Not What their Party Ordered: The Surprising Presidencies of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore

Zachary Taylor

Official White House Portrait of Zachary Taylor

Official White House Portrait of Zachary Taylor

Taylor was best known as a general rather than a politician. In fact, he had never voted in a presidential election. That was somewhat understandable since he was usually busy fighting battles. He earned his nickname “Old Rough and Ready” during the Seminole War in Florida. His men admired the fact that he fought beside them on the front lines. They also liked his independent spirit. Instead of a uniform Taylor wore a straw hat and civilian clothes.

At age sixty-one he led troops into Mexico in the fight for Texas. A new invention, the telegraph, was used for the first time to provide daily progress of the war. News of Taylor’s victories in the Mexican American War made him very popular. Despite or perhaps because his opinion on most issues was unknown, the Whigs chose him as their candidate in 1848.

Since Taylor was a slave owner, southerners expected him to support the expansion of slavery in the new territories of California and New Mexico. Taylor surprised almost everyone. He resolved to leave slavery in states where it existed but opposed its expansion. When Congressmen tried to work out a compromise, Taylor threatened to veto it. He said of the Union, “Whatever dangers may threaten it, I shall stand by and maintain it.”

Taylor never had a showdown with Congress. After a July 4th celebration he drank some tainted milk and died days later of gastritis.

Millard Fillmore


Official White House Portrait of Millard Fillmore

Taylor’s vice-president Millard Fillmore took office after Taylor’s death. Fillmore grew up in extreme poverty. He was mostly self-educated, but he was encouraged by a schoolteacher named Abigail to study law. Later, Abigail became his wife. Ironically, he was chosen to balance the Whig ticket as a non-slave owner from New York. Yet, unlike Taylor, he was prepared to allow the spread of slavery.

He supported the Compromise of 1850 under which California was made a free state while the New Mexico and Utah territories were left open to slavery. Slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia, but a new fugitive slave law offered $10 to anyone who handed over an African-American to federal authorities. Although Fillmore disliked slavery, he thought that states and not the federal government should decide where it would or would not exist.

After the passage of the Compromise of 1850, Fillmore thought the slavery issue was resolved. Yet both North and South were dissatisfied with the Compromise. The Whigs chose not to nominate Fillmore in the next election. Fillmore looked forward to a happy retirement with his beloved Abigail. Sadly she died before he left Washington.

Fillmore lived for over twenty years after his presidency. He even ran for the office one more time as a third party candidate but lost. During the Civil War he supported the Union. Nevertheless, some never forgot his support of the Fugitive Slave Law. After President Lincoln’s assassination a mob tried to paint Fillmore’s home black.

Presidential Workaholic James K. Polk

Before the election of 1844 former president Andrew Jackson requested James K. Polk to visit him. He told Polk that he wanted someone who favored the annexation of Texas to run for president and promised to back Polk for the job.

Polk had experience serving as governor of Tennessee and as a congressman, but more famous names were being considered. Still, Polk was nominated by the Democrats and won the election with his promise to acquire both Oregon and Texas for the U.S. At his inauguration “Hail to the Chief” was played for the first time.

Portrait of President James K. Polk

Portrait of President James K. Polk

Polk is well-known for accomplishing his expansionist goals. Under his administration Britain ceded Oregon to the U.S. After a costly war with Mexico, Texas, California, and New Mexico became part of the United States, too.

Not everyone was pleased with Polk’s tactics, however. Polk claimed that war with Mexico was forced upon the U.S. because Mexican forces attacked the American troops that, on Polk’s orders, happened to be near the border of the two countries. A new congressman named Abraham Lincoln introduced “spot resolutions,” demanding that Polk identify the spot where American blood was shed on American soil. Indeed, it was unclear whether the troops led by Zachary Taylor had been in Mexican or American territory when fired upon.

Polk’s pro-slavery views offended others who did not want slavery to extend to new U.S. territories. More anti-slavery northerners began to leave the Democratic Party and join the Whigs.

