tv First Ladies Sarah Polk Margaret Taylor and Abigail Fillmore CSPAN June 6, 2015 12:00pm-1:33pm EDT
es its best work when it is serving as a national forum on issues of importance. in this case, some of these things that were discussed and brought out and perhaps not discussed at every level of society these real constitutional questions we are still grappling with today, the fact that they were discussed for a whole year, 1975 1976 is a big deal. we ought to not overlook that despite what we might see as limited legislative achievement. i just wanted to make that point. >> is there anyone else who wants to weigh in in these last two minutes? all right. thank you very much for coming out.
thank you to all the panelists for participating in this fascinating discussion. [applause] >> you're watching american history tv, all weekend, every weekend on c-span3. to join the conversation like us on facebook at c-span history . american history tv is featuring c-span's original series, "first ladies, influence and image" at 8:00 p.m. eastern time on sunday nights throughout the rest of the year. c-span produced the series in cooperation with the white house historical organization. we tell the stories of america's 45 first ladies. now circle, margaret taylor, and albert fillmore.
-- sarah polk, margaret taylor and albert fillmore on the first ladies. this is 90 minutes. >> sarah polk was very up on diplomacy. her strong suit happened to be intelligent political discussion. >> she took an interest in politics, and she was her husband's partner. >> she grew up in a political household in tennessee. she would not have married james if he [inaudible] >> unfortunately for james polk he died and sarah became a 42-year widowhood. she would invite anybody to come and visit and see what they had collected and through their long
and illustrious political career. >> she lived there for many years on her own and during the civil war, generals on both sides would visit her to pay their respects. it was no interesting commentary on what a beloved status she still held -- an interesting commentary on what a beloved status she still held. >> she was earnest about her husband's work. she went to every post she could. she was very well-liked in the diplomatic community. they had met all kinds of people. they were very experienced people. they were more sophisticated than what was around them. >> she very much felt that women should develop their minds and cultivate scholarships as much as men. >> first ladies have causes. literacy and reading what have
been abigail fillmore's cause. >> she much preferred to retire to her room with a good book to standing in a receiving line. >> we know that abigail was a very wonderful seamstress. this is her quilt here. >> she was one of the true intellectuals. she was very caught up on politics. and liked being part of all the cultural accoutrements that came with living in washington. >> welcome to c-span's series on first ladies. one is a steadfast general's wife, and one was a teacher. they served during the 1840's and early 50's as the country continued to grow and tensions
continue to mount over the issue of slavery. we have two historians at the table. meet connor hunt. paul finkelman is a historian and legal scholar based at albany law school. james polk is sometimes described as the least known influential president. would you agree with that? professor finkelman: when polk was nominated for office, he had been a member of congress. he was a lawyer practicing law in tennessee. he was known as a dark horse candidate. he hoped to get the vice presidential nomination.
suddenly, polk is the presidential nominee. most people don't know who he is. he becomes president and, almost immediately, puts us in a position to have a war with mexico. he pushes for the war. he is prepared to declare war on mexico. he sends zachary taylor to the mexican border in an area that is completely disputed that all international law says belongs to mexico but polk says is american land. while taylor's troops are there he goes to his cabinet and they vote to ask for a declaration of war against mexico. that night, he gets a message that taylor's troops have been in combat. he rewrites his message to congress to say that american troops have been killed on
american soil. abraham lincoln would later give a speech asking to show the spots because it wasn't american soil. it also means the complete blowup of all of factual compromises and pushes the country into a war. we don't know anything about him though. ms. swain: his wife is always in the top tier of historical investigations. ms. hunt: she was truly a political partner with her husband. they did not have children. she was his political equal. she never went too far within
the boundaries of what a proper victorian lady should be in the 19th century. but everyone knew that they shared an office. she was active in discussions at the many state dinners they had, and he would ask her to mark newspapers and articles for him to read. she was a sounding board. she was told that men would rather talk politics with her than her husband. yet the women of the time excepted her. -- accepted her. she was very religious. a very strict presbyterian. she did not allow dancing in the white house. she got rid of hard liquor. they had wines and brandies with the frequent dinners they had.
she was not a prude, but she was very much a woman who knew what she wanted and set her rulesout -- rules out and everyone had to play according to them. she was very popular. ms. swain: we are going to take you to the polk ancestral home. it is the house they lived in together -- the house they lived in together no longer exists. but this house contains much of their history. >> this is the inaugural fan. it is an incredible piece of history. it was a gift from president-elect polk to his wife. it is gilt paper and is ornately carved. it features lithographic engrave men's of the first 11 -- engravings of the first 11 presidents.
the back features a lithographic image of the signing of the declaration of independence. the polks came into the white house a young vibrant couple. the parties were split. sarah used the white house to enhance her husband's political prestige. dining in the polk white house was a serious affair. on tuesdays and fridays, mrs. polk would entertain 50 to 75 people. the china features the presidential seal. they had a tea set that was blue and they had a dessert set in green. you will often read that mrs. polk did not allow alcohol and the white house.
-- in the white house. that's not exactly the case. she stopped the serving at -- of whiskey punches at public meetings, but wine was widely served. one of the interesting objects in the collection speaks to sarah and her ability with music. we have a music book that has handwritten notations. one of the songs inside is the song "hail to the chief" which she is credited with starting to become the song for the president. ms. swain: there is a controversy that tyler's made this the presidential song. is there a definitive answer? ms. hunt: i won't touch it.
