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

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

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

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

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

Consider, for example, this letter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, please give a hand for our student transcribers.

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York Weekly Herald, November 11, 1848

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fillmore statue, Buffalo, N.Y. (© Matthew Trump; https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DSCN4470_buffalofillmorestatue_e.jpg)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zachary Taylor Papers, Library of Congress

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

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

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

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

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