Polk had promised to serve only one term and refused to run for another. He couldn’t have run for office again anyway because he was physically drained by his four years as president. He believed that “No president who performs his duty conscientiously can have any leisure.” Polk refused to delegate tasks and was the first president to insist on staying all summer in the White House despite the heat in Washington. His nearly non-stop work ethic contributed to his death three months after he left office.

The Building of the Washington Monument

Washington Monument, Photo by David Bjorgen

Washington Monument, Photo by David Bjorgen

On December 6, 1884, the Washington Monument was finally completed. The word “finally” is appropriate since construction on the monument ended 85 years after George Washington’s death.

While Washington was still alive many people wanted to dedicate statues to him, but he declined. He thought the country should spend its money on other things. Shortly after Washington’s death, John Marshall proposed a memorial to the first president. The memorial was to be built in the style of the ancient Egyptian tombs with a pyramid serving as Washington’s burial place. However, Congress could not agree on the design.

Thirty-seven years later John Marshall, who was now Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, continued to fight for a memorial. In 1832 the Washington National Monument Society was formed. The society decided to hold a competition for the best design while collecting donations from citizens across the country.

Designs came in from around the world. The society required only that each design be “durable, simple, and grand.” Finally they chose a design by Robert Mills, a church architect from Charleston. Mills’ design included a temple with an Egyptian obelisk on top. Inside a colossal statue of Washington and a museum about Washington’s life were to be placed. Because the design was so expensive ($1 million in the 19th century), the society decided to start with the obelisk first.

The monument’s cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1848 with the same trowel that Washington used for the cornerstone of the capital. In a crowd of over 20,000 people that day were three future presidents, including a young congressman named Abraham Lincoln.

To raise money for the monument states were encouraged to donate commemorative stones to its interior. Even foreign countries donated stones to show their respect for the Revolutionary war hero and president. A controversy arose, however, when the Pope tried to donate a stone. Anti-Catholic groups stalled the construction.

During the Civil War the monument was again abandoned. Cattle grazed around it and soldiers practiced maneuvers in its shadow.

Congress decided to resume construction during the centennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1876. All the arguments about the design resurfaced. Congress was still short on money. This time, however, the US Army Corps of Engineers under Lieut. Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey was put in charge of the construction.

The country’s anniversary made both Congress and Casey eager to finish the monument. The design was scaled back. It was decided that the temple would not be constructed–only the obelisk. Despite these cost-cutting measures Casey still had several issues to deal with. For example, the scaffolding was rotted and there were flaws in the foundation of the monument. Casey’s crew reinforced the foundation with concrete. He also carried out the original plan to include the 193 memorial stones donated by states and countries into the interior walls.

The outside stones for the monument presented other problem for Lieut. Casey. The quarry used for the initial construction was no longer available. The builders ended up using two additional quarries with varying colors of stone. Today visitors can see three slightly different colored stones from the three different quarries on the outside of the monument.

On December 6, 1884 Lt. Col. Casey supervised as the capstone was brought out through a window and set on top of the monument. The aluminum tip made by Tiffany‘s was put into place by the lieutenant himself. At 555 feet and 5 inches the monument was the tallest structure in the world. However, the Eiffel Tower surpassed it the following year. Nevertheless, it is still the tallest structure in Washington DC and serves as a landmark for everyone who visits the National Mall.

The Washington Monument’s exterior and interior have endured quite a bit over the years. For example, in 2011 an earthquake struck 90 miles southwest of Washington DC. Though the monument was significantly damaged it was repaired successfully. The durability of the monument was anticipated at its dedication. During the ceremony, a speech by Robert Winthrop who had attended the opening ceremony in 1848 was read by Rep. John Long of Massachusetts. He said, “the storms of winter must blow and beat upon it…the lightnings of heaven may scar and blacken it. An earthquake may shake its foundations…but the character which it commemorates and illustrates is secure.”

Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation

One hundred and fifty years ago on New Years Day, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln never liked slavery, and he recognized that having slaves gave the southern states advantages in the Civil War. For example, southern slaves worked as cooks or nurses on the sidelines to save soldiers energy for fighting.

In the summer of 1862, Lincoln decided to write an emancipation proclamation. The document declared that any slave in a state that was fighting Union soldiers would be free on January 1, 1863.

Before issuing his proclamation, Lincoln asked his cabinet members to listen to a rough draft. He told them he would use his powers as president in wartime to free slaves who might otherwise help the Union cause. His Secretary of State, William Seward, supported the idea of freeing slaves, but warned Lincoln that the Union army’s losses during the year might influence the public’s opinion. He suggested that the president wait for a battle victory before announcing the emancipation proclamation. Lincoln agreed.

When the South’s General Lee retreated from the North after the battle at Antietam, Lincoln publicly announced his intention to sign the proclamation on January 1, 1863. Some people doubted that he would follow through on his promise, but they were wrong. On the morning of January 1, Lincoln made a major change in the proclamation. Though it still said that “all persons held as slaves” within the rebel southern states “are, and henceforth shall be free,” he added that African Americans could join the Union army. Lincoln knew the Union needed the manpower. In fact, though they served in all black units, between 180,000 and 200,000 black men fought for the Union during the war.

Before he could sign the document, Lincoln and his wife Mary hosted a New Years Day reception at the White House. First government officials mingled with the president, and then the public was invited to stand in a line to shake the president’s hand. Afterwards, Lincoln went back to his office to sign the emancipation proclamation. Lincoln said, “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper.” His hands were so stiff after three hours of shaking hands that he waited before signing his name. He said, “If my hand trembles when I sign the Proclamation, all who examine the document hereafter will say, ‘He hesitated.’” After a few moments, Lincoln’s hand felt less numb and he put his signature on the historic document.

The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free any slaves right away. It only declared the slaves in the rebel states free—something Lincoln could not enforce in 1863. The document was important because it changed the way people thought about the war. Now soldiers in the Union army were fighting not only to bring the southern states back to the Union, but also to free the slaves.

How Thanksgiving Became a National Holiday

Although the 1621 Pilgrim celebration at Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts is usually regarded as the first Thanksgiving, other states disagree. Maine claims to have the held the earliest Thanksgiving fourteen years before the Plymouth holiday. The celebration had much in common with Plymouth’s, since English settlers shared a large meal with local Native Americans near the Kennebec River. Virginia held a religious service in 1619 after colonists landed safely at a place called Berkeley Hundred, located up the river from Jamestown. Neither the Maine nor the Virginia settlements survived, which is likely why the Plymouth Colony gets credit for the first Thanksgiving.

The colonists at Plymouth didn’t plan on making Thanksgiving an annual holiday, however. Instead, they held days of thanksgiving whenever they felt especially grateful to God. For example, in 1623, Plymouth’s crops withered. When rain fell, the colonists held a day of thanksgiving prayer. Basically, in bad times the Pilgrims fasted, and in good times they gave thanks.

Even in the eighteenth century, governors of various states proclaimed days of Thanksgiving irregularly. Some skipped the custom altogether. During the Revolutionary War, leaders in Congress sometimes proclaimed a day of thanksgiving following a military victory. As president, George Washington named November 26, 1789 as a day to give thanks for the new U.S. Constitution. For the most part, however, states chose when or if they wanted to hold a thanksgiving celebration.

By the nineteenth century, Sarah Hale led a campaign for an annual Thanksgiving Day. Hale was the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, and she used her public position to write editorials and send letters to government officials. Gradually, governors of various states proclaimed annual days of thanksgiving. Even President Abraham Lincoln declared a day of thanksgiving after the Battle of Gettysburg.

Yet Sarah Hale still remained dissatisfied. She wanted Thanksgiving to be a national holiday, not one celebrated for military victories by the government or selected by individual states. She found a sympathetic listener in President Lincoln. He proclaimed a nationwide Thanksgiving Day for the last Thursday of November 1863. Lincoln’s proclamation stated, “I do, therefore, invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States…to set apart and observe the last Thursday in November next as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.” The new holiday offered hope for the future of a nation torn apart by civil war. After the war, the former Confederate states joined in the national celebration.

