Buffalo News quiz: How well do you know birthday boy Millard Fillmore?

January 7, 2016

Inscription on the statute of Millard Fillmore at Buffalo's City Hall. Fillmore's better qualities crowd out critical elements. Buffalo News file photo.

Inscription on the statute of Millard Fillmore at Buffalo’s City Hall. “Lawyer, Educator, Philanthropist, Statesman.” Fillmore’s better qualities crowd out critical elements. Buffalo News file photo.

The venerable Buffalo News offers a quiz on our 13th president, Millard Fillmore, native son of Buffalo.

Happy birthday, Millard Fillmore, born January 7, 1800.

Nice of the Berkshire-Hathaway owned Buffalo News to make such a great tool for teachers, eh?


Any special activities at the Millard Fillmore Presidential Library for January 7?

January 7, 2016

The Ladies of Mount Vernon maintain George Washington’s home and a couple of farms, and now have an extensive center for teachers, in addition to an extensive library on Washington.

In Springfield, Illinois, a private foundation established the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Neither is part of the National Archives (NARA) presidential libraries programs. NARA operates libraries for Hoover, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Clinton, George Bush, and NARA will operate the Obama library from the start.

Other presidents are left out in the cold, mostly. There are informal facilities for Teddy Roosevelt, James Garfield, and Woodrow Wilson.

On Millard Fillmore’s birthday, January 7, I am happy to report there is a Millard Fillmore Presidential Library, too.

For some reason, it’s in Cleveland, Ohio.

Photo of the interior of the Millard Fillmore Presidential Library, in Cleveland, Ohio. Motto something like, "This ain't the LBJ Library."

Photo of the interior of the Millard Fillmore Presidential Library, in Cleveland, Ohio. From Facebook page. Motto something like, “This ain’t the LBJ Library.”

A promising place for scholarship on our 13th president, perhaps. Photos of Fillmore, previously unknown, have been published by this establishment.

The new Millard Fillmore Presidential Library casts new light on the 13th president's talents and methods of relaxation.

The new Millard Fillmore Presidential Library casts new light on the 13th president’s talents and methods of relaxation.

Finally, a place to properly celebrate Millard Fillmore’s 216th birthday anniversary, today!


A Gospel About Millard Fillmore – a Unitarian paean to our 13th president, born January 7, 1800

January 7, 2016

This sermon was delivered at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco, by the Rev. John Robinson, on September 18, 2005.

Choir practice at First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Francisco.

Choir practice at First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Francisco.

That church used to keep this text in its sermon archives, but I recently discovered the archive had gone away.  I was happy to find I could get a historic version of the page, from which I got this text below.

I offer this here for scholars of the history of the presidency, and for scholars and fans of Millard Fillmore.  Oh, and to update the link in my list of sources on Millard Fillmore.

The Gospel About Millard Fillmore

This sermon began many years ago, over 30. Elliot Richardson had been invited to speak at the Annual Meeting of our Association of Free churches. He was then the martyred hero who had resigned as Attorney General of these United States rather than obey Richard Nixon’s order to fire Archibald Cox as Special Watergate Prosecutor. He was a Unitarian from an old Unitarian family.

Not all Unitarians were happy to have him as speaker. There was much agitation about the choice. Protesters tried to interrupt his speech, but were finally prevailed upon to let him make it.

In the question and answer period that followed, one of the dissenters demanded to know how Elliot Richardson, when Nixon’s Secretary of Defense, could have authorized the infamous December bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong.

Elliot Richardson pointed out to the questioner that he had not been appointed to Secretary of Defense until after the bombings, indeed until after the Vietnam Truce had been declared. He could have stopped there. Gotten off, as so many of us are apt to do, looking good. But he did not. He told the truth. He continued saying: “But, I think the decision to bomb was right.” It was the sort of candor that impresses.

Later that evening a young minister, this was years ago, was on a hotel elevator on to which Elliot Richardson stepped, unsuspectingly. Emboldened by spirits if not spirit. The young minister thanked Mr. Richardson for his speech and apologized for the rude behavior of some self-righteous Unitarians who treat those others of this tradition with whom they disagree so intolerantly. And then, as an illustration he launched into an impromptu sermon on Millard Fillmore. Ever polite, Elliot Richardson said he would like to see a full text. The young minister sent it to him, at the Court of St. James, where Mr. Richardson was at the time United States Ambassador to Great Britain. The Ambassador sent back a letter thanking the young minister for his sermon, saying that he had enjoyed it immensely. As a not so young minister, I still treasure that letter. Here for you this morning is the text of that sermon.

History has been unkind to Millard Fillmore, often referred to as “Millard Who?” forgetting that he was 13th president of the United States. One of the few accomplishments for which he is given credit is installing the first bath tub in the White House. There is serious doubt about that. [MFB note: No longer is there doubt; Fillmore was not the first.]

