U.S. president’s papers preserved

David Owens | The Oswegonian
David Owens | The Oswegonian

When Traverse City, Mich. native Lillian A. Wells died in 1966, she willed her real estate and residuary personal property to Oswego State. Discovered in part of that estate were two boxes labeled “Millard Fillmore, Buffalo, N.Y.” that she had inherited from a family member who lived just outside of Oswego.

A crowbar to the boxes revealed that they contained personal papers, files and manuscripts of Charles De Angelis Marshall, a lawyer in Buffalo in the 1880s, and also papers belonging to former U.S. President Millard Fillmore.

For nearly 50 years, President Fillmore’s papers have resided in the special collections and archives section in the basement of Penfield Library at Oswego State.

“It definitely brings a lot of attention from the rest of the country and the world,” Elizabeth Young, reference and special collections librarian at Penfield Library, said. “It’s one of the most popular things off-campus people request information on, particularly during his presidency. We got a lot of emails about him about that.”

For over 100 years, the president’s papers traveled across the country and passed through generations of families before they arrived at Oswego State, according to “Forgotten Fillmore Papers Examined: Sources for Reinterpretation of a Little-Known President,” a scholarly article written by former Oswego State history professor Charles Snyder that was published in “The American Archivist” in 1969.

Millard Fillmore was the 13th president of the United States. He gained the office upon the death of President Zachary Taylor in 1850, who is known infamously as America’s “forgotten president.” Fillmore was the second vice president to ascend to the presidency after a president’s death. He was the second president from the state of New York, the first Whig Party president who didn’t die or be expelled during office, was the last president to be affiliated with the Whig Party and the last president who was neither a Republican nor Democrat.

When he left the White House in 1853, he returned to Buffalo, losing a bid for a term of his own when his party rejected him for the Whig Party nomination. He gathered his personal papers into 44 volumes and micromanaged their packing and shipment to New York City aboard a ship, then to Buffalo by rail.

When Fillmore died in 1874, he had willed his collection of papers to no one, so they were handed over to his son, Millard Powers Fillmore. With no children of his own to will the papers to, Millard Powers Fillmore actually demanded in his will that his executors “at the earliest practicable moment… burn or otherwise effectively destroy all correspondence or letters to or from my father, mother, sister or me,” according to Snyder.

Until the mid-1960s, his will led many to believe the papers were actually destroyed. However, Fillmore’s executor, Charles De Angelis Marshall, decided not to destroy them and instead brought them to his own house in Buffalo, storing them in his attic. They remained there for 20 years, virtually untouched.

Marshall died unexpectedly in 1908. Like Millard Powers Fillmore, it was thought at first he had no children, but eight years before his death, Marshall adopted a girl by the name of Hazel Hugo. Hugo, who was now Mrs. Raymond Koerner, was made responsible for Marshall’s estate and discovered the Fillmore presidential papers during its demolition. She presented the volumes to the Buffalo Historical Society.

However, there were many Fillmore papers that went unseen in the Marshall estate, and those went to Charles Sidney Shepard.

“He was his [Marshall’s] business partner in Buffalo, when they were in Buffalo, and that’s how it kind of evolved into the papers getting into the hands of the Shepard family,” Justin White of the Oswego Historical Society said.

Shepard took over his father’s business in Buffalo when he retired to New Haven, N.Y. a small town between Oswego and Mexico. When his father died in 1894, Shepard moved to New Haven himself, bringing the papers with him, Snyder wrote.

When Shepard died in 1934, there was no mention of the papers in his will, but because they were part of his residuary estate, they were left to two elderly cousins named Florence L. and Lillian A. Wells in Michigan. Florence’s share passed to Lillian when she died in 1955. When Lillian died, her executors carried out her will that her estate be willed to Oswego State.

“The Shepard estate was gifted to the college back in the late ‘40s and ‘50s and then the papers were discovered in a mansion of the Shepard estate,” White said. “And that’s how they acquired them.”

The collection of papers ranges from Fillmore’s time as a young man until the last few years of his life. Before he was president, Fillmore served in the New York State Legislature, the U.S. House of Representatives and was the New York state comptroller and the Whig Party candidate for governor.

When he was selected to be Louisiana Whig Zachary Taylor’s running mate in the election of 1848, the country was in the middle of the debate over slave expansion to the Western territories gained from the Mexican War. The candidates in elections were determined to keep the North and South in political balance. Millard was picked for vice president because he was a more definitive Whig than Taylor.

“Fillmore’s attached because he is a real Whig, he is applicable to Southern interests, and at that time, no one really gave much thought to the running mate,” Frank Byrne, an Oswego State professor of history with a specialty in 19th century American history, said. “Ironically, you’d think the Whigs would because they were the one case where they already had someone die in the office.”

During Taylor’s presidency, several members of Congress, led by Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas, drafted a series of bills, known as the Compromise of 1850, to resolve the crisis of the slave expansion measure. The compromise would allow California to join the Union as a free state, ban the slave trade in Washington, D.C. and reinitiate the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed Southern states to take back slaves that had escaped to the North. Taylor vetoed the bills but died in 1850 due to food poisoning. Fillmore then assumed the office.

“Millard Fillmore is thrust into this position and it was not clear where he exactly stood, but most people assumed he was going to sign off on the deal because he had a good connection with a lot of Northern Whigs in many respects,” Byrne said.

Many Southern states were threatening secession if the compromise was not beneficial to them. This would be the first time that secession in the South would become a serious conversation.

Fillmore signed the bills, virtually preventing the Civil War 10 years before it actually happened.

“Fillmore will, in many respects, save the situation by agreeing to the compromise Clay and Douglas push through, thus undercutting the secession movement in the South and really bringing things back to status quo,” Byrne said.

Signing the compromise would be Fillmore’s main legacy, but also hindered his bid for his own election. Fillmore’s moderate stance on slavery caused the Whigs to nominate another candidate for the 1852 election.

Although Fillmore is normally ranked near the bottom of presidential rankings, Byrne argues that the Compromise of 1850 is important in the way the Civil War era played out.

“You can’t understand the Civil War and the origins of the war without understanding the compromise and the issues of the compromise, and Fillmore played a critical role in that. It’s one of those turning points in American history,” Byrne said.

Some of the papers Fillmore wrote during this definitive period, as well as other parts of his life, sit safely preserved a few stories beneath the shoes of the students who study that period.

“Penfield is an old building,” Young said. “The archives are climate controlled to ensure the papers’ survival. We have dehumidifiers, keep the rooms between 60 and 70 degrees, and obviously humidity is important.”

A few scans of some of the papers are available on the Penfield Library website. Byrne acknowledges they are a treasure and would like to see more attention brought to them.

“I think it’s dynamite,” Byrne said. “I think it’s great. I just wish people like myself, but more importantly, students, could know about it and use for things like seminar papers and things like that. I guess I would like to see it be used more. I think it’s a wonderful resource. There’s not too many institutions that have a president’s papers sitting in them. Most are in the Library of Congress or the National Archives, so it’s a wonderful thing.”