>> is antiquary silliness to worry about things like that. there are more important things to discuss. ms. swain: was sera pulled more in touch with the times -- sarah polk more in touch with the times? ms. hunt: the couple thought the office of the presidency and the white house needed to be highly respected. there was more formal protocol. it was a very liberal approach. you could come with an introduction to any of their receptions.
they were well-dressed. there were multiple courses. it was considered an honor to be at the white house. sarah polk said dancing at the white house is not dignified. ms. swain: how was her frugality seen by washington and the public? ms. hunt: she reorganized the staffing at the white house. she hired a steward. they brought in their own servants and got rid of some of the paid staff at the white house. she got her steward to cut deals with various vendors.
if they gave them significant discounts, they would give them the "royal seal." her majesty -- it is the american version of that. if you want us to buy all of your roles for our white house dinners, you're going to have to give us a discount. it worked. they were very frugal in that way. ms. swain: when you say she brought in her own servants, they were slaves? ms. hunt: yes. professor finkelman: the polk's come from very wealthy circumstances and they are slaveowners and they bring a lot of assets. they could afford to be president just like the tyler's could. ms. swain: she writes, "if i
could be so fortunate to reach the white house, i expect to live on $25,000 a year, and i will neither keep house nor make butter." echoes of modern first ladies. ms. hunt: like hillary and cooking. the context of it -- they say people would vote for mr. clay because his wife makes her own butter. that was sarah's retort. she ran the house, she did not keep the house. she did not make butter, but she made sure butter was made efficiently. professor finkelman: slave mistresses don't make butter unless they choose to.
it's important to see this for sarah polk and margaret taylor. ms. swain: i want to tell folks that this is an interactive program. we will put the phone numbers on the screen. we will begin taking your questions throughout our program. dolly madison has been an element of our series from the very beginning. this is dolly's last hurrah. what was her role with the polk white house? ms. hunt: sarah polk and dolly became very close. dolly mentored sarah. sarah fed dolly.
they were the two war first ladies. war of 1812 and the mexican more. there were many parallels between dolly madison and sarah polk. the sense of self, fashion, the understanding of the role of the first lady in conveying the indirect's that would support her husband's presidency. it is not easy to be a first lady during war. there were many detractors as the war went on. polk went in and said i'm going to do the following things in four years, and by god, he did. ms. swain: this is also the first time we have photography. we have a fabulous photograph to show you right now. it brings together a number of these characters.
here are the polks and dolly madison. we can also see harriet lane. photography as a political tool. how do politicians absorb this new technology and begin to use it for their benefits? professor finkelman: they are just beginning to figure this out. you don't really get it until the 1850's and 60's when photography is everywhere. now, it is almost a novelty in the 1840's and it's not all that terrific. you have to sit for a long time. it's not a single shot, click. you have to sit there rigidly and not move. i think they are moving towards
photography. what is much more important i think is the very sophisticated linotype and art in newspapers. you could get wonderful campaign posters. currier does a campaign poster for henry clay. they are using that kind of technology. photography you probably want to save for the fillmore's and beyond. ms. swain: we also have the first known photograph of the white house. we are working with the white house historical association throughout this series here it as we look at this white house
of 1846, sarah polk brought some innovations. central heating and gas lighting. ms. hunt: she didn't actually bring them. let's say they arrived. central heating and gas lighting, she did hold out when they put in the gas lights. she insisted that the old room -- she insisted that the oval room be left with candlelight. there were experiments, but it ultimately saved the presidential family a lot of money because they had to heat the white house out of that $25,000 salary. these efficiencies did come in starting with the polks. well, earlier, mainly the gas. central heating in the white house must have been a joke. i don't think you would have been very warm.
ms. swain: probably better than the alternative, though. professor finkelman: you wonder because a nice warm fireplace in the right room keeps that room nice and warm. what you are getting at which was always true for the white house is that technology is going to change the way presidents campaign, the way they portray themselves, the way they live. notice, you just had a picture of polk. he is sitting very stiffly. that is what you had to do when you were getting a photograph taken. i just saw a picture of john kennedy giving a speech with his fist in the air. you can almost see the fist shaking in the photograph. you couldn't do that then. ms. swain: we have no sense of personality then. professor finkelman: we get a bad sense of personality because what we get is that these people are absolutely stiff and frozen. ms. hunt: they used a brace.
professor finkelman: you don't smile and these pictures because it would be too hard. -- in these pictures because it would be too hard. ms. swain: what was sarah's educational background that allowed her to be so politically savvy and an equal to her famous husband? ms. hunt: one of the most advanced educations for the women of her day. her father believed in educating women. she was educated in nashville and her father sent her to the salem academy. 500 miles away, it took them a month to get there and they were there for two years. she was unusually well educated for her time. i think that atmosphere encouraged her to speak her mind and participate in discussions. she grew up in a political household. ms. swain: this next question we will answer by video.
did sarah's frugal ways prevent her from lavish fashion? let's watch this video. then we will talk with you about this. >> how sarah looked was important to her. i think she saw it as a reflection on the presidency. she was known for having beautiful dresses and looking incredible in a white house that was equally beautiful. the blue dress is called a robe duchambre. it is basically a robe. it would be the undressed dressed costume. this is also a ball gown.
it was a style that mrs. polk used again and again. it's a beautiful gown in silk and satin. it has a great deal of lace. mrs. polk was always a frugal woman and often purchased dresses and would buy a great deal of material to go along with them so she could enhance and change them. instead of having to buy five or six gowns, she would buy one and extra material. mrs. polk was a master at accessorizing. she had a wonderful collection of handbags and reticules. her jewelry was thought to be atypical of the time. she wore gold and silver and enamel.