Only one president tried to change the date of Thanksgiving. In an effort to help the struggling economy, President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday in November of 1939 so consumers had more shopping days before Christmas. The public disagreed so strongly with the change that Congress adopted a resolution firmly establishing Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November.

From Preserving the Union to Emancipation: President Lincoln’s Views on Slavery

President Lincoln believed that he would be best remembered for writing the Emancipation Proclamation. Although many people remember him as the president who freed the slaves, some of the facts surrounding that achievement have been clouded with the passing of time.

Although Abraham Lincoln hated slavery, his goal was not to free the slaves at the beginning of his presidency. Instead, he wanted the Southern states to remain in the Union and tried to prevent them from pulling out. He promised Southerners that he would not interfere with slavery in states where it already existed, but this assurance was not enough to prevent the Civil War.

As the war dragged on, however, Lincoln realized that freeing the slaves and preserving the Union were inseparable issues. Lincoln informed his cabinet of his plan to issue emancipation for the slaves in summer 1862, but was advised to wait for a Union army victory. When victory came, he pulled the proclamation out of his desk drawer. In his message to Congress in December 1862, he explained his actions: “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve.”

Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. It stated that from that date “all persons held as slaves within any state or states, wherein the constitutional authority of the United States shall not then be practically recognized…shall then, thenceforward, and forever, be free.” Criticism came from within his own party. Conservative Republicans thought it was too radical, while the radicals complained that the proclamation only freed slaves in Southern states that the Union army had no authority to help.

In the military, some soldiers resented having to fight a war for the slaves and others did not want blacks to have the opportunity to join the Union army. Lincoln, however, felt that the former slaves had a stake in fighting for their freedom.  He was also impressed by the abilities of black troops on the battlefield. He wrote that when peace came, “there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation [eliminating slavery and saving the Union]; while…there will be some white ones unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.” In just a few years, Lincoln transformed from a politician who wanted little to do with the issue of slavery, to a statesman who wanted to destroy it.

Mary Todd Lincoln: From Slaveholder’s Daughter to Antislavery Advocate

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln

As one of her biographers wrote, “history has not been kind to Mary Lincoln.” In fact, she experienced unpopularity during her years in the White House, partly because of her spending habits, but also because she had relatives fighting for the Confederacy. Though Mary had faults, she was loyal to her husband and the Union, and she became increasingly opposed to slavery.

Mary learned about slavery growing up in Kentucky. Her father’s involvement in state politics meant that his children heard political issues debated at home. One of these issues was slavery. Robert Todd opposed the trading of slaves among whites, which tore them from their relatives. Naively, he hoped that the practice of holding slaves would eventually die out.

His convictions did not, however, keep him from owning a few household slaves. One of these slaves, Aunt Sally, was a mother figure for Mary when her own mother died. When Mary heard a knocking outside one night, Sally explained that she had made a mark on the Todd’s fence to signal to runway slaves that they could stop there for food. Although she knew helping runaway slaves was illegal, Mary was thrilled that Sally shared a secret with her and never told anyone. Her father’s politics and her relationship with Aunt Sally gave Mary an unfavorable view of slavery that became stronger later in her life.

Shortly after she became First Lady and moved to Washington, Mary struck up a friendship with her African American dressmaker and former slave Elizabeth Keckly. When former slaves came flocking to the capital during the Civil War without food or a place to sleep, Elizabeth made it her mission to help them. Mary wrote to her husband, President Abraham Lincoln asking him to support her friend’s charity. She also made contributions herself. In a letter to her husband, she wrote, “She [Elizabeth] says the immense number of contrabands in Washington are suffering intensely, many without bed covering and having to use any bits of carpet to cover themselves—Many dying of want…I have given her the privilege of investing $200 here in bed covering…this sum, I am sure, you will not object to being used in this way—The cause of humanity requires it.”