One historian said of Fillmore: “He came to the Presidency by the only road available to a man of limited ability, the death of his predecessor.” He was accused of being both pro-slavery and abolitionist. It was said he did “not have courage” “but was just inflexible.” They accused him of having “no position except equivocation,” that he was “without personal earnest conviction, personal force, or capacity for strong personal leadership.” His general rating as a president has been, until recently, below average, way below. He is judged bad or poor in his religiousness by those who judge such things. He was rejected by the religious community of which he was a member. He was a Unitarian.

There are three reasons to tell the story of Millard Fillmore: First, he illustrates the on-going tension in our free religious community, between the prophetic and the practical – the privilege of moral purity and the necessity to make real world decisions. Second, he illustrates well how difficult it is to judge our contemporaries. And third, to help restore Millard Fillmore to his rightful place in history.

The list of reasons for Fillmore’s lack of fame or infamy is long. His presidency was very short, only 2 years 236 days. His presidency is greatly overshadowed by the momentous events of the Civil War, eight years later. He was not liked by either the abolitionist historians or those historians who were apologists for the south. His association with the Know-Nothings tarnished his memory. And perhaps most important, the principal source of information about him came from the writings of his arch rival and enemy, the New York political boss Thurlow Weed, who called Fillmore derisively, “That incorruptible man from Buffalo.” Weed was very corruptible.

Millard Fillmore was born in a log cabin January 1, 1800, in upstate New York on his father’s poor, unproductive, isolated, farm. Millard was his mother’s maiden name. His education was sparse, no more than three months a year. He said that in the nine months working on his father’s farm, he forgot more than he learned the other three months. But his ambitious father apprenticed Millard to a cloth cutter, and then later got him a job in a law office. Millard’s Education was mostly self-learning, though by 20 he had a position as a schoolteacher. And then he became a lawyer. At 26 he married Abigail Powers who had taught him as he tried to catch up on his education. At 28 he was elected to the New York State Assembly.

At age 31 he joined a group of like-minded citizens in Buffalo New York where he now made his home. These were the founding and charter members of the First Unitarian Church of Buffalo New York.

Millard fought many good fights in the New York State Assembly. He fought for repeal of a law that required anyone testifying in court to swear that they believed in God and the hereafter. He pushed for an end to imprisonment for debt, and bankruptcy laws to protect small business interests. He fought for separation of church and state.

Millard was a party switcher right from the beginning. He was elected to the assembly as a National Republican, the party of Jefferson. Then He was elected as an Anti-Mason, a party he had helped to form. The Anti-Masons held that the Masonic Order with its lodges, secret rites and oaths, loyalties to something other than the Constitution, constituted an invisible Empire, a dangerous intrusion in a democracy. He wanted to get Masons out of government.

Fillmore was elected to Congress as a National Republican in 1832. His first term saw the formation of the Whig Party, an event he supported, as he wanted to see a party of National Union.

Unfortunately for those who look for titillation in sermons there were no publish rumors of moral turpitude. He served but one term in Congress, (perhaps an early supporter of term limits) and then went home to Buffalo and devoted himself to cultural and intellectual enrichment of Buffalo. (I know, you may think that an oxymoron.) He supported good causes like free public education and free public libraries.

In 1836 he was again elected to the House of Representatives. There he was made chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. He also was chair of a Select Committee charged with investigation of election fraud in New Jersey (yes, I know, no change there). Incredibly Fillmore’s committee found 5 congressmen of his own party guilty, threw them out of congress, and thus handed control of The House to the opposition party! (IMAGINE!)

In 1842 he again left Congress, this time as a prominent Whig. The next year Horace Greely, editor of the NEW YORK TRIBUNE (also an alleged Unitarian), urged Fillmore’s candidacy for Vice-President. (Years later Fillmore repaid the favor by getting Greely out of debtors’ prison in Paris.)

1844 was not the year for Millard to get the nomination. He was held to be anti-slave and anti-Southern. He opposed the annexation of Texas as an attempt to swell slavery forces.

Later Millard opposed the Mexican War, which he believed would spread slavery and weaken the North’s industrial economy.

1848 was the year when Fillmore was tapped as the Whigs vice-presidential candidate. He balanced the ticket, with General Zachary Taylor, a Southerner, and slave owner, who was a hero of the Mexican War (ironically). Taylor ran on a rough and ready image. Leading abolitionists bolted the party, particularly New Englanders, notably the leading Unitarian, Charles Francis Adams.

The Taylor-Fillmore ticket had no platform because whatever was said would alienate part of the country. Abe Lincoln supported this ticket. On November 7, they won.