her headdresses are unusual. they are incredibly rare. they are made out of silks and satins. we have a wonderful collection of headdresses. one unusual piece is a turban. dolley madison was still alive during the polk administration and a regular visitor. we wonder if mrs. polk didn't adopt to that style after mrs. madison. ms. swain: connor hunt is the author of this cover story showing that you have done a lot of work on her approach to fashion. can you tell us about it? ms. hunt: she had a well-established sense of style from her childhood. during the white house years she dressed elegantly for evenings and receptions. in the summer of 1847, they sent
an order to paris or some gowns for the first lady. -- for some gowns for the first lady. that was not the usual style. the top designers in paris were asked to make some gowns for the first lady. this was usually done by a commercial agent that they had. jacob l. martin got the order and immediately found his good friend who went around the paris shops and they found a shop which made three gowns. one is at the smithsonian. the other is pink and the other is the robe. it was very unusual for her. this order for clothes and lots
of accessories cost about $450. dolley madison's order in 1811 cost $2000. the pink gown you saw had more lace on it which is now taken off. that cost $100. the green gown was about $25 made by seamstresses in washington. ms. swain: she was trying to find that sweet spot between frugality and image. ms. hunt: she did it so well. everyone said she was beautifully dressed and had a wonderful deportment. ms. swain: paul, at the same time we are learning about this, what is happening to women at large in the united states? are they beginning to ask for
more power? professor finkelman: the people in seneca falls are. for most american women, not much has changed. not much is being asked. the most important changes for women, the cutting edge of women in politics, is coming out of the antislavery movement. in the north, you have thousands and thousands of women who are politically active, really for the first time in american history. in the 1830's, there is the great petition campaign. hundreds of thousands of petitions show up in washington asking congress to do things like not annex texas because it was seen as a great slave conspiracy, which it was. to end slavery in the district of columbia, and many of these petitions were gathered by women, and many women signed them. what you get is women actively
participating in politics to change america for the better. the other great movement was the temperance movement. women were very active in that. they are active in movements to prevent prostitution. these are things that are close to what would be considered domesticity for women, but it is outside the house. what is fascinating is that sarah polk probably would have what is fascinating is that sarah polk probably would have been appalled about most of these activists with the exception of temperance. some of the abolitionist women along with a few men such as franklin judge frederick douglass are asking for the right to vote by 1848. that of course is a long time in coming.
but it is beginning at this time. ms. swain: ted is on the phone. ted, what is your question? >> i would like to know, who ran against james polk when he was running for president? did sarah polk play a role in his election? professor finkelman: polk runs against henry clay of kentucky. they has run for president twice before this. clay believes it is his turn. he expected it would be a cakewalk because no one had heard of polk. clay makes a number of mistakes during the campaign. in the end, in a very close vote, clay loses to polk. oddly enough, clay carries polk's home state of tennessee. polk carries new york which puts
him into the white house. ms. hunt: the issue of a presidential campaign at that time is very different from what we see today. it was considered proper for the candidate to be called to office. the active campaigning went for state offices like governor. the candidates did not show up at the nominating conventions and afterwards, when they were drafted and accepted the nomination, there were letters sent to the editor. but very little -- professor finkelman: no stump speeches at all. ms. hunt: sarah was her husband's campaign manager. during the presidential campaign, it was very much basically, a lot of them said, whatever you do, don't say anything. professor finkelman: when polk ran for congress, he would
canvass the district. when he ran for governor three times, winning once, he went all over the state of tennessee as no candidate had before. one wonders what was going on in polk's mind when nominated for the president, he had to sit home and essentially do nothing except write a few letters. ms. swain: next is a question from mary from little rock. >> i heard somewhere that barbara bush is related to the polks and she used their dinner service while she and george bush were in the office. is that true? ms. hunt: i don't know. that's a good question. ms. swain: we are going to go back in time now and learn about how that political partnership came together. you told us that sarah was from a wealthy family. how did she and james meet? ms. hunt: they ran in the same circles. probably either through andrew jackson or through her own father's family.
polk graduated from the university of north carolina and then went into law and studied in nashville and became part of -- clerk of the legislature. they met there or they met at andrew jackson's because the polk girls were often at the jackson's home. certainly, jackson is known to advise polk to marry her. this is who you need as a wife he would say. it is commonly told she told polk she wouldn't marry him unless he ran for office. of course he did and he won, and they were married in 1824. >> so andrew jackson played something of a matchmaker here. >> jackson and his wife rachel did not have any children of their own. they had many different people that they took in. jackson would write to sarah and call her his daughter.
ms. swain: is it true that a nickname for sarah was the spanish madonna? ms. hunt: that was because she had extremely dark hair and all -- oli skinve and they thought she looked european. exotic. ms. swain: the jackson's had no children, but sarah and james also had no children. what is the impact of being freed up from housework and not having to do that and her ability to become a political partner? ms. hunt: i think they breezed into that through the years when they realized they weren't going to have children. by the same token, they spent a lot of time with nieces and nephews. sarah brought her nieces into the white house to help her with entertaining and returning calls because she did not return calls. the first lady did not do it. it was a change in tradition. when she was a widow, she had a
niceiece and a great niece who lived with her. professor finkelman: had they had children, she would have had slaves who raised them. she might have had slaves who would have been wet nurses when the children were very young. the notion of the burden of families for someone like sarah polk would be very different than say, when we talk about abigail fillmore, who was a woman a very modest means and in fact has to raise her own children without the help of a house full of slaves. ms. swain: sarah and james come to congress. what is washington like at that time and how involved was she in listening to congressional debates? ms. hunt: she was very actively involved. he went for the first term in the congress without her and never tried that again. she didn't like being left at home at all.
she would go, and it was often, at that time, that congressman lived in a boarding house and established what they called a mess. several different elected officials living together. they did that for years until he became speaker. then they had to have a larger apartment. she attended the sessions of congress. she was very very attentive to the issues of the day. the elected members of congress who were in the mess with her knew she was very tuned in. ms. swain: polk makes it to speaker of the house. how does that happen? professor finkelman: he's a very good politician in the house. the first time he runs for speaker, he loses. he loses to a man who will later run for president in 1860. and then the next time around he manages to win. part of it has to do with jacksonian politics.
