Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore are not the most famous of presidents. Yet they led America during important and tumultuous years. Taylor, as an army general, commanded troops in Texas and Mexico when the United States annexed the former and went to war against the latter. Fillmore helped shape the Whig Party, the New York government, and a nascent university. Both, as presidents, worked to incorporate into the country new western lands won from Mexico and to find a compromise between supporters and opponents of enslaving African Americans in those lands. The resulting legislation, depending on one’s interpretation, may have either caused or postponed the Civil War.
The best way to learn about the past is by reading original documents written by historical actors. The US Declaration of Independence and Constitution, narratives of men and women who escaped from slavery, and diaries of Civil War soldiers, for instance, offer twenty-first-century readers direct insight into the ideas and experiences of their authors. Yet many such primary sources are inaccessible, sitting in archives and attics that few can visit and written in faded or peculiar handwriting that few can decipher. Even the letters of many presidents, including Taylor and Fillmore, remain unpublished and thus difficult for students, scholars, and the historically curious to use.
Our project aims to remedy that. We are locating, transcribing, annotating, and publishing Taylor’s and Fillmore’s letters. Specifically, we are editing those of the decade when they played their biggest national roles: from 1844, when Taylor prepared to lead troops into Texas, through 1849 and 1850, when Taylor and then Fillmore became president, to 1853, when Fillmore retired from the White House. These two men wrote hundreds of letters on their political and military careers, the social challenges of the day, and their personal hopes and struggles. Meanwhile, others wrote them thousands of letters revealing what they—men and women and children, Blacks and Whites and Native Americans, businessmen and laborers and farmers, Whigs and Democrats and abolitionists—considered the important issues of the day.
We want to make these documents as easily and widely accessible as possible. Our faculty and staff will transcribe and verify more than a thousand of the most important and interesting letters. Drawing on expertise in nineteenth-century US history, they will write notes identifying all people, events, laws, and other topics mentioned. The annotated correspondence will be published in three volumes both in print, by the University of Tennessee Press, and online, by the Rotunda imprint of the University of Virginia Press. Key original documents illuminating one of the most divisive periods in the nation’s history thus will become available to and intelligible by all who wish to read them.
The Taylor-Fillmore project is one of numerous initiatives by the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. Part of American University’s School of Public Affairs, CCPS serves scholars, students, policymakers, and the public by propelling actionable research, providing public education, and promoting a more reasonable democratic square. You can learn about its faculty, research, events, institutes, and other programs on its website through the link below.