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.

milly fillmore
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.

James Madison: Last Words and Lessons Learned

By Kaleena Fraga

When James Madison died on this day in 1836, he was the last surviving signer of the U.S. Constitution. Because his fellow ex-presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe had serendipitously died on July 4th, Madison’s doctor offered to prolong his life so that he too could die on the July 4th anniversary. Madison refused. He died six days before the 60th anniversary of the nation’s birth.

As Madison’s family gathered around his deathbed, one of his nieces noticed a shift in her uncle’s expression. When she asked him if he was alright, he responded with his last words: “Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear.”

Madison, often called the Father of the Constitution, accomplished a lot in the early history of the United States, including his two terms as president. (One of History First’s favorite political facts is that the U.S. has only had three consecutive two term presidents twice–Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Clinton, Bush, Obama). But on this anniversary of his death, we’ll focus on a lesson Madison learned early on. Madison, who once read the histories of every confederacy ever in order to systematically analyze what could work and what wouldn’t in the young United States, only had to learn his lessons once.

In 1777 Madison ran for the Virginia Assembly. These elections–nine months after independence was declared–would be the first elections which Virginia’s white male citizens could participate. County-based elections at the time had a festive atmosphere, and were treated like a public holiday. Those running for election customarily provided alcohol–beer and whiskey–to their voters.

According to Madison biographer Noah Feldman, from his work the The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President, there was a symbolic meaning to to this arrangement. “In a culture that emphasized deference to authority,” Feldman writes, “the candidates were presenting themselves as generous, gracious men of means, pleased to indulge the (slightly) lower orders.”

Madison at the time was flush with republican spirit, and the belief that all men were created equal. To provide alcohol to voters, he reasoned, would be akin to buying their votes. He believed that this election should reflect “the purity of moral and of republican principles.” Voters, he thought, could do their civic duty without the “the corrupting influence of spiritous liquors, and other treats.”

Big mistake.

Although Madison decided his voters would be flattered that he treated them as equals, and as men incorruptible by liquor, he had erred. Voters saw Madison’s decision to withhold alcohol as an expression of “pride or parsimony.” His opponent, Charles Porter, was a tavern keeper who happily provided alcohol to the gathered voters. Porter won the election.

“The ordinary voter,” writes Feldman, “did not want to have a pint of ale with James Madison; and the feeling, Madison demonstrated, was mutual.”

Madison learned his lesson. He’d never again fail to provide alcohol and “treats” to his voters. In any case, his legacy grew to overshadow a single lost election early in his political career.

The Man After the Wall: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War

By Kaleena Fraga

reagan wallOn this day in 1987, Ronald Reagan famously called on Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”–a wall which physically separated East and West Berlin, and symbolized the separation between the Soviet Block and the West.

Yet the wall did not come down in 1987, or in 1988. It would not be torn down until 1989, after Reagan had left office, and after his vice president, George H.W. Bush, had been elected as president.

A few months before the wall fell, Bush had also advocated for its destruction, albeit in a less dramatic fashion than Reagan. During a speech in Mainz, Germany to celebrate the 40th anniversary of NATO, he noted that barriers in Austria and Hungary had recently been removed, and so:

“Let Berlin be next — let Berlin be next! Nowhere is the division between East and West seen more clearly than in Berlin. And there this brutal wall cuts neighbor from neighbor, brother from brother. And that wall stands as a monument to the failure of communism. It must come down.”

On November 9, 1989 Bush received word that the wall had been breeched.

To Bush, the fall of the wall represented a great symbolic victory, but also a danger of violence. He worried that police in East Germany would fire upon demonstrators, and that this could turn a cold war into a hot one. From the Soviets, the Bush White House received a plea for calm, urging the Americans to “not overreact.” Bush later recalled that, “[Gorbachev] worried about demonstrations in Germany that might get out of control, and he asked for understanding.”

To the gathered press, Bush gave a prepared statement which welcomed the fall of the wall, nothing that the “the tragic symbolism of the Berlin Wall…will have been overcome by the indomitable spirit of man’s desire for freedom.”

But Bush, noted biographer John Meacham in his book Destiny and Power: The American bush briefs reportersOdyssey of George H.W. Bush, was more focused on what could go wrong rather than the symbolic triumph of the West over the Soviets, which led to a contentious exchange between the president and CBS reporter Lesley Stahl.