On July 9, 1850, rough and ready Zachary Taylor died from illness. Fillmore became President, the third President to be Unitarian. (In October of that same year this church was founded.) Within a month Fillmore had aroused the ire of the North by signing the Compromise of 1850. He did it, knowing that he had ruined any hope he had to run for the Presidency on his own. He also earned the animosity of many Unitarians.

The Compromise of 1850 preserved the balance between the North and South that dated from the Missouri Compromise and earlier. By it: California was admitted as a free state; New Mexico and Utah became Territories with no restriction on slavery; Texas was paid 10 million dollars to accept the Texas-New Mexico boundaries; slavery was to be decided by the people of Texas. The balance of concessions was further kept by prohibiting the slave trade in Washington, D.C. but continuing the right (better said the wrong) of slave ownership in the capital. The provision that enraged the abolitionists most was the strengthening of the fugitive slave laws. It empowered federal agents to enforce the act. The Whig Party split over Fillmore’s signing of the law.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (Unitarian) said of the fugitive slave law, “I will not obey it, by God.” Theodore Parker (author of the opening words this morning), a Boston Unitarian minister, led an armed band of vigilantes that confronted slave hunters up from the South; intimidated them into leaving; and saved a slave couple who had escaped to Boston. Parker had acted in direct defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law. With loaded pistol and sword ready on his writing desk Unitarian Parker wrote the Unitarian President, Fillmore, telling what he had done and challenging Fillmore to enforce his “damned law.”

History has judged Fillmore harshly for that one law – a Unitarian President perpetuating slavery – the scandal! Why did he do it? Talk of secession! Remember the times. Even before Taylor’s inauguration, Virginia had passed legislation that threatened secession if the federal government interfered with “Southern Institutions”. John C. Calhoun (also a Unitarian and charter member of the Unitarian Church in Washington D.C.) and other Southern leaders were making ominous warnings. Tension between the States in the House of Representatives kept them from selecting a Speaker for over three weeks. By the time Fillmore took office, the South was ringing with calls for secession, not only if slavery were interfered with but if its expansion were checked.

Fillmore’s predecessor, Taylor, a Southerner, a slave owner and war hero, might have held the country together had he lived to veto the compromise of 1850 as he had said he would. Fillmore knew he could not hold the Union if he vetoed it. He set one goal, to preserve the Union and the Constitution. To give up the great compromise forged in 1787-1788 would, he knew, lead to the rupture of the Union. He thought the North was at that time not yet strong enough to win a civil war. Modern historians agree.

By the end of October 1850, Fillmore had angered abolitionists by sending federal troops to assist U.S. Marshal’s in the arrest of fugitive slaves. His determination for the compromise was also felt in the South. He sent reinforcements for Charleston, South Carolina where Southerners, angry over the North’s resistance to the fugitive slave laws, were threatening to seize federal property.

Fillmore has been most severely criticized for not fighting slavery with determination. However, there is another side. John F. Kennedy in Profiles of Courage chose to profile Daniel Webster. Webster was also a Whig and a Unitarian. Kennedy praises Webster for his courage in supporting The Compromise of 1850 with its Fugitive Slave Law. Fillmore had presided as Vice-President over the debates on the Compromise. He had heard Webster’s famous speech that cost Webster the support of his Massachusetts constituents. Emerson said of Webster at this time “The word ‘liberty’ in the mouth of Mr. Webster sounds like the word ‘love’ in the mouth of a courtesan.”

Webster and Fillmore thought slavery would die a natural death in the industrial revolution (Why invest capital in slave ownership when an Irishman could be rented for next to nothing in wages.) They saw the tension, not so much as slave vs. free, as agriculture vs. industry.

Webster was but one vote for the bill. Fillmore alone shouldered the final responsibility to veto or sign the bill. Fillmore bore the blame for the Compromise of 1850. Do not forget that Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, said that if he could preserve the Union by keeping slavery, he would.

When the Compromise of 1850 fell apart, the Civil War began. The Whigs were terribly weakened by abolitionist outrage.

Perhaps Fillmore’s next most far-reaching act was to send Commodore Perry to Japan. But Fillmore was done. The Whigs were done.

In the election of 1852 Fillmore and Webster fought over the nomination for President at the next Whig Convention, for 47 ballots to a deadlock. In the end, a man neither of them could support was nominated and lost the election. A saddened Fillmore attended, with his wife, the cold rainy inauguration of Franklin Pierce. Three weeks later Fillmore’s wife died of pneumonia contracted that inauguration day. Fillmore’s 22 year old daughter died the year after he left office.

