This Week in History

It’s not quite MacArthur hitting the beach at Leyte, or M.J. winning three post-baseball NBA Finals, but after a 37-week hiatus, behold the triumphant return of “This Week in History”!

Millard Fillmore
Millard Fillmore (1800-1874) –

July 9, 1850 – Millard Fillmore succeeds Zachary Taylor as U.S. president

This after the former war hero died of acute gastroenteritis, likely caused by consuming contaminated food in celebration of American Independence five days earlier. Amazingly, the presidential doctors’ treatments (including quinine, opium, and bleeding) did nothing, and so Vice President Millard Fillmore became the country’s 12th president — and, according to this Wikipedia aggregation of historical rankings, its 5th worst.

His support for the Compromise of 1850 and Fugitive Slave Act probably doesn’t help his case, but I wonder if Fillmore’s name alone doesn’t cost him some points with contemporary observers. Popularity of names can be cyclical, but I doubt we’ll see Millard come around again. (Astonishingly, it was still in the top 250 in the 1880s, but then took a nose dive in popularity, dropping out of the top 500 after World War II and then off the naming map entirely in the last forty years.)

At the very least, we probably don’t take him (or most other 19th century vice-presidents who ascended to the #1 spot) that seriously. So a few marginally interesting facts to fill in your knowledge of Mill-Fill:

  1. He’s known as the last Whig to be president, but his Whig-ness was sandwiched by two other, less savory party loyalties. He began political life as a member of the “Anti-Masonic” party, a short-lived, single-issue, conspiracy-theorizing party (a post-Civil War incarnation of which nominated Wheaton College president Jonathan Blanchard for president!), and ended it associated with the political wing of the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know Nothing movement.
  2. He co-founded what’s now the University of Buffalo (which named its adult education program after him), but never graduated from college himself. Which isn’t all that unusual: seven other 19th century presidents were in the same educational boat, including Fillmore’s boss and the greatest president of them all, a true autodidact. Fillmore did pass the bar exam in New York, but rejected the University of Oxford’s offer of an honorary doctorate in 1855.
  3. His wife had the distinction of being the second-most famous Abigail to serve as First Lady of the United States.

July 10, 1553 – Lady Jane Grey is proclaimed Queen of England

Her nine-day reign the result of a desperate machination by Protestant nobles to keep the steadfastly Roman Catholic eldest daughter of Henry VIII from taking her rightful place on the throne, the teenaged Jane was the recipient of an excellent humanist education and proved herself to be a steadfast defender of the Reformation in a famous interview with John Feckenham, confessor to Queen Mary I (who had her distant cousin executed in February 1554). Here’s John Foxe’s version of that dialogue, as published in the 1583 edition of his Protestant martyrology, The Acts and Monuments (or Foxe’s Book of Martyrs).

All of which came to mind last month, when my wife and I watched The King’s Speech again. The wife of Colin Firth’s stuttering king is played (very well) by Helena Bonham Carter, whose screen breakthrough came in 1986, when she portrayed <drum roll> Jane Grey in the film Lady Jane. She was barely twenty at the time, and I was only thirteen a couple of years later when I first saw the movie in Mr. Groebner’s world history class. From there we took separate paths, however, she becoming the muse of Tim Burton and I occasionally teaching a class on <one more drum roll> Reformation history, where I introduce a new generation of students to Lady Jane Grey.

July 11, 1789 – Tijuana, Mexico is founded

There’s no reason to mention this, except that it reminded me of one of my favorite non sequitur endings to a Simpsons episode, when Krusty the Clown takes Bart, Lisa, and other survivors of his mismanaged summer camp to “The Happiest Place on Earth.” As dubbed into Spanish, no less:

July 12, 1962 – The Rolling Stones play their first gig, at London’s Marquee Club

I know the Stones’ longevity has become a Leno-ready joke, and only Jagger and Richards are left from that inaugural lineup. (Charlie Watts joined several months later.) But fifty years of playing concerts together is worthy of an ovation or two. The first song on the first set list, incidentally, was Leiber and Stoller’s “Kansas City” (also a favorite of The Beatles, who recorded it for 1964’s Beatles for Sale).

I wrote about one of my favorite Stones’ albums, 1965’s Aftermath, in launching my ongoing Albums A to Z series.

The KilnsJuly 13, 1960 – Joy Davidman Gresham dies

I wish I knew more about this remarkable woman, but she’s no doubt most famous for having met and married C. S. Lewis — first in a civil marriage designed to let her remain in Britain, and then — after Lewis fell in love with her and she was diagnosed with terminal cancer — in a Church of England service performed at her bedside. In the mid-1980s their story inspired an acclaimed BBC movie, Shadowlands, with Claire Bloom and Joss Ackland. Under the same title, it became, first, a play that, on Broadway, starred Jane Alexander and Nigel Hawthorne, then a feature film with Debra Winger and Anthony Hopkins. And, of course, Joy’s death inspired Lewis’ wrenching exploration of bereavement and theodicy, A Grief Observed.

6 thoughts on “This Week in History

      1. Welcome to the Upper Midwest: where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all humor is deprecating — of self and/or others. Beneath the ribbing, in this case, there’s genuine admiration for the breadth of knowledge that you and others of your discipline possess. (Especially when it spans low, middle, and high brow.) I, on the other hand, realized this weekend that I’d read barely more than a third of the current “100 Books You Must Read” meme, and only that many because of all the children’s literature.

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