“This is a great victory for our side in the big East-West battle, but you don’t seem elated,” said Stahl. “I’m wondering if you’re thinking of the problems.”

“I’m not an emotional kind of guy,” Bush replied.

“Well, how elated are you?”

“I’m very pleased.”

Democrats in Congress also sought a stronger response from the president. Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell thought Bush should fly to Berlin so that he could make a statement about the end of Communism, with the fallen wall as a dramatic background. House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt said that Bush was “inadequate to the moment.”

From the Soviets, Gorbachev warned of “unforeseen consequences.” Bush heard reports of violence in other Soviet republics. In the days and weeks that followed, it appeared that Soviet power in Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia were also faltering. In his diary, Bush wrote that Mitchell had been “nuts to suggest you pour gasoline on those embers.”

When Bush met with Gorbachev at the Malta Conference that December, he was cautiously optimistic, and prepared.bush and gorbachev TIME

“I hope you have noticed,” he said to Gorbachev, “we have not responded with flamboyance or arrogance that would complicate Soviet relations…I have been called cautious or timid. I am cautious, but not timid. But I have conducted myself in ways not to complicate your life. That’s why I have not jumped up and down on the Berlin Wall.”

“Yes, we have seen that,” said Gorbachev, “and appreciate that.”

On December 3rd, the two men held the first ever joint press conference between an American president and a leader of the Soviet Union.

Expressing gratitude for Bush’s caution, and recognizing the danger of exaggeration, Gorbachev said that he and Bush agreed that “the characteristics of the cold war should be abandoned…the arms race, mistrust, psychological and ideological struggle, all those should be things of the past.”

Coming home, Bush found he faced criticism not only from the left, but also from the right–from within his own White House. Vice President Quayle, Bush wrote in his diary, saw a chance to become “the spokesman of the right,” a sort of disloyalty to Bush’s efforts that he had never been guilty of during his eight years as Reagan’s vice president.

Ultimately Bush’s caution about the fall of the wall allowed him to navigate fragile relationships with both Gorbachev and the Chancellor of Germany, Helmut Kohl. It allowed him to piece together a new, post-Cold War world order. His refusal to gloat despite pressure on both sides proved crucial, and can serve today as a lesson to other American leaders on the world stage.

The Ambassador Hotel: June 5th, 1968

By Kaleena Fraga

“What I think is quite clear is that we can work together in the last analysis and that what has been going on in the United States over the last three years, the divisions, the violence, the disenchantment with our society, the divisions whether it’s between blacks and whites, between the poor and the more affluent, or between age groups or on the war in Vietnam, that we can start to work together.

“We are a great country, an unselfish country, a compassionate country. And I intend to make that my basis for running. So, my thanks to all of you, and now it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there.”

These were the last words Robert F. Kennedy spoke to a crowd of jubilant supporters after he won the California primary during his run for president in 1968. He and his team disappeared into the kitchens of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles–minutes later, Kennedy was shot.

President Johnson, no fan of Bobby Kennedy, spoke to the nation following Kennedy’s death. Johnson said that Kennedy, “affirmed this country–affirmed the essential decency of its people, their longing for peace, their desire to improve conditions of life for all…Our public life is diminished by his loss.”

Today history is rife with what-if questions surrounding Bobby Kennedy. What if he had lived, and became president instead of Richard Nixon in 1968? Friends and family of Kennedy have recently thrown the resolution of his assassination into doubt. Although perhaps not as widely disputed as his brother Jack’s death, Bobby Kennedy’s son and his close friend and campaign aide, Paul Schrade, have both pointed to flaws in the case.

Kennedy’s assassination marked another bloody event in a year that had already seen student protests, climbing casualties in Vietnam, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Speaking to the American people, Johnson noted: “in a climate of extremism, of disrespect for law, of contempt for the lives of others, violence may bring down the very best among us. A nation that tolerates violence in any form cannot expect to contain it to minor outbursts.”

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.

April 14th, 1865: On the Sidelines of Lincoln’s Assassination

By Kaleena Fraga

On April 14th, 1865 Abraham Lincoln was shot in the head by John Wilkes Booth. This much is well known. But the plot to kill the president was larger than two men, and it struck Washington with such force that it left more than one casualty.