After he had stepped down from office, the Officers of the American Unitarian Association invited Millard Fillmore to preside over the Annual Meeting. But abolitionists refused to allow him to be seated after he got there. They would have no part of this man who would not follow their conscience. One hopes that this free religion might be gentler today but I am not sure. After the Civil War, Fillmore stung by their action resigned from the Buffalo Church when its minister and his friend died.

By 1856 the Whig party had disintegrated. The lines grew harder: Democrats to the South, Republicans to the North. Millard Fillmore wanted a party for the Union. He then made the second mistake for which he has been charged harshly. He offered himself to the American Party, the Know-Nothings, anti-foreign and anti-Catholic, as candidate — a devil of a thing for a free religionist to do. He hoped to gather there the remnants of the Whigs. He then went off to Europe on a 12-month vacation.

Ironically he was on foreign soil, after just completing an audience with the Pope when he was notified that he had received the Know-Nothing’s nomination for President. He was chosen because he was the only person of stature that they could get.

But many Know-Nothings were unhappy with him and bolted the party. Fillmore is not known to have ever expressed any anti-Catholic sentiments. This though he had lost a bid for Governor of New York because Catholics were angry that his militancy for separation of church and state made him oppose state funding they sought for various Catholic institutions.

Fillmore expressed no support for the Know-Nothing goal of removing all Catholics from office alleging they would be loyal to the Pope rather than the U.S.A. He did, however, believe that foreigners should be fully Americanized in their views before becoming citizens. He was also concerned that immigrants, who joined our diplomatic service, were sent to the countries from which they had come. He thought it a potential conflict of interest.

In 1856, he ran for President as the American Party candidate with a Southern slaveholder as his running mate. They emphasized in the campaign regional compromise and preservation of the Union. They carried only the State of Maryland. However they also were the spoilers that kept the Republicans from winning and thus put the Civil war off four more years. It is important remember that the changes happening in this nation, at this time, were more dramatic and far reaching in many ways than the computer revolution in our own. These were the years of the industrial revolution. The dramatic growth of railroads and factories, was changing the North for a subsistence farm economy to market agriculture and industrial growth. These changes radically altered the balance between North and South, increasing the might of the North disproportionately.

It is difficult to know whether Millard was in any sense a believer in Know-Nothingism, or if he knew of the violence in which some of its members engaged, or if he merely compromised himself to win his objective of continued Union of the States. He wouldn’t be the first prejudice Unitarian. He was not a radical Abolitionist. He said, however, that he thought the fugitive slave law odious but constitutional.

Slavery was a despicable practice. There is no apology for it. It is easy to condemn compromisers. But it is harder to make the difficult decisions that the real world demands. If it had not been for the courage of Fillmore the Civil war would have come sooner. And if the South had succeeded in becoming independent, how long and how entrenched by bitterness would slavery have lasted? Until today? And if cooler heads had prevailed, compromise succeeded, would slavery possibly have collapsed anyway without the blood shed and bitterness engendered by that fratricidal war?

The tension between the ideal and the real, the promise and what is practical, between moral purity and the sin of every day life, is very real. It is a tension that we humans are both burdened and blessed with. I leave you to struggle with these hard dilemmas. You do each time you vote. I believe that we are at our best when we walk with each other talk with each other, even in our differences, rather than separating.

Millard Fillmore lived out the balance of his days quietly in private life. He supported Lincoln, met Lincoln in Buffalo when Lincoln was on his way from Illinois to his First Inaugural. He took Lincoln to services at the First Unitarian Church of Buffalo. He thought that the Republicans had provoked the Civil War but gave it his support at rallies. He thought Lincoln too harsh – he strongly supported Andrew Johnson’s efforts at conciliation.

Fillmore was no Saint if you look for moral purity, nor was he our most brilliant President. He refused an Honorary Degree from Oxford, because he had no earned degree of any kind. He said he was “not entitled to it.” (Give him high marks on humility). But he was more than most have given him credit for. He risked and lost his reputation to keep the vision of a United States, even as others risked much to purify that vision. In looking up Eliot Richardson on the Internet, I find that he is listed as an Episcopalian/Anglican. Perhaps he too felt the sting of our righteousness at the General Assembly.

May we, O God, be people who understand that the course of truth and good is never so easy, and that the tread of evil runs through each of us, most surely when we are convinced of our own righteousness.

Amen and Amen.

Mostly accurate, so far as I can tell.  No, I haven’t figured out how you cite this under MLA standards.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.


Happy birthday, Millard Fillmore! Mo Rocca’s profile, from our archives to yours

January 7, 2016

Millard Fillmore as a younger man? Several sites claim this is a painting of Fillmore, but as with much about our mysterious 13th president, it's difficult to confirm, partly because images of Fillmore really are rather rare.

