congress, “leaving it to that branch of the government to act on, or dispose of the same . . . ; to veto such laws as he deems unconstitutional or otherwise, passed by that body, & to sign such as he approved, & see they were faithfully executed. . . . [T]he President should be in some measure like the judge on the bench, that he ought not to give his opinion on important matters until the proper time arrives for his doing so” (Filson Historical Society, Bullitt Family Papers, Oxmoor Collection).

Reactions varied to Taylor’s pro-Constitution but light-on-specifics campaign rhetoric. A Philadelphia committee led by George W. McClellan praised his making “no pledges but those contained in the official oath at your inauguration, and with the declaration of independence and the constitution as your guides” (Washington Semi-Weekly Union, April 30, 1847). New Yorker James B. Eldridge, however, complained to Fillmore about Taylor’s refusal to disclose his opinions. What measures, Eldridge wanted to know, would Taylor promote or oppose? “I know,” he acknowledged, “General Taylor has said he shall be guided by the constitution if elected President. But that must be understood that he will respect the Constitution as he understands it.” And how was that?

Each president and each presidential candidate, whether upfront about it or not, must interpret the US Constitution and its application to the key questions of the day. But they are not the only ones. Constitution Day is a great opportunity for all Americans to contemplate the articles and amendments that comprise the legal basis of their republic.

This long weekend, Americans celebrate Independence Day. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress officially adopted Thomas Jefferson’s statement of the reasons for the United States to separate from the United Kingdom. Some early Americans, such as John Adams, expected the national holiday to be July 2, the date when the Congress had passed a brief resolution in favor of the separation itself. In the coming decades, however, the date associated with the Declaration of Independence took center stage.

Lithograph of Independence Day celebration by Otto Knitsch, in The Sons of Columbia. A national song [1850–80?]. Library of Congress.

Such was the case in Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore’s time. By then, with the advent of political parties, the Fourth of July paradoxically had become a day of both national and partisan pride. In 1846, members of the Whig Party held at least two Independence Day events in Philadelphia. At one, to which they invited Fillmore, they “rejoice[d] over the triumphs effected by the genius and patriotism of a Whig minority, in averting an unnecessary war with Great Britain” over the Canadian border. They didn’t mention their failure to avert the ongoing war with Mexico. At the other, which they afterward described in a letter to Taylor, they recalled the events of 1776 while passing resolutions honoring Taylor and hoping that he would accept the presidency two years hence. When 1848 came around, and Taylor and Fillmore did indeed accept the Whig nominations, Philadelphians again invited Fillmore to an Independence Day celebration, though that time they avoided explicit references to political party.

Daniel Montgomery Leisenring to Taylor, July 20, 1846, in Portsmouth (VA) New Era, Sept. 12, 1846. Chronicling America/Library of Congress.

Fillmore himself was not above using the national holiday for partisan purposes. If you’ve seen our high school teaching guide on Texas annexation, you’ll remember his political use of it in 1844. Invited to two Whig meetings on July 4, he wrote a letter to one group comparing “[t]he whig spirit of ’76 [that] gave us Independence & freedom and the Whig spirit of 1844 [that] must maintain that independence and freedom.” The US Whig Party hadn’t existed in 1776 but drew its name from the history of British “Whigs” who opposed excessive royal authority. Fillmore, after tying his party to American independence—and by implication divorcing the Democrats from it—launched into a panegyric for the Whig presidential candidate Henry Clay. Independence Day, for antebellum politicians, was a time both to celebrate the nation and to promote political ends.


Unlike Fillmore, I am not traveling this July 4 weekend. But I did do so earlier this summer. June was a busy month for us documentary editors. Like the rest of the world, our profession has gradually been returning to pre-pandemic customs. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, last fall we resumed traveling to libraries and archives to find new Taylor and Fillmore letters. In June, for the first time since 2019, I got to go to an in-person academic conference.

The American Political History Conference, hosted in West Lafayette, IN, by Purdue University, brought together historians who study politics from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries. You can watch several sessions, recorded by C-SPAN, on its website. I was part of a roundtable on “Editing Documents in US Political History.” Five of us discussed the process, value, evolution, and challenges of making primary sources accessible in print and digital formats. We drew on our experience editing the papers of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass; the first US Congress; and Presidents John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and (of course) Taylor and Fillmore. Later this month, you’ll be able to watch a recording of the session on our website.

The conversation was wide-ranging, but one broad theme emerged from all participants’ comments. By editing primary sources, we aim both to aid professional scholars as they write books and articles and to broaden access to original documents beyond professors and authors. Innovative online presentations of Adams’s diaries, use of Jackson’s writings in college classes, and this very blog are among our efforts to share the words of historical actors with all who want to better understand the nation’s past. To that end, I encourage you to let us know, though our contact form, what topics you’d like to see in future blog posts.

Soon after returning from Indiana, I attended—virtually, this time—the conference of the Association for Documentary Editing. That brought together, on Zoom, scores of editors to consider the best ways to share primary sources. It was great to hear of my colleagues’ work recovering and publishing the words of historical actors ranging from US presidents to Native Americans before the nation’s founding. We all look forward to next year’s in-person conference, which our project will cohost in Washington, DC, along with the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project at George Washington University. We have exciting presentations in the works that will appeal not just to editors but to professional and amateur historians alike. Stay tuned.

Between conferences, we’ve been hard at work putting together the first volume of Taylor’s and Fillmore’s correspondence. We’ve found thousands of letters that they wrote or received in 1844–48, the years of Texas annexation and the Mexican-American War, and Associate Editor Amy Larrabee Cotz and I have chosen a diverse subset of those to publish. We welcomed Mercedes Atwater, an MA student in public administration here at American University, as our newest editorial assistant. She’s already both transcribed letters and hunted for new ones in the National Archives’ microfilmed collections. Soon we will have a fully transcribed corpus of letters and will focus on proofreading those and writing the annotations that enable twenty-first-century readers to understand their contents.

Please forgive me for ending on a note of self-congratulation. Last week, the Siena College Research Institute released its latest ranking of the US presidents. Their team of scholars put Taylor at #36 and Fillmore at #38. Out of 45 chief executives, that’s not high praise. But FeedSpot also released its ranking of the “70 Best American History Blogs and Websites.” Quite to our surprise, this blog currently comes in at #33. Considering all the incredible resources in US history on the internet, from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (#1) to Civil War Memory (#67) and well beyond, we are deeply honored.

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.