William Henry Seward: Along with Lincoln, the conspirators of the assassination sought to kill both the secretary of state, Seward, and the vice president.  While Booth went to Ford’s Theatre, Lewis Powell headed for Seward’s residence, where the secretary had sewardbeen bedridden for nine days following a carriage accident that had almost killed him.

The president and his secretary of state, once political rivals, enjoyed a close relationship and partnership. Indeed, when Lincoln visited Seward after his carriage accident, he lay down in bed beside him, and recounted his recent journey to Richmond until Seward fell asleep.

On the night of April 14th, Lewis Powell, a friend of John Wilkes Booth, was dispatched to the Seward residence. Powell claimed he had been sent by a doctor with medicine for Seward and that he must deliver it in person. Seward’s son, Fred, refused to let him by and at this point Powell pulled a pistol. It misfired, but Powell used it to clobber Fred, leaving him unconscious.

Powell stormed Seward’s chamber, slashing Seward’s guard in the face. Seward’s daughter, Fanny, ran into the room and begged Powell not to kill her father. According to Doris Kearns Goodwin, the word kill is what revived the secretary–who awoke just as Powell stabbed him in in the neck and face. Seward’s other son, Gus, ran into the room, and he and Seward’s injured guard managed to pull Powell away. Powell fled, stabbing a stabbing-seward-national-police-gazette-4-22-1865young State Department messenger on his way out of the house.

Seward had been saved in part by the carriage accident that almost took his life. Goodwin writes that, “the knife had been deflected by the metal contraption holding Seward’s broken jaw in place.”

How Seward learned of the president’s death is disputed. His biographer Walter Stahr wrote that Seward was informed by his wife, who told him “very gently” “Henry, the president is gone.” Goodwin writes, however, that news of the president’s death was kept from Seward because of his fragile condition. According to her biography Team of Rivals, Seward noticed the flag at half- mast at the War Department from his window, and announced:

“The president is dead. If he had been alive he would have been the first to call on me. But he has not been here, nor has he sent to know how I am, and there’s the flag at halfmast.”

Mary Surratt: A name largely forgotten by history, Surratt was the first women ever to be executed by the U.S. government. Surratt grew up in a family that owned slaves and during the war she and her husband used their home as a safe house for Confederate soldiers. Her son Isaac fought for the Confederacy. Heavily in debt after the death of her husband, Surratt moved to Washington D.C. and opened a boarding house. Her son John came too, and befriended a frequent visitor to the boarding house, John Wilkes Booth.Mary Elizabeth Jenkins Surratt (1820 or May 1823 – July 7, 1865) Dated 1865

On the night of the assassination the police came to the boarding house looking for both Booth and John Surratt, whom they suspected had participated in the failed assassination of William Henry Seward. Neither were there, but as the police were questioning Surratt, Lewis Powell showed up. One of Seward’s servants identified him. Both Powell and Surratt were taken into custody–her son, John, fled and escaped to Canada.

Surratt claimed innocence–however, a tavern keeper named John Lloyd disputed this, testifying that she had told him to keep guns at the ready on the night of Lincoln’s assassination–the same guns that were later used to shoot the president. After he heard of Lincoln’s death Lloyd is reported to have cried, “Mrs. Surratt, that vile woman, she has ruined me!”

Up until her execution, Surratt maintained her innocence. Powell also insisted that she had nothing to do with the conspiracy. Despite this, she was tried and convicted. On July 7th, 1865 she was hanged.

Henry Rathbone & Clara Harris: Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancee Clara Harris accompanied the Lincolns to Ford’s Theatre on April 14th. Clara was a friend of Mary Todd Lincoln, and the two often went to the theater together. The Lincolns had originally invited Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia, but Julia, not a fan of the First Lady, insisted they go to New Jersey instead. With the war over, Clara later recalled that the Lincolns were “in the gayest of spirits.” At one point Lincoln took his wife’s hand and Mary Lincoln chided him, saying, “What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so?” Lincoln, speaking his last words before his death, is reported to have replied, “She won’t think anything about it.”

henry-and-claraWhen Booth shot Lincoln, Rathbone leapt up and tried to disarm him. Booth stabbed Rathbone and then escaped, as Clara, now covered with her fiancé’s blood, cried, “The president is shot!”

Rathbone was never the same. In the years following the assassination he was diagnosed with “attacks of neuralgia (intense pain) of the head and face and in the region of the heart attended by palpitations and at times difficulty breathing.”

