July 10: death by cherries

2012/07/10 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1850 Millard Fillmore (1800-74) was inaugurated as the thirteenth President of the United States.

What does that have to do with cherries?  And buildings?  Read on, my padawan.

Fillmore was Zachary Taylor’s Vice President.  Sixteen months into his presidency, Taylor indulged in a bucket of cherries and milk at an Independence Day picnic and, as the legend has it, was sickened by them, and died (that last part is definitely fact).  But what really did in Old Rough and Ready?  Was it the naturally-occurring hydrogen cyanide in the cherries?  Was it the everyday bacteria in the milk?  The fact that it’s not so smart to drink dairy products that have been sitting out, especially in the summertime, perchance?  Was it something more diabolical?  Democratic scheming to get rid of the Whig president?  Angry Southerners who didn’t like what he had to say about slaveholding once he got into office?  Or something even more nefarious?

If the Muse had a handlebar mustache, she’d twist it at this point.

Well.  The Muse isn’t about to dispel any myths that by people who think she only exists in the realm of myth, so we will just leave it at that: it was the cherries; Taylor should have had the potato salad instead.  But he didn’t, and Fillmore found himself in the role that VPs might daydream about but never really want.

Again, my impatient padawan: Why does that matter?

Well.  Right there at the middle of the nineteenth century, the US was attaining more and more S’s.  That means more and more representatives flocking to Washington, and trying to stuff themselves into a building that was designed in 1793 when the country had something like one-sixth the population.  On the matter of their own comfort, Congress can act pretty quickly and had decided to build themselves an addition.  Fillmore came to office just a few months before the choice of architect fell on the president’s desk.

Had Taylor been in office, who knows what might have happened.  That hack Robert Mills might have grabbed the job. As it is, Fillmore was sweet on an architect from Philadelphia named Thomas U. Walter, and it was he who got the plum.

Image: photograph by Martie Venter (from this source)

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