polk is jackson's man. when jackson has a strong majority in the house, polk gets to be speaker. ms. swain: we have seen the ascendancy of the presidency the ascendancy of congress. at this point in our history which branch of government has more power? professor finkelman: i would say congress. >> being the speaker is important? professor finkelman: being the speaker is not as powerful as being president. we should understand that. in terms of the politics of america, more i think is happening in congress then in the presidency. i should add, however, that andrew jackson is extraordinarily strong who pushes the envelope of the presidency and alters the dynamics of the presidency. it reverts back, when john tyler becomes president, he is very
weak president. being speaker of the house was important, just as it is important today. ms. swain: it sounds like from this quote that sarah knew this. she wrote that the speaker is the proper person, and with the correct idea of his position has even more influence over legislation and in directing the policy of the parties, then the president. ms. hunt: when polk became president was a powerful president in terms of waging war. he pulled a lot of power into the executive branch. but, henry clay is the one we all think of as building the job of the speaker of the house. the man who ran for president forever. through the years, the speaker's job grows, the presidency grows in power it ebbs and flows.
the balance of power is the key to everything in that nobody ever just completely runs away with power. ms. swain: our next video demonstrates the role of sarah polk as the political wife. >> the traveling desk is really indicative of sarah's life with james polk, mainly as his helpmate. james k. polk he had no staff. sarah took a hands-on attitude towards being his wife. the traveling desk she took with her on those long trips to washington, d c. trips that could take 30 days going one way from columbia, tennessee to washington. she is communicating with her family and friends back home. she wrote tens of thousands of letters during her lifetime. the traveling desk is indicative of communication during the time period.
sarah was very much a helpmate to him throughout his political career. when he was writing speeches, he would get her opinion. daily, she would read the newspaper and underline passages she thought important for him to read. she was a regular fixture in the gallery in congress. this was a great time to hear speeches from some people like john calhoun. she was right in the middle of all of it, very much a part of his political career. he is to this day, he is the only speaker of the house to become president. which brings a whole new level of social status in washington , dc. sarah played the part of one of the official hostesses in washington. typically, congress would enact a memorial to the outgoing speaker of the house. when james k. polk left congress
to run for governor of tennessee, the congress was so wildly divided they refused to do that. a number of politicians wrote poems in honor of sarah at the time that she left. one of them was a supreme court justice joseph story. ms. swain: today, we would be amazed at polk stepping down to be governor. why did he decide to do this? professor finkelman: i think because being speaker of the house is something that you did not do for a long time in those days. three or four terms in washington is probably enough. think of the arduous task of just getting to washington from tennessee once or twice a year. it is a lot of work. it is a lot of effort. being the governor is somewhat easier. it is probably less expensive. you are home. being the governor is a good way to build a political career for the vice presidency or the presidency.
what polk's i is on is the vice presidency. he doesn't think he will ever be president. but he thinks he could be vice president. the vice presidency is not a very good halfway to the white house. since thomas jefferson, only martin van buren made it as vice president. tyler did only because of the death of the president. ms. swain: hi, sandy. >> my question is, i know they are from tennessee. what did sarah actually think of slavery and was she a kind slave master? ms. hunt: james polk in his will made an expression that he hoped, when she died, she would
name their slaves. she sold the plantation before the civil war but the issue of slavery was not brought to the forefront during, either in their marriage or during his administration. it became much more critical with the administrations that followed. professor finkelman: i think in some ways that's not true. the politics of america from the 1830's to the 1860's is swirling around slavery all the time. the opposition to the mexican war, which we did not have to have, in part, comes from northerners who see it as a vast conspiracy to steal mexico so that slave owners could have someplace to go. and southerners say as much. they say we want mexico because we want up place for slavery to spread.
the reality is that the polk are slave owners. they liked being slave owners. they are not opposed. i suspect that she treated her slaves as kindly or as unkindly as was necessary to get the labor and support from the slaves that she wanted. that is what slavery was about. ms. swain: your question. >> a hero of mine is a nephew of sarah polk named general lucius polk. he served with general patrick claybourne and try to condition the government -- petition the government to end slavery. he was wounded several times during the war. at some point, he was sent behind lines and allowed to stay in columbia, tennessee.
he would, eventually, run the ku klux klan out of the county. but sarah polk, i have heard somehow kept him from going to the union prison camps when any other confederate prisoner would have been sent to union prison camps. i have heard that she was afforded power because the union's people respected her so much. ms. swain: thank you. i am going to jump in right there because our time is short. it is important to say the james k. polk announced he was a one term president. we will get to your question. this civil does, and sarah polk is a widow. what happens to sarah polk especially during the civil war? ms. hunt: she becomes a widow. she war widows weeds for the next 42 years.
until she died at practically the age of the house they 88. purchased for their retirement became a shrine to her husband. she became very reclusive. only went to church, but she received people. during the civil war, she did not take sides. the mayor came to her and said the union is coming into the city, what should i tell the general? she said, you may tell him that i am at home. and so he came to call. and the confederates and the union troops respected her. she did not take sides. she was completely neutral and she isolated herself in that period prior to the civil war. people put their artifacts in storage at polk place to preserve them. she went right on through. she earned a great deal of respect for that. ms. swain: from both sides?