Millard Fillmore as a younger man? Several sites claim this is a painting of Fillmore, but as with much about our mysterious 13th president, it’s difficult to confirm, partly because images of Fillmore really are rather rare.

Our 13th president, Millard Fillmore, was born January 7, 1800. He’s 216 years old today, though he’s been dead most of that time.

After commemorating Fillmore’s birthday each year for the past several years, I’m running out of ideas to write about him that seem novel, at least to me. Several years I’ve called the University of Buffalo to try to get copies of the remarks officials make at Fillmore’s gravesite, but those remarks rarely come through — so we don’t get enlightenment from them.

Reality? Few people remember anything about Fillmore even after we feature it here. For Fillmore’s 216th, let’s review what little we really know about him, with some encore posts.

Raconteur Mo Rocca profiled Fillmore for CBS’s Sunday Morning, a while back. That may be as good a place as any to review the highlights of Fillmore’s life, and meaning and place in U.S. history.

Most historians give Fillmore bad marks as a president, despite his having opened Japan for trade, and despite his having procured a steady supply of bird poop for U.S. industry.

I get this eerie feeling Fillmore would fit right in today in the GOP presidential scraps, and would be a serious challenge to fellow New Yorker Donald Trump. Do you agree?

You may view Mo Rocca’s “profile” of President Millard Fillmore for CBS Sunday Morning, on YouTube:

“CBS Sunday Morning” correspondent Mo Rocca, far left, poses with Kathy Frost, curator of the Millard Fillmore Presidential Site, and Robert Lowell Goller, town historian and director of the Aurora Historical Society, during his recent visit to East Aurora. Photo by Robert Lowell Goller

East Aurora Advertiser caption: CBS Visits East Aurora “CBS Sunday Morning” correspondent Mo Rocca, far left, poses with Kathy Frost, curator of the Millard Fillmore Presidential Site, and Robert Lowell Goller, town historian and director of the Aurora Historical Society, during his recent visit to East Aurora. Photo by Robert Lowell Goller

CBS broadcast this piece on February 16, 2014.

 974

More:


July 10, 1850: Last of the Whigs, Millard Fillmore sworn in as president

July 10, 2015

Bust of Millard Fillmore as Vice President, by Robert Cushing. Fillmore served 17 months as Vice President and President of the Senate. Photo from the U.S. Senate

Bust of Millard Fillmore as Vice President, by Robert Cushing. Fillmore served 17 months as Vice President and President of the Senate. Photo from the U.S. Senate

Whig Party? Does anyone know what a Whig stood for any more?

Millard Fillmore was elected vice president riding the ticket with the very popular Gen. Zachary Taylor, hero of the Mexican War.  Fillmore was a capable, yeoman politicians from a northern state; with only one president’s death in the preceding 59 years, parties had not yet figured out that the vice presidential candidate probably ought to be able to serve as president. Regional balance of the ticket was enough.

About 15 months into his presidency, President Taylor took ill  after presiding over July 4 festivities in blazing heat.  He died on July 9, 1850; Vice President Millard Fillmore took the oath as president the next day, and served out the term.  165 years ago today, Millard Fillmore served his first day as President, July 10, 1850.

Fillmore became the second person to take the presidency of the U.S. without having been elected.  John Tyler was William Henry Harrison’s vice president when Harrison died of pneumonia a mere 31 days after being sworn in as president.

Millard Fillmore in an 1850 lithograph by Francis DAvignon after a photograph by Matthew Brady (unclear if this was before or after his ascending to the presidency) - Library of Congress image

Millard Fillmore in an 1850 lithograph by Francis D’Avignon after a photograph by Matthew Brady (unclear if this was before or after his ascending to the presidency) – Library of Congress image

As president, Zachary Taylor encouraged New Mexico and California to draw up state constitutions, which would have disallowed slavery in those states.  To southern leaders who threatened secession, Taylor promised to personally lead the army that would hold the union together by force, and personally hang those who had proposed rebellion.  Fillmore succeeded Taylor at a crucial time in the union’s history, on the knife-edge of states’ seceding over the issues of slavery.

Fillmore had presided over the Senate during months of furious debate on issues that always seemed to come down to slavery.  Because he didn’t hold to the views of the Whig Party which had elected the Taylor-Fillmore ticket, even more than Taylor had strayed, the cabinet resigned.  Fillmore appointed Daniel Webster as Secretary of State, and proceeded to push for compromise on issues to avoid war.  His machinations helped get California admitted as a free state, but left New Mexico as a territory.  Fillmore’s support of the Fugitive Slave Act alienated even more Whigs, and by 1852 the Whigs refused to nominate Fillmore for a term of his own.  He left office in 1853, succeeded by Franklin Pierce.

