For the Poetry Fans

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.” (1976) 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. (4417)

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 it limited.

Someone 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.