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. (Both men’s fathers 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Library of Congress

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

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

Library of Congress

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

 

 

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

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

Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore appreciated literature.

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

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

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

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

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

 

First William the Norman,

Then William his son,

Henry, Stephen, & Henry,

Then Richard and John

 

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

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

 

’Twas summer, and softly the breezes were blowing,

And sweetly the nightingale sung from the tree;

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

I sat myself down on the Banks of the Dee.

 

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

 

The field of the Mexicans shaded,

Their troops in the Rio Grande waded,

Their visions of glory all faded

At the Star of Old Zachary.

. . .

To add to their brilliancy still more,

Inscribed on our banner is Fillmore;

They float in the breezes of glory,

With the Star of Old Zachary.

 

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

 

Awake freemen, ’wake! for now is the hour

The thraldom of party to end—

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

And show to the world we are men!

 

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

Who’ve regarded nor justice nor right;

Too long we’ve been duped by political humbugs—

Let the people now rise in their might!

 

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

 

Stand fast, brave pilot! at thy post,

And grasp the wavering helm,

The good ship nears a rocky coast

Where laboring sore and tempest-tossed

The running seas o’erwhelm!

. . .

So long the empress of the waves

The refuge of the free,

Dark treason on her proud deck raves,

And soon her crew may make their graves

Beneath an angry sea.

 

***

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

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

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

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

lithograph of man and woman in horse-drawn sleigh

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

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

flooded plantation in Louisiana

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider, for example, this letter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, please give a hand for our student transcribers.