Millard Fillmore, Zachary Taylor, and American Conspiracies

By Kaleena Fraga

Thanks to Twitter and the Internet, conspiracy theories abound in today’s politics. But conspiracy theories have always had a place in American political history. On this day in 1850 Millard Fillmore was inaugurated as president, stepping into the role from the vice presidency after Zachary Taylor died in office. Taylor’s death was seen as suspicious by some, to the point that his body was exhumed 141 years after his death.

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Millard Fillmore (and Alec Baldwin doppelgänger)

Taylor, after partaking in 4th of July activities on a hot summer day in Washington D.C. is reported to have downed large quantities of iced milk and cherries, which gave him a terrible stomach ache. The doctors who tried to cure him made things worse, and Taylor, a Whig, died a few days later. His vice president Fillmore was also a Whig, but had dabbled in perhaps the first (but not the last) political party born of a conspiracy theory, the Anti-Masons, who believed that Freemasons were murdering whistleblowers. They counted John Quincy Adams as one of their members. Fillmore would also later join the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing party.

Taylor’s illness at the time was attributed to “cholera morbus” caused by what he ate, but suspicions abounded. Although Taylor had no known enemies–Professor Elbert B. Smith, of the University of Maryland called him the “Eisenhower of his time”–he did live in an era ripe with political tension. In the build-up to the Civil War, which would start ten years later, states continued to argue about rules pertaining to slavery, leading one Senator to draw a pistol on another on the Senate floor in the months before Taylor’s death.

Taylor was from the South and had even owned slaves, but his actions as president made many Southerners nervous. He had climbed the political rungs through his career as a soldier, and sought to damper any talks of secession among the states. Fillmore was from the North, but sympathetic to Southern interests. Once president, he helped to arrange the Compromise of 1850 which Taylor had opposed. Although the Compromise allowed California into the Union as a free state, it also hardened the Fugitive Slave Act, requiring citizens to help recover slaves who had fled their owners, and denying slaves who fled their right to a trial by jury.

Taylor’s body was exhumed in 1991, after lobbying by author Clara Rising, who claimed that Taylor, not Lincoln, could be the first American president to be assassinated. She theorized that Taylor’s death could have come from arsenic poisoning, and that he had died suddenly and strangely for someone so healthy. “Right after his death, everything [Taylor] had worked against came forward and was passed by both houses of Congress,” said Rising.

The results of the tests done on Taylor’s exhumed body put the conspiracy theory to rest: although his corpse contained trace amounts of arsenic, it would not have been enough to kill him. It’s likely that the milk and cherries that Taylor ate did not kill the president, but perhaps exacerbated another condition–and the doctors’ attempts to save him likely made things worse.

Although Taylor didn’t live long enough to leave much of a mark on the presidency or the nation, his untimely death easily leads to speculation of what could have happened if he lived. If Taylor had served out his full term, instead of Fillmore, would it have been possible to avoid the Civil War? We’ll never know.

A Momentous Day, a Crowded Stage: The Dedication of the Lincoln Memorial

By Kaleena Fraga

Ninety-six years ago today a crowd gathered in Washington D.C. to witness the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial. Present were former president William Howard Taft, presiding as Chief Justice, current president Warren G. Harding, and Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln. And, of course, Abraham Lincoln himself, immortalized in stone and looming almost 100 feet over the three men.

Between the three of them, the men comprised over fifty years of presidential history, and a resume nearly as tall as the memorial itself. Robert Lincoln had been twenty-two when his father was assassinated. Although he didn’t follow in his footsteps to the presidency, Robert Lincoln had served as U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, as the Secretary of War under two presidents, and as the chairman and president of the Pullman Railroad Company. He held the dubious honor of being present for two other presidential assassinations–those of Presidents Garfield and McKinley–which made him acknowledge “a certain fatality about the presidential function when I am present.” Still, no one at the dedication that day seemed nervous about his presence.

moton at memorialDr. Robert Moton, a civil rights activist, gave the keynote address. Although he spoke to a largely segregated audience, Moton pushed for equality for all races. The previous year, Moton had written President Harding a letter with suggestions on how to improve race-relations. His crusade to hire an all-black staff at the Tuskegee Veterans Administration Hospital for African-American WWI veterans had provoked death threats from white supremacists, although Harding endorsed the idea. Moton’s presence on stage, then, seemed to be both an explicit realization of Lincoln’s promise, and an implicit nod of support from the current administration. Yet he also represented the work to be done–despite giving the keynote, Moton was not allowed to sit on the speaker’s platform.