ms. hunt: yes. professor finkelman: the contrast would be with president tyler, who becomes a member of the confederate government. having once taken an oath to support the constitution of the united states. in that sense, the contrast with sarah polk is revealing. ms. swain: mrs. polk lived more than 40 years as a widow. did she continued to be involved in politics? ms. hunt: no, she did not. she would speak about her husband's time. any honors that were sent to her, she accepted on behalf of his memory. she was conversant with what was going on but not an active political player. ms. swain: we have one more video from the polk era. >> james k. polk was a promised
one term president. after four years, james and sarah were going to retire. while they were in washington's still, as they were outfitting the white house as part of the restoration, they took the opportunity to purchase things for polk place, their retirement home. they picked some of the finest american furniture being made at the time. they are all rosewood-framed with red velvet. we have gentlemen's chairs. we have these little side chairs. they had 33 of them. we have 18 remaining. they would ring the rooms with these little chairs. when they had guests, they would bring them into the room. we have some interiors of what it looked like, probably taken around the time of her death in 1891. the house is still filled with the objects they collected throughout their political lives together. unfortunately for james k. polk
he died just three months after leaving the white house. every new year's day, sarah opened polk place and held a levy. she would invite anyone who wanted to visit and see the objects they have collected during their long and illustrious political career. ms. swain: alyssa writes, when i visited nashville, i was shocked at all the plaques. use later, i visited again. why would they allow those buildings to be torn down? ms. hunt: progress. that is just -- i have worked in a preservation for 40-some years. if we didn't have a need to preserve buildings i wouldn't be in the field. the polk home was torn down in nashville. the great-niece kept the artifacts together until they could find a home. that is what the museum of
-- in columbia is. montpelier, the madison's home in private hands for years. and really not saved until the 1980's. these things go on and on all the time. the homes of the presidents are deemed to be among the most important, but in some cases you have multiple homes that one president lived in. ms. swain: as we say goodbye to dolly madison's influence sheldon cooper asks, as influential as dolley was on future first ladies, did sarah polk provide guidance to future first ladies? ms. hunt: yes. she was alive until the early 90's. solley died in 1849.
sarah was the embodiment of the elegant first lady after dolley died. the respect passed down with her. ms. swain: what was sarah polk's legacy? professor finkelman: she has written a great deal. ms. hunt: i think that james polk might not have been able to achieve his ambitious one term agenda without her help. she certainly kept the white house running because he literally worked himself to death. she handled his legacy well after his unfortunate early death. we have most of the legacy is his. the first postage stamp. the permanent treasury department. almost doubling the size of the united states. many things to be thankful for. the first ladies themselves are not so much innovators as they are, sometimes they embrace those aspects of the american
character that the public needs. i think that she did it very well. ms. swain: the election of 1848 brought the taylors into the white house. as we continue our program, we are going to learn more about zachary taylor and, more importantly, his wife margaret peggy taylor. it is a brief stay in the white house. tell us -- set the stage for the 1848 election. professor finkelman: polk is leaving office. he chose to be a one term problem -- president and that was good because he probably would not have gotten another nomination or been defeated. he was not very well-liked when he left office. it is true that he started a war which was successfully one. when it was over, he did not want peace.
he fired his envoy to mexico which negotiated a peace treaty after he had been fired and then sent it back to washington. polk was forced to bring a treaty to congress that he did not actually want to sign or or have congress ratify but he was forced. during the war, he became very jealous of the successful gender -- general zachary taylor so he demoted him and put general winfield scott over him. then he got jealous of scott because scott was getting all of the headlines. so when the war ended, polk is leaving, and taylor is the great hero of the war. taylor had never voted in an election. he had never done anything political. he had been a career military officer for his entire life. his wife, margaret peggy taylor, had traveled with her husband to some of the most remote military bases in the country.
she had been a military wife the wife of a man who started as lieutenant and ended up as a major general. taylor's politics were almost unknown, other than that he said over and over that he supported henry clay. henry clay of course had lost to polk. henry clay believed that it was his time to win. 1848 was going to be a whig year. clay thinks he will win. and then out of nowhere, taylor gets the nomination and clay is absolutely devastated. in addition to taylor getting the nomination, it completely -- a almost completely obscure person, fillmore, gets the vice presidential nomination. you had this strange axis of taylor, who was a louisiana
sugar planter, running with fillmore, who is the controller of the state of new york. for me, it is a personal thing. i teach at albany law school where fillmore was living. next year, i will be visiting lsu. i am the embodiment of the albany-baton rouge access as well. ms. hunt: let's don't discount that the mexican war brought us all of the western southwest. california, new mexico, etc. he was the commander in chief and he acted like it. and if it upset when phil scott who had quite a temper, and zachary taylor, so be it. as it turned out that is what , history has recorded. we greatly expanded the united states during that time and we
got those properties for very , very little. in terms of the history of real estate polk rates high. professor finkelman: only if you think that going to war with a country to steal half their country is an appropriate and legitimate thing to do. significant numbers of americans believed that the mexican war was purely a land-grab. and a war of aggression. many americans, including john c calhoun, who is a great defender of slavery believed that the mexican war was a huge mistake. tell who predicted correctly that once you had the war, it would open up again the question of slavery in the territories. that would cause a catastrophe which it does. ms. swain: taylor was the last southerner elected for 64 years. he was the last president to hold slaves while in office. his partner in all of this was
margaret peggy taylor. what do we know about her? ms. hunt: she was not particularly keen on being first lady. she had gone around to all of his postings with him. they had innumerable children. it is interesting that their daughter married the young jefferson davis who fought with taylor in mexico. unfortunately, their daughter died after only three months of marriage. later, in the white house, the taylors became quite close with jefferson davis and his second wife. she was very close to the first lady. the first lady let her daughter do a lot of the entertaining. it was such a brief amount of time, really. that they were in office. professor finkelman: he was
inaugurated in march of 1849 and elected in november of 1848. taylor dies in july of 1850. there is essentially a 15 month. period when they are in the white house. she didn't want to be there. she retreated to the upstairs. she came from a political family. one of her aunts was married to a three term governor of maryland. one of her cousins was married to a senator in maryland. she came from a very wealthy family of maryland planters. although she grew up in her early years in the washington, d c, and northern virginia areas. one of her playmates was nelly custis, the granddaughter of
martha washington. this is somebody who has been around politics as well. but the opposite of sarah polk. she does not want to be involved in politics. she didn't want her husband to run. ms. swain: the population by that point was 23 million and there were now 30 states. that is almost 36% growth since the last census in 1830. slaves in the united states number 13 million -- 3 million or 13% of the population. washington dc, we have learned throughout this series, traded on gossip. it seems as though the gossip about peggy taylor was much like rachel jackson. she was a pipe smoker, she didn't bring any style. what is the truth about her?
