Saturday, July 11, 2009

"Zachary Taylor . . . is no more"

I have missed the anniversary by a day, but want to note it anyway. One hundred fifty-nine years ago yesterday, on Wednesday July 10, 1850, Millard Fillmore became the 13th president of the United States.

Fillmore had virtually no notice or time to prepare. Zachary Taylor had initially become ill late in the day on Thursday July 4, and his condition rapidly grew worse. On Sunday July 7, Taylor predicted that “In two days I shall be a dead man.”

However, early in the morning of Tuesday July 9 Taylor rallied, and people thought he was out of danger. John C. Waugh recounts the scene:
At 3:30 Tuesday morning – it was now July 9 – the crisis miraculously seemed to pass and the crowds were told he was out of immediate danger. Bells were rung and bonfires lit in celebration. Officials flocked to the White House with congratulations.

Daniel Webster saw the president at about noon. Satisfied with the president’s condition, he left to return to the Senate. Immediately thereafter, the president suffered a relapse. “[A]s [Webster] was returning to the Senate, word followed him that Taylor had abruptly plunged into a relapse and was unlikely to live through the day. The doctors had taken him off the medicine and said he was in God’s hands.”

Webster proceeded to the Senate, where Fillmore was presiding, and interrupted a speech by South Carolina’s Andrew Butler:
An hour into his speech, [Butler] abruptly stopped. A foreign visitor in the gallery described the scene. Daniel Webster, standing before Butler, was staring sadly at him out of those two cavernous eyes and “indicating with a deprecatory gesture that he must interrupt him on account of some important business.” Butler bowed and fell silent. “A stillness as of death reigned in the house, and all eyes were fixed upon Webster, who himself stood silent for a few seconds, as if to prepare the assembly for tidings of serious import. He then spoke slowly and with that deep and impressive voice which is peculiar to him.”

“A very great misfortune is now immediately impending over the country,” Webster said. “The President of the United States cannot live many hours.” “A thrill, as if from a noiseless electric shock,” the foreign visitor in the gallery later wrote, “had passed through the assembly.” She felt herself grow pale. Webster moved that the Senate adjourn, and it was immediately agreed to.

Zachary Taylor died at 10:30 that night. According to Robert J. Rayback, Vice President Fillmore was informed of Taylor’s death sometime before midnight. A messenger came to Fillmore’s room at the Willard Hotel and delivered a message from the cabinet: “Sir: The . . . painful duty devolves on us to announce to you that Zachary Taylor . . . is no more.”

“Reality,” Rayback recounts, “now burst upon Fillmore with terrible force.” Fillmore composed a message for the cabinet: “I have no language to express the emotions of my heart. The shock is so sudden and unexpected that I am overwhelmed. . . . I . . . shall appoint a time and place for taking the oath of office . . . [at the] . . . earliest moment.”

After a sleepless night, Fillmore formally assumed the presidency on Wednesday July 10, 1850. “At noon before a joint session of both houses, with cabinet present, Judge Branch of the district court administered the Presidential oath of office.”

It can be argued that Fillmore’s first day in office was as productive as any presidential first day in history. Although in shock, Fillmore promptly accepted the resignations of Taylor’s entire cabinet. He also met with Daniel Webster and determined to appoint him as the new Secretary of State. These key moves would lay the groundwork for the new president’s successful resolution of the crisis that had been building for almost four years, ever since David Wilmot first introduced his famous proviso on a hot night in August 1846.


After posting this, I realized that Ed Darrell, who never misses a significant Millard event, had almost certainly noted Millard's accession. And indeed he has: Historical anniversary: July 10, 1850, Millard Fillmore succeeds to the presidency

1 comment:

  1. You're too kind. I nearly missed it!

    Your coverage is much deeper. I don't know how or where you come up with all this stuff, but I hope you keep it up.


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