(As for Taft and Harding, curious readers can learn more about them here and here).

The architect Henry Bacon designed the memorial, which he modeled after the Pantheon. Bacon felt that the man who had saved democracy deserved a memorial reminiscent of the birthplace of democracy. It featured 36 pillars to represent the 36 states that Lincoln had reunited; texts of the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address; and, of course, the looming figure of Lincoln, designed by David Chester French.

Harding, the child of abolitionists, accepted the dedication from Taft. He closed the ceremony by saying:

“This Memorial is less for Abraham Lincoln than those of us today, and for those who follow after.”

They were prescient words–the Lincoln Memorial would go on to be a gathering place for people seeking equality and justice.

The Final Voyage: Abraham Lincoln’s Funeral Train

By Kaleena Fraga

Between April 21st and May 4th, 1865, the train carrying Abraham Lincoln’s body journeyed from Washington D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, where the president would be buried. It also carried his son, Willie, who had died at the White House in 1862 of typhoid fever.

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Secretary of War Edwin Stanton

The train would travel 1600 miles and visit 180 cities across seven states. The journey was a mammoth effort coordinated by Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. In order to force the railroad companies to cooperate, Stanton declared all railroads as military domains. Although Mary Lincoln had pushed for the train to take the most efficient route possible, Stanton insisted that the train take a path that would allow the most people to see it. Mary Lincoln, however, had the last word for the president and her son’s final resting place–Oak Ridge Cemetery, outside of Springfield, Illinois (accepting and then rejecting a request to have the president buried in downtown Springfield, near a train line. Mary Lincoln wanted her husband to rest “in some quiet place.”)

The train, called The United States, had been built with the purpose of presidential travel, the same role that Air Force One plays for presidents today. It was built by the U.S. Military Railroad starting in 1863–this department imagined that once the Civil War ended Lincoln would need to travel great distances to meet with Americans and mend the country. Lincoln had an appointment to see the train for the first time on April 15th, 1865–the day after he was shot at Ford’s Theater.

The train itself was bought by Union Pacific before its completed its voyage to Springfield. It was made into a regular passenger train, and then purchased by a private citizen, Thomas Lowry. Lowry called the train “the most sacred relic in the United States.” He had planned to restore and permanently display the funeral car, but he died in 1909 of tuberculosis. In 1911, a fire destroyed the train.

The train’s scheduled stops were published in local newspapers, giving people plenty of notice for when they could come and pay their respects. Anyone in the country who loved Barbara Bush could have tuned into her funeral on April 21st, 2018, but in April 1865 mass media didn’t exist. Lincoln’s funeral train would allow seven million people across the country to share in the mourning of the president–about a third of the country’s population in 1865.

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TR can be seen looking out the second story window, on the left side of the photograph

At each scheduled stop, the coffin was taken off the train and placed in a public place so that the people could say goodbye. People waited for hours for this chance, some watching from windows or from the street as the funeral procession went by, and thousands more gathering into places like Independence Hall in Philadelphia to mourn Lincoln. A young Theodore Roosevelt was one such mourner–he and his brother Elliot watched the funeral procession from their grandfather’s Union Square mansion in New York City. Others stood along the track to watch the train as it went by–chugging along at 20 miles per hour, with a portrait of Lincoln at the front of the train.

After a long journey, the train stopped in Springfield, Illinois. Here the president and Willie were taken off the train and laid to rest. Ten thousand people followed the procession from the Springfield Capitol to the cemetery. Major Grenville Dodge later recalled that the procession was:

“the saddest sight of my life…the streets were lined with thousands and thousands of people, evidently in great distress and sorrow…There was hardly a person who was not in tears, and when I looked around my troops I saw many of them in tears.”

Mary Lincoln, still inconsolable over her husband’s death, had remained in Washington D.C. with her young son Tad. The Lincoln’s other son, twenty-two year old Robert Lincoln, represented the family at the funeral.

Only one other president’s body would be taken by train to its grave–Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt, who died in Warm Springs, Georgia, travelled 1100 miles from Georgia to Washington D.C. Five hundred thousand people gathered at Union Station to witness the body’s arrival back in Washington. The president was brought to the East Room of the White House, where he lay in state for about five hours. From there, Roosevelt went to his final resting place–Hyde Park, in New York state.