On Christmas Eve 1883, while living in Germany, Rathbone murdered Clara–attacking her with a pistol and a dagger, and then slashing himself in an eerie reproduction of the night in Ford’s Theatre. He barely survived, and later insisted that he was injured trying to intervene in an attack by someone else.

Rathbone was declared insane and sent to the Provincial Insane Asylum in Hildesheim, Germany. He stayed there until the day in died in 1911, refusing ever again to speak either of the assassination or of the murder of his wife.

George Atzerodt & Andrew Johnson: The original plot to kill the president included the Secretary of State Seward as well as the Vice President, Andrew Johnson. But while Lewis Powell and John Wilkes Booth went through with their plot, the man assigned to kill Johnson, George Atzerodt, lost his nerve.

Atzerodt had rented a room in the same hotel, the Kirkwood House, where the vice andrew johnsonpresident was staying (lacking foresight, Atzerodt made the reservation in his own name). Anxious about his assignment, Atzerodt tried to steel his resolve by drinking. He was armed with gun and a knife and the vice president, alone and unguarded, would have been an easy target. But Atzerodt couldn’t bring himself to knock on the door. Instead he got drunk, and wandered around Washington D.C. until around two in the morning, when he checked into another hotel.

He was arrested on April 20th, about a week after the assassination. Investigators had found a gun and a knife in his room at the Kirkwood House, and evidence linking him to John Wilkes Booth. Atzerodt confessed to everything–including the role the others had played. Despite his cooperation, he was hanged with the rest of them. Andrew Johnson became president.

Truman, Roosevelt, and the Day that Changed History

By Kaleena Fraga

On this day in 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt died. President since 1933, Roosevelt was only a few months into his fourth term in office.

He was spending some time in Warm Springs, Georgia, hoping that the the temperate climate and hot springs could restore his health. Roosevelt had another reason to visit Warm Springs–he’d planned a rendezvous with his long time mistress, Lucy (Mercer) Rutherford. Rutherford had arranged for her friend, Elizabeth Schoumatoff, to paint a portrait of the president.

unfinished portraitSchoumatoff was standing at her easel painting the president when something in his demeanor changed. She later recalled: “He looked at me, his forehead furrowed in pain, and tried to smile. He put his left hand up to the back of his head and said, ‘I have a terrible pain in the back of my head.’ And then he collapsed.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt died a few hours later. He was 63.

In Washington D.C., Vice President Harry Truman arrived at the White House, where he was greeted by the president’s widow, Eleanor Roosevelt. She told him that the president had died. Truman, stunned, was silent. Then he asked if there was anything he could do for her.

“Is there anything we can do for you?” Eleanor replied. “For you are the one in trouble now.”

For many people, Roosevelt had been the only president they had ever known. He died as WWII had begun to come to an end. In David McCullough’s Truman, McCullough writes that the similarities of Lincoln and FDR’s death were not unappreciated–both had died in April, both died as the wars they’d fought ended, and both would be remembered as great men. “But implicit,” McCullough writes, “was also the thought that Lincoln, too, had been succeeded by a lackluster, so-called ‘common man,’ the ill-fated Andrew Johnson.”

Truman, for his part, told a crowd of reporters:

“Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”

Truman’s premature ascension to the presidency prompts one of the what-ifs of presidential history. It was Truman, not Roosevelt, that guided the country through the last stages of WWII, including the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. Today’s historians have to wonder what FDR might have done in his stead.

Still, Truman finished the three years of Roosevelt’s term and (narrowly) won reelection Harry Trumanin his own right. Although his approval rating hovered in the thirties at the end of his term, history later came to regard Truman as one of the nation’s best presidents. Per McCullough, his legacy includes “the creation of the United Nations, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, the recognition of Israel, NATO; for committing American forces in Korea and for upholding the principle of civilian control over the military.”

Truman certainly had big shoes to fill. When FDR died 73 years ago today, the New York Times eulogized him by writing:

“Men will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now, that Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House…it was his leadership which inspired free men in every part of the world to fight with greater hope and courage. Gone, now, is this talent and skill…Gone is the fresh and spontaneous interest which this man took, as naturally as he breathed air, in the troubles and hardships and the disappointments and the hopes of little men and humble people.”