professor finkelman: she didn't smoke a pipe. it is utter nonsense. all of the people who were close to her say she was allergic to smoke and nobody smoked around her. the problem is that she is a military wife who has traveled from base to base. she lived in some style on these bases because the taylors were very wealthy. they had lots of slaves. they had a plantation in louisiana. some of the slaves would travel with them when they went to bases. but she was not a high society woman. she was not a woman who wanted to be around a crowd. this was not a world that she felt at all comfortable with. and i am sure when she got to washington and dealt with the gossip and the parties, she simply felt that this is not where she was comfortable and she didn't know how to compete or operate. and so she retreated to the
second story of the white house and let her daughter do most of the entertaining. ms. swain: and the gossip continued because she was an enigma. professor finkelman: and she wasn't there to defend herself. taylor die? professor finkelman: thackeray taylor went to a july 4 parade -- zachary taylor went to a july 4 parade. he watched the parade on a very hot day. zachary taylor was a teetotaler and he either spent the day eating cherries and milk or cucumbers and milk, and if you can imagine what milk would look like after a hot july day in washington,, without ice to keep it cold, he got some kind of intestinal disease. he was a very tough man. he had survived winters in michigan and minnesota. he had survived the deserts of mexico.
he was rough and ready. the one thing he could not survive was mid-19th century medicine. when he got sick, he was bled and they did all sorts of other things including giving him mercury which would have killed him if they gave him enough. he may have died from an intestinal virus, he may have died from a bacterial infection, he may have died because the doctors killed him. what we do know is that he died very suddenly to the great shock of the nation. and perhaps, taylor was the last president who could have managed to somehow change the conflict because he was a southern slaveholder who did not believe in spreading slavery to the west. he thought that all the territories taken from mexico ought to be free. he was a man who was willing to stare down and if necessary meet
-- lead an army to suppress southern anti-nationals and southern suggestions of secession. at one point, the texans are planning to march into santa fe seize everything. taylor sends troops and one could imagine that, if taylor had lived, he would have said that he would be happy to personally lead the army into texas and personally hang the governor of texas. the way jackson said he would personally hang the governor of south carolina, which in part and the nullification prices in the 1830's. ms. swain: a couple of quick questions. kelsey o'brien on facebook,.
>> many say she died of a broken heart because she was so shocked. she was convinced that zachary was killed or was poisoned. and, that was a story that stayed with zachary taylor for many years. in our lifetime, his body was exhumed. so, they brought him up and did testing and, no poison. >> by the way, when fillmore becomes president, he gets a letter saying taylor was poisoned. americans love conspiracy varies -- conspiracy theories, and this was a conspiracy theory. let's listen to sean. >> i was wondering if it is true that margaret taylor prayed for her husband's defeat, he was that much against it. was she an invalid at all because of her difficulties with having children? >> i don't know if she actually prayed for his defeat. he was the first to admit she was not very happy with his victory. >> many of these stories are written well after the fact. and as a historian, we have to
question where is the source of the story. if you heard a story told in five different places, it turns out it is the same story told over and over again and we do not know if it is true. there is a story that taylor was on a steamboat when the movement was to make taylor the nominee and somebody asked him who he was going to vote for and he said, i am not sure, and the man said, i am voting for taylor why won't you? and does not know he is talking to taylor. and he said, i would not vote for him because i know his wife does not want him to run for president. that certainly could have been true. taylor was very unassuming and he often did not appear to be who he was. there was a true story that when he was in mexico, he was sitting in front of his tent -- not with his general stars on -- and some young officer came up and asked him to shine his boots, thinking he was an enlisted man. so taylor shined his boots, and
the next day the officer met his general. >> just quickly here, this is the second time in history that a president dies in office and there is a vice presidential succession. did we do a better job of it the second time around? it was a constitutional crisis the first time. >> they never fixed it until after the kennedy assassination with the 27th amendment. >> no, we fixed it this way. when harrison dies, the question is, does he remain vice president and acting president. that is something the constitution does not address. john quincy adams, who hated john tyler, referred to him as his accidentcy instead of
excellency by the time fillmore , becomes president, he will be inaugurated, he will be sworn in, he is now the president of the united states. fillmore, very graciously asks margaret taylor to stay on in the white house as long as she wishes. she moves out two days later. she has had enough. >> you told us earlier about new york and the baton rouge access, and we will do that by video. here's a bit of the millard fillmore home that you were going to see now on videotape. >> we are in this most charming little home. small as it is, it belonged to millard and abigail fillmore. millard and abigail did meet when they were both teachers. they both had this desire and love of reading. abigail actually was brought up in a family with many books. her father was a baptist preacher and he loved to read. she was surrounded by books her whole lifetime.
now when she moves into this house with millard fillmore, she continues that. they had their own personal library. she wanted to let young people learn extensively about the world as it is. this room that we are in is actually the focus of the entire house. history is made right here. she independently employed herself as a teacher. she tutored young students in the evening mainly in the course of history. this room would have been the living room, and also served as their kitchen. in front of the fireplace millard and abigail would spend , hours by the light of the fire. they would do their reading and writing. and yes, abigail fillmore cooked in this very room. this was her kitchen. the original staircase has quite an angle to it.
we believe it was a wooden ladder when abigail and millard lived here. as a young wife and mother dressed in a long skirt and with a toddler on her hip, she ascended that ladder into the bedroom. within this room, we have the fillmore bed and dresser. we know abigail was a wonderful seamstress. we have her quilt here. a very colorful quilt called the tumbling block pattern. the house being on main street here in east aurora, was a very busy place. it was frontier but it was developing so abigail would've had many visitors. she would have had people come in. possibly they would have had tea. we see her as a hospitable young woman. young wife. young mother.