Of War and Poets: Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln

By Duane Soubirous

In celebration of National Poetry Month, History First recognizes Walt Whitman for crafting his observations into poetry, giving future generations of Americans the ability to see Whitman’s time period through his eyes.

Walt Whitman is best known for his poetry collection Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855 with 12 poems. He continuously revised and added to Leaves of Grass throughout his life, and the final 1892 “deathbed” edition consists of almost 400 poems, including “Drum-Taps,” a collection of poems written about the Civil War, and “Memories of President Lincoln,” containing Whitman’s best-known poem, “O Captain! My Captain!”

ralph waldo emersonIn 1842 Whitman attended a lecture given by Ralph Waldo Emerson, where Emerson predicted that America would soon have its own poet who would write about the American experience in a uniquely American style. “When he lifts his great voice, men gather to him and forget all that is past, and then his words are to the hearers, pictures of all history,” Emerson said.

If Walt Whitman believed he could be the “genius of poetry” that Emerson prophesied, few others shared his confidence. The first edition of Leaves of Grass, where Whitman debuted his style, free of the forms that defined poetry, was met with scathing reviews. It sold fewer copies than Whitman had given away. One reviewer called Leaves of Grass “a mass of stupid filth,” and Whitman’s brother even said he “didn’t think it worth reading.” Emerson, however, wrote Whitman a letter of encouragement, praising Leaves of Grass as “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”

The 1850s were a time of unprecedented divisions in the United States. Northerners denounced pro-slavery laws of Congress and Supreme Court decisions, and Southerners threatened secession over Northerners’ hostility to slavery. Whitman hoped Leaves of Grass would unite the country. “I think that Whitman believed that Leaves of Grass was going to prevent a Civil War,” Whitman scholar Ed Folsom said in the Walt Whitman episode of PBS’s American Experience. “Leaves of Grass is really a book about preserving the Union. It’s a book about holding things together, being able to absorb contradictions and still maintain a single identity.”

Whitman’s poetry couldn’t keep the country together, and the ensuing Civil War hit especially close to home. Whitman read in the papers that his younger brother was a casualty in almanack-battle-fredericksburg-painting.jpgthe Battle of Fredericksburg, where the Union was badly defeated. Whitman rushed to the battlefield, only to find that his brother was minimally injured. Whitman stayed with his brother for over a week and witnessed the realities of war. “Living so close to the front, to the dressing stations and the hospital tents pitched on the frozen ground, the fresh barrel-stave markers in the burial field, the vexed Rappahannock, and the ruins of Fredericksburg, he saw ‘what well men and sick men and mangled men endure,’” Justin Kaplan wrote in Walt Whitman: A Life. Whitman began writing down these observations, later using them for his “Drum-Taps” poems.

After his experience on the battlefield, Whitman, too old to fight, became a dedicated volunteer in army hospitals. He served the non-medical needs of wounded soldiers, providing them with items like food, linens, stationery, and money. He often wrote letters informing families of a loved one’s death. “In his poem ‘Come Up from the Fields Father,’ Whitman imagined the family that received a letter like those he wrote,” Drew Gilpin Faust wrote in This Republic of Suffering. “It reports his gunshot wound but does not yet communicate the more terrible truth that ‘he is dead already’ by the time the letter arrives. It is a letter that will destroy the mother, as a rifle has already destroyed the son.”

Whitman captured the widespread grief after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. He wrote “Hush’d Be the Camps To-day” on the day of Lincoln’s funeral. “Whitman speaks as one of the people, leading the soldiers in mourning and urging common men to whom he is so devoted to join him in tribute to ‘our dear commander,’” Faust wrote. Another poem commemorating Lincoln, “O Captain! My Captain!” was written with a rhythm so uncommon to Whitman’s poetry, a democratic style that is accessible to common people. In this poem, Whitman represents “the searing grief of a single man, in a representation of the individual pain of which the cumulative loss is constituted.”

If Irish folklore is to be believed, Irish clans fighting in the old wars had an agreement to spare the poets. “Don’t kill the poets, because the poets had to be left to tell the story,” historian David Blight said. Through Walt Whitman’s poetry, the modern reader can see the total devastation of war and pain of losing a leader and a hero.