Fillmore’s greatest accomplishment as president, perhaps, was his sending a fleet of ships to Japan to force that nation to open up to trade from the U.S.  The political furor over the Fugitive Slave Act, the Missouri Compromise, and other issues around slavery, tend to eclipse the memory of the good that Fillmore did.

Nota bene:  Controversy surrounded the death of Taylor.  Because he had threatened southern secessionists and incurred anger from several other groups, from the time of his death there were rumors he had been poisoned with arsenic.  Officially, the cause of death was gastroenteritis; popular accounts note that he had, in the heat of July, drunk milk and eaten cherries and cucumbers.  Certainly strep, staph or other bacteria in the milk could have created a problem.  In 1991 a team led by George Washington University Law Professor James Starrs exhumed Taylor’s body from his Louisville, Kentucky burial plot, and tested his remains for arsenic at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  Analysis presented to the Kentucky medical examiner indicated arsenic levels way too low for a poisoning victim.

[This is an encore post, in parts.]

More:

"An Available Candidate: The One Qualific...

“An Available Candidate: The One Qualification for a Whig President”. Political cartoon about the 1848 presidential election which refers to Zachary Taylor or Winfield Scott, the two leading contenders for the Whig Party nomination in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War. Published by Nathaniel Currier in 1848, digitally restored. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)  Despite the cynicism of many , Zachary Taylor won the Whig Party nomination, and the presidency.  Taylor died just over a year after his inauguration.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.


Millard Fillmore’s ascent, July 9, 1850: Death of President Zachary Taylor

July 10, 2015

President Zachary Taylor died on July 9, 1850.  The cause is still not fully clear, but poisoning by arsenic has been ruled out.

What would have happened had Taylor lived?

At the blog of the National Constitution Center, we get a few details of his death and life immediately preceding:

President Zachary Taylor’s death on July 9, 1850 shocked a nation that was in a heated debate about issues that eventually led to the Civil War. But his sudden passing also sidestepped two constitutional crises.

zachary-taylorThe details about how and why President Taylor died are still in dispute today. The president attended a ceremony at the site of the Washington Monument on July 4th on a reportedly hot summer day.

He fell ill soon after with a stomach ailment. His doctors gave him relief medication that included opium and later bled the president. Taylor died five days later at the age of 65.

Officially, he died from cholera morbus, and today, the prevalent theory is that Taylor suffered from gastroenteritis, an illness exacerbated by poor sanitary conditions in Washington.

There are other theories, including one where Taylor was poisoned by people who supported the South’s pro-slavery position. (In recent years, Taylor’s body was exhumed and a small, non-lethal amount of arsenic was found in samples taken from his corpse.)

It was Taylor’s unexpected opposition to slavery (he was from the South and was the last president to own slaves) that had caused an immediate crisis in 1850.

Taylor ran as a Whig candidate in 1848 and he wasn’t a professional politician. Taylor was a career military man and a hero in the war with Mexico.

Once he took office in March 1849, it became clear that Taylor, the military man, was more interested in preserving the Union than the art of politics.

Taylor decided to press for statehood for the newly acquired territories of California and New Mexico, and to let the regions hold their own constitutional conventions. This guaranteed that California and New Mexico would join the Union as anti-slavery states, tipping the balance in the Senate to the North.

[more at the blog site]

In any case, Taylor died on July 9.

And on July 10, 1850, his vice president, Millard Fillmore, was sworn in as president.

No, that doesn’t mean the bathtub tale is true.

More:

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.


89 years ago, May 23, 1926: Mencken confessed Fillmore bathtub hoax, “any facts . . . got there accidentally”

May 23, 2015

Reasons for my annual observance of a moment of silence, here on May 23, for the failed confession of Mr. Mencken should be obvious to even a sleepy reader.  Alas, annually the need grows to call attention to the dangers of hoaxing, as hoaxes particularly in the political life of the U.S. grow in number, in viciousness, and in the numbers of gullibles suckered.  Here, again, is our annual reading of the confession with a few photographs and new links thrown in for easy learning:

May 23, 1926, H. L. Mencken‘s newspaper column confessed his hoax of nine years earlier — he had made up whole cloth the story of Millard Fillmore‘s only accomplishment being the installation of a plumbed bathtub in the White House (in the 1850s known as the Executive Mansion).

H. L. Mencken, America's "wittiest defender of liberty," according to a story in the resurrected American Mercury. Image from American Mercury.

H. L. Mencken, America’s “wittiest defender of liberty,” according to a story in the resurrected American Mercury. Image from American Mercury.

Alas, the hoax cat was out of the bag, and the hoax information still pollutes the pool of history today.