teacher. >> that house is still available to visit if you are ever in east aurora, new york. the 13th president of the united states was the last whig president. this is picking up from something that paul brought up earlier they came from modest , means. they came from a series of presidents who were more or less middle-class. what is the impact of that on the institution? >> long-term, what we see with the fillmores is something of a change that will follow through in the 20th century looking forward. but the economy, we are still prior to the civil war. that will be a giant hiatus in terms of business. and who are the others that are
not wealthy that come along? >> there are four presidents before this, counting fillmore who are not wealthy, the adamses. twojohn quincy adams is probably being -- close to being wealthy at the time. martin van buren comes from a middle-class family. millard fillmore grows up in ad object poverty as did andrew jackson. millard fillmore's family does not own land in an aero one most -- in an area where most families owned their lands. abigail's father died when she was two years old. they did not have much money. she becomes a schoolteacher. she is the first first lady to have worked outside of the home. an significantly she not only before she is married, but after she is married for the first few years she works as a teacher when millard was starting his law career. these are people who have
experienced poverty and have not achieved at all anything other than middle-class status. after her death, millard mary's -- millard maereies -- mary's very well. >> here is a biography on millard fillmore if you are interested in reading more. it is available where you shop for books. we have about 20 minutes to learn more about the fillmore presidency and also learn more about abigail. abigail brings this sensibility to the role of first lady. how does she approach the job? her legacy is that she created the first white house library. what her father left to her mother when he died and she was just a little girl was books. they kept those books and they became the core of her education, and instilled in her a love of educating others. so the congress appropriated
$2000 for the president to establish the white house library, but it was understood that she would be the one to select it. she really preferred to read and engage in intellectual pursuits. but, she did her duty. she helped her husband. she had a bad ankle, as i recall. she was injured. >> she has an injury shortly before he runs for vice president and she cannot stand. she cannot go to receptions and stands. she avoids things like this as much as possible and lets her daughter, who by this time as a young woman in her 20's, do much of the role of the white house hostess. >> the introduction of the white house library became a controversy with the congress. i read that abigail fillmore
successfully lobbied key committee members to bring the library to the white house. >> she was there at those dinner parties talking to them. it was the standing that she could not do, but she obviously convinced them. and, here comes $2000 to set up a white house library, which was a lot of money in those days. of course it had to be for the president to buy the books. the president was being president. apparently, she did a very good job of selecting a broad category of volumes for the library. she was interested in music. >> she was interested in music they also loved geography. they loved maps. they buy books of maps. they are very interested in the world in that respect. she is a schoolmarm. the little film about the fillmore house, there is a slight error. they were not both schoolteachers. millard fillmore was actually
her student. she was 21 years old, teaching at a private academy and millard fillmore had been an apprentice to a textile factory to learn how to make cloth fabric. this was after the panic of the 1830's. the factory laid off everyone for a while, closed down for a little while, millard used this time to go back to school and he fell in love with his teacher and she fell in love with him. it is hard to tell from the pictures we see but both of them are described as being very, very attractive people. queen victoria said later, he was the most handsome man she ever met. that must be an exaggeration. you have these two young handsome people. fillmore was over six feet tall at a time when most men do not grow to be that tall.
he must have been a striking figure. she longs onto him, he glamis on to her. they have a long courtship because her family does not want her to marry and they ultimately do not marry until five or six years later. for two years, their courtship is only by letters. he moves to east aurora and goes to buffalo where he becomes a lawyer. >> ron is watching us from fargo, north dakota. >> i was wondering, did mrs. fillmore, what did she do after she got out of the white house? >> we will come back to your question in a little bit. darrell is in tuscaloosa alabama. >> i want to ask did the white
house have plumbing and when did they get plumbing? and the dishes, are they still in use today? >> thank you very much. we learned about heating, what about plumbing? >> fillmore is credited with having the first bathtub in the white house. it is not clear that it is true, and this is the problem whenever you say what is the first in the highest -- in the white house. we know the fillmores established the first bathtub or at least a new bathtub in the white house. >> do you know did religion play a big part in the fillmore's life and presidency? >> abigail is the daughter of a baptist minister and she is raised in a baptist community in rural, upstate new york. they are raised in the middle of nowhere in central new york in a very four-part test a very poor part.
she has a baptist. -- g is a baptist. millard has various religious training growing up. but when they get married, they are married by an episcopal priest because the town abigail lives in, the most prestigious church was an episcopal church. then they moved to buffalo and become unitarians because all of the smart, successful people are becoming unitarians. so in fact religion for the fillmore's reflects their journey from poverty to middle-class status to ultimately a secure position in society. and they change churches as they go up the social ladder. >> we are going to learn more about her love of books and the establishment of the library in this next video. >> when abigail came to the white house, she was appalled that there were no books.
so, this bookshelf started the first white house library that they were able to get congress to give her money to start the first white house library which still exists today. we know today that first ladies have causes and literacy and reading would have been her first cause. it was very important to her as a teacher, and she carried that love and passion for books into the white house. abigail suffered from illness throughout her time as first lady. and mary abigail would have been the hostess for many of the events. this punch bowl was used for entertaining at the white house. mary abigail followed in her mother's footsteps and was very educated herself. she spoke five languages. and there are stories of her playing p.m. no war heart for guests and congressmen who came to the white house. we have her piano and music looks that she would have played
from and we also have her harp that was in the white house. when we say that she entertained in the white house, she literally entertained. >> and the room in the white house that the fillmores established as their library is an oval room, and it is called the yellow oval room. it is from our documentary when we visited there. that room, filled with bookcases and musical instruments, became something of a salon. how did they use it? was it useful in their legislative goals? >> she participated in the formal dinners downstairs. there was receiving always going on. the white house had very little privacy. she was known for her interest in writers. >> she had charles dickens come to the white house.