Unaware of Mary’s growing antislavery feelings, radical abolitionist Jane Swisshelm expected Mary Lincoln to be a Confederate sympathizer. When they met at the White House in 1863, however, Swisshelm believed that Mary was “more radically opposed to slavery” than the President. By listening to her African American friend’s descriptions of suffering, Mary took up the cause of helping former slaves. Through this cause, Mary gained a perspective on slavery that most whites, including the President, did not have.

Fort Sumter and the Start of the Civil War

Imagine that you have just become President of the United States. You gave your first speech to the nation and attended the inaugural ball. After the ball, you are handed a note that says that one of the remaining federal forts in the South is in danger. Abraham Lincoln had to deal with a crisis almost from the moment he became president.

The letter Lincoln read was from Major Robert Anderson, commander of the Federal troops at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Members of the newly formed Confederacy had surrounded the fort with ships and cannon. Anderson implored Lincoln to send more supplies to the fort.

Members of Lincoln’s cabinet all gave different opinions as to what the President should do. Some said the fort should be evacuated to avoid a civil war with the South, while others said he should send extra troops to protect the fort. Lincoln decided to do neither—he would send a boat with supplies to the fort but troops and warships were instructed to stand by and respond only if the Confederates fired the first shot. He sent a messenger to inform the governor of South Carolina “to expect an attempt will be made to supply Fort Sumpter [sic] with provisions only; and that, if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms, ammunition will be made…[except] in case of an attack on the Fort.”

The South Carolina Confederates, however, saw the fort as an example of a foreign nation (the Union) trying to stick around in the newly independent Confederate States. They also believed that war would bring the upper Southern States, like Virginia, to their aid. On April 12, 1861, Confederates opened fire on the fort. The supply ship had not yet arrived and other nearby boats were prevented from aiding Anderson’s men by the high seas. As a result, Federal forces were outmanned and had limited gun power. After over a day of bombardment that destroyed parts of the fort, Federal forces surrendered it to the Confederates. Ironically, no one was killed in the first confrontation of the Civil War that later took so many lives.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

240px-Gettysburg_Address_at_Lincoln_Memorial At the Battle of Gettysburg, the Confederate dead, wounded, and missing numbered 28,000 with 23,000 for the Union. Following the battle that created more casualties than any other in American history, plans began for the dedication of a national cemetery at Gettysburg.

Despite the later fame of his Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln was not the first person asked to speak at the dedication. In addition to former U.S. Senator Edward Everett, several famous poets were invited, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The poets declined, so an invitation was sent to the President of the United States. Still, Lincoln only needed to say “a few appropriate remarks” after Everett’s speech was over.

Lincoln didn’t mind keeping his speech short, but he took the task of speaking about the war in person seriously. Despite popular myth, the address was not written hastily on a train while Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg. Though he likely was still editing the speech in his mind, Lincoln’s secretary insisted that the train ride was too bumpy for Lincoln to write on it. Instead, Lincoln revised his well-thought out remarks at the home of his host in town.

On the morning of November 19, 1863, Everett and Lincoln were seated in front of a large crowd that had gathered for the dedication. Everett’s speech lasted two hours, so a rather tired audience prepared itself for a long oration from the President. Instead, they heard a two-minute speech that would be remembered nearly 150 years later.

In the address, Lincoln first asked the audience to recall the founding ideals of the nation, that all men are created equal. He viewed The Civil War as a test of those ideals: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether…any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Lincoln then gave credit to what the soldiers had done for their country in the recent past, saying, “We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.”

The end of the address looked to the future and pointed out the responsibility of those who were still living: “we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” The new nation, Lincoln hoped, would result in a reunion of the states and the end of slavery.

Though the Gettysburg Address was not immediately popular, some discerning listeners recognized its significance. The next day Edward Everett wrote to Lincoln, “I should be glad…that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

For the full text of the Gettysburg Address see

Image: Gettysburg Address at Lincoln Memorial