Text of Mencken’s confession, from the Museum of Hoaxes:

Melancholy Reflections

On Dec. 28, 1917, I printed in the New York Evening Mail, a paper now extinct, an article purporting to give the history of the bathtub. This article, I may say at once, was a tissue of absurdities, all of them deliberate and most of them obvious…

This article, as I say, was planned as a piece of spoofing to relieve the strain of war days, and I confess that I regarded it, when it came out, with considerable satisfaction. It was reprinted by various great organs of the enlightenment, and after a while the usual letters began to reach me from readers. Then, suddenly, my satisfaction turned to consternation. For these readers, it appeared, all took my idle jocosities with complete seriousness. Some of them, of antiquarian tastes, asked for further light on this or that phase of the subject. Others actually offered me corroboration!

But the worst was to come. Pretty soon I began to encounter my preposterous “facts” in the writings of other men. They began to be used by chiropractors and other such quacks as evidence of the stupidity of medical men. They began to be cited by medical men as proof of the progress of public hygiene. They got into learned journals. They were alluded to on the floor of congress. They crossed the ocean, and were discussed solemnly in England and on the continent. Finally, I began to find them in standard works of reference. Today, I believe, they are accepted as gospel everywhere on earth. To question them becomes as hazardous as to question the Norman invasion.

* * *

And as rare. This is the first time, indeed, that they have ever been questioned, and I confess at once that even I myself, their author, feel a certain hesitancy about doing it. Once more, I suppose, I’ll be accused of taking the wrong side for the mere pleasure of standing in opposition. The Cincinnati boomers, who have made much of the boast that the bathtub industry, now running to $200,000,000 a year, was started in their town, will charge me with spreading lies against them. The chiropractors will damn me for blowing up their ammunition. The medical gents, having swallowed my quackery, will now denounce me as a quack for exposing them. And in the end, no doubt, the thing will simmer down to a general feeling that I have once more committed some vague and sinister crime against the United States, and there will be a renewal of the demand that I be deported to Russia.

I recite this history, not because it is singular, but because it is typical. It is out of just such frauds, I believe, that most of the so-called knowledge of humanity flows. What begins as a guess — or, perhaps, not infrequently, as a downright and deliberate lie — ends as a fact and is embalmed in the history books. One recalls the gaudy days of 1914-1918. How much that was then devoured by the newspaper readers of the world was actually true? Probably not 1 per cent. Ever since the war ended learned and laborious men have been at work examining and exposing its fictions. But every one of these fictions retains full faith and credit today. To question even the most palpably absurd of them, in most parts of the United States, is to invite denunciation as a bolshevik.

So with all other wars. For example, the revolution. For years past American historians have been investigating the orthodox legends. Almost all of them turn out to be blowsy nonsense. Yet they remain in the school history books and every effort to get them out causes a dreadful row, and those who make it are accused of all sorts of treasons and spoils. The truth, indeed, is something that mankind, for some mysterious reason, instinctively dislikes. Every man who tries to tell it is unpopular, and even when, by the sheer strength of his case, he prevails, he is put down as a scoundrel.

* * *

As a practicing journalist for many years, I have often had close contact with history in the making. I can recall no time or place when what actually occurred was afterward generally known and believed. Sometimes a part of the truth got out, but never all. And what actually got out was seldom clearly understood. Consider, for example, the legends that follow every national convention. A thousand newspaper correspondents are on the scene, all of them theoretically competent to see accurately and report honestly, but it is seldom that two of them agree perfectly, and after a month after the convention adjourns the accepted version of what occurred usually differs from the accounts of all of them.

Political boss Harry M. Daugherty (later Attor...

Political boss Harry M. Daugherty (later Attorney General of the United States), left, with Senator Warren G. Harding (later President of the United States) at Harding’s home in Marion, Ohio during the 1920 presidential campaign. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I point to the Republican convention of 1920, which nominated the eminent and lamented Harding. A week after the delegates adjourned the whole country believed that Harding had been put through by Col. George Harvey: Harvey himself admitted it. Then other claimants to the honor arose, and after a year or two it was generally held that the trick had been turned by the distinguished Harry M. Daugherty, by that time a salient light of the Harding cabinet. The story began to acquire corroborative detail. Delegates and correspondents began to remember things that they had not noticed on the spot. What the orthodox tale is today with Daugherty in eclipse, I don’t know, but you may be sure that it is full of mysterious intrigue and bold adventure.

Ambassador Myron T. Herrick was part of the U....