>> she was way ahead of jackie kennedy in bringing some of the leading lights to the white house. washington irving came when dol was there. ley she was more interested in literary pursuits. with her bad ankle, i don't think anyone understands what those receptions were like when they threw open the white house for 5000 people. hours and hours and hours of standing on your feet. >> but this salon she created, it would seem like a very intimate place to be able to bring key members of congress and others. was it a way to be in the inner sanctum of the president and advances goals? >> i don't think so. for one thing few congressmen in , those days were interested in talking to a novelist or a cultural figure like that. she brought the woman known as the swedish nightingale, jenny
lind, to sing. that would've been a celebrity so perhaps some members of congress would've wanted to come see the celebrity. i think that in a sense, there is a bifurcation here between abigail fillmore creating a cultural setting that the former schoolteacher really wanted to do -- by the way, as a mother she is always a schoolteacher. she writes letters to her children, because they are separated from their children at various times in their lives correcting their spelling in previous letters and giving them lists of spelling words to learn. and she may also be always educating her husband. he was not quite as educated as she was, at least in the early parts of the marriage. >> what kinds of authors were in the first white house? >> a mixture of the classics. a lot of shakespeare. probably lots of history.
we know a lot of geography books. they were very interested in foreign countries. as president, fillmore sends , door perry to japan to open a japan. this is in part because fillmore has a personal interest in things foreign and things exotic. >> we have to talk about the major legislative piece. because zachary taylor dies just as the compromise of 1850 was being debated and millard fillmore picks up the debate over the legislation. in the briefest way as possible, the compromise of 1850. what did millard fillmore do? >> the compromise of 1850 is introduced by henry clay, the disappointed man who did not get to be president. it is a separate bill, not the same bill. it will among things, it will
organize the new mexico territory of which they include arizona. the utah territory which includes nevada and utah and parts of colorado and wyoming. it would admit california into the union as a free state. it also would prevent the sale the open auction of slaves in washington, d.c., and it would also give millions of dollars to texas, it would subdivide a portion of new mexico and give what today is west texas which previously no one believed belonged to texas. most notably, it it created the first federal law and your accuracy in the united states. it is an outrageously unfair law, in which allegedly free slaves were not able to testify
on their own behalf. so if a free black is seized in new york and someone says it is their fugitive slave, no one can say they were wrong. it created draconian punishments anyone who interfered with the fugitive slave law. fillmore pushes the fugitive slave law, signs it immediately after congress, and very, very aggressively enforced it wherever he could. >> so amy asks, do we know about abigail fillmore's position on slavery and how it may have complemented or different from her husband? >> no, and what is more, is they come from a part of new york that is known as the burned-over district. it is called the burned over district because it is said the fires of revival have been burned-over so often, that it was the center of the anti-slavery movement.
just south of where fillmore was growing up, william seward, one of the most anti-slavery senators in the senate, is starting his career. just down the road, frederick douglass will live in rochester, new york. with all of this anti-slavery movement going on, neither of the fillmores ever lift a finger to fight slavery. they never show any hostility to slavery at all, and they show no sympathy whatsoever to free blacks. when fillmore is running for vice president, someone accuses them of helping slaves escape, and in a letter that is so shocking that i would not say it on the air, he simply says incredibly horrible things about black people. “why would i ever lift my finger to help them?” >> kind of back to her love of books did abigail's love of , books cause any trends in
education or library expansion? >> to my knowledge, no. but you would have to look for the long-term. they did not have the instantaneous communications. her books were not going to set off a trend in the way modern communications do. i think what we are beginning to see as we go into the second half of the 19th century, is more and more work for middle-class women teaching and so on and so forth. obviously, they would be aware that they had a first lady who was a teacher. an honorable profession, and having that library certainly was known. >> hello. i was just wondering how many children did the fillmores have? >> two. two children. >> and one of them served as the
official hostess in the white house. time is short. let's hear from ben now. ben is watching us in los angeles. what is your question? >> what was the foreign relations policy like accident? >> fillmore's foreign relations were in part to enhance trade with europe. to enhance trade with other countries. he sends perry to japan at the time japan was completely closed to the outside world. he sends united states naval vessels and says, we are here and you are going to trade with us whether you like it or not. the japanese refer to these as the dark ships. i saw an exhibit in japan of japanese cartoons in which perry is portrayed as a monster. fillmore also negotiates a
treaty with switzerland to allow equal trade for swiss citizens and miss -- american citizens, but the treaty has a clause that says this can only happen if the people of america will be eligible to own or have businesses.when fillmore was told about this, he said, this should not be a problem. he doesn't seem to be interested in issues that would involve minorities. he becomes anti-catholic after this. host: just a short amount of time left. elizabeth, you are our last question. caller: thank you for this series on the first ladies. the fillmore's met charles dickens in washington in 1842, they did not host him at the white house. they did entertain thackeray and irving.
abigail reportedly advised miller not to sign the fugitive slave law. one of her best friends in buffalo was the most prominent abolitionist there, george washington johnson. host: we only have 30 seconds left, would you like to start about abigail's legacy? >> literacy. host: and advocacy for women. guest: she dies shortly and then her daughter dies two years later. i can only say that there is no documentary evidence that she advised fillmore not to signed the law. these are the apocryphal things that people like to put out there without any evidence whatsoever. host: the lid hotel plays a role in residential history.
just very shortly after the inauguration of the successor franklin pierce. we have got a number of people tweeting about the earlier call and that it was actually pierced. and so, we will try to answer that question next week when we deal with the peers administration. our thanks to the white house historical suits should -- association for their continuing help. [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org] [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2015]