Ambassador Myron T. Herrick was part of the U.S. delegation to the International Chamber of Commerce which sailed on Kroonland in 1920. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What are the facts? The facts are that Harvey had little more to do with the nomination of Harding than I did, and that Daugherty was immensely surprised when good Warren won. The nomination was really due to the intense heat, and to that alone. The delegates, torn by the savage three cornered fight between Lowden, Johnson, and Wood, came to Saturday morning in despair. The temperature in the convention hall was at least 120 degrees. They were eager to get home. When it became apparent that the leaders could not break the deadlock they ran amuck and nominated Harding, as the one aspirant who had no enemies. If any individual managed the business it was not Harvey or Daugherty, but Myron T. Herrick. But so far as I know Herrick’s hand in it has never been mentioned.

* * *

English: Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier i...

Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier in arena before fight at Boyle’s Thirty Acres. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I turn to a more pleasant field — that of sport in the grand manner. On July 2, 1921, in the great bowl at Jersey City, the Hon. Jack Dempsey met M. Carpentier, the gallant frog. The sympathy of the crowd was overwhelmingly with M. Carpentier and every time he struck a blow he got a round of applause, even if it didn’t land. I had an excellent seat, very near the ring, and saw every move of the two men. From the first moment Dr. Dempsey had it all his own way. He could have knocked out M. Carpentier in the first half of the first round. After that first half he simply waited his chance to do it politely and humanely.

Yet certain great newspapers reported the next morning that M. Carpentier had delivered an appalling wallop in the second round and that Dr. Dempsey had narrowly escaped going out. Others told the truth, but what chance had the truth against that romantic lie? It is believed in to this day by at least 99.99 per cent of all the boxing fans in Christendom. Carpentier himself, when he recovered from his beating, admitted categorically that it was nonsense, but even Carpentier could make no headway against the almost universal human tendency to cherish what is not true. A thousand years hence schoolboys will be taught that the frog had Dempsey going. It may become in time a religious dogma, like the doctrine that Jonah swallowed the whale. Scoffers who doubt it will be damned to hell.

The moral, if any, I leave to psycho-pathologists, if competent ones can be found. All I care to do today is to reiterate, in the most solemn and awful terms, that my history of the bathtub, printed on Dec. 28, 1917, was pure buncombe. If there were any facts in it they got there accidentally and against my design. But today the tale is in the encyclopedias. History, said a great American soothsayer, is bunk.

[Emphasis in that last paragraph added here.]

Mencken’s confession gets much less attention than it deserves.  In a just world, this essay would be part of every AP U.S. history text, and would be available for printing for students to read individually in class and to discuss, debate and ponder.  Quite to the contrary, state legislatures today debate whether to require teaching of the hoax that disastrous climate change is not occurring, only 45% of Americans claim to know better for certain; more legislatures work hard to devise ways to insert hoaxes against biology (evolution and human reproduction, notably), astronomy and physics (Big Bang), history and even education (Islam is a root of socialist thought, President Obama is not Christian, weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, teachers are socialists).

In 2013, the governing body of the Boy Scouts of America voted on whether to allow homosexual boys to be Scouts — as if an 8-year-old kid joining Cub Scouts knows enough about sex and love, and sex predation, to threaten the Constitution of the U.S. if we allow him to learn how to put alphabet macaroni onto a board spelling out “Mom,” or to learn how to carve an automobile out of a block of wood and race it on a closed-course track.  The so-called Family Research Council (FRC) has conducted a campaign of vicious hoaxes against the measure, even going so far as to purloin official logos of the Boy Scouts to suggest they speak for BSA.  The hoax has millions of victims, they claim.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., GOP Members of Congress call for investigations into wrongdoing evidenced in e-mails between the White House and State Department and CIA, over the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, and the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens.  To hear the GOP describe it, you’d never know that the GOP opposed President Obama’s actions to save the city of Benghazi from destruction by dictator Muammar Gadhafy a few months before, that the GOP slashed the security budget for all U.S. diplomatic missions, leaving Ambassador Stevens underprotected, that the GOP was opposed to much of the work of Ambassador Stevens, or that the incriminating e-mails were hoaxed up by GOP Congressional staff.  [This paragraph was written two years ago; still oddly valid in 2015.]

Other hoaxes that plague our nation, national security, and freedom from fear:

  • Texans fret that President Obama will invade Texas and annex it into the United States of America.
  • Many business lobbyists scream that rogue scientists cooked up global warming, and tell us that all of us frogs will know when the water is too warm, and can leap to safety later.
  • Any Google or Bing search turns up high dudgeon ne’er-do-gooders who scream that we need to bring back DDT to beat malaria, Ebola, West Nile virus and tooth decay, though DDT has always been available to fight disease-carrying insects, and it won’t work against Ebola, and it’s inappropriate against West Nile.
  • Et cetera.
  • Et cetera.
  • Et cetera.

If you see pale faces among the GOP Congressional staff or the FRC this morning, it may be because the ghost of H. L. Mencken appeared to them last night to give them hell.  We could hope.

More:

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience, and repetition of the facts.


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