Nathan Kelsey Hall


If President Zachary Taylor had not made some bad choices on the 4th of July, 1850, I wouldn’t be writing about Nathan Kelsey Hall, Postmaster General of the United States of America, who managed to be born in both Skaneateles and Marcellus.

But first to Taylor. In 1850, our nation’s formal Independence Day ceremonies called for the President’s presence at the site of the Washington Monument. The day was “sweltering,” but Taylor wore a black high-collar suit. Seated in the sun for hours, he chose to remain hatless. When the speeches finally ended, he returned to the White House and consumed an entire bowl of iced cherries and a pitcher of iced milk in an effort to cool off. Accounts differ, but we can be fairly sure the ice and unwashed fruit were tainted with cholera or typhoid, and that the repast alone would have been enough to upset anyone’s stomach.

Taylor was soon stricken with severe cramps. Doctors diagnosed heat stroke and gastroenteritis, then bilious fever, typhoid fever and cholera morbus, an acute indigestion which caused his stomach and intestines to twist. His doctors bled him, dosed him with opiates and quinine, and gave him more ice to suck on. Although a hero of the Mexican War, Taylor was no match for an army of ailments and physicians. In five days, he was dead, and Millard Fillmore was President.

This was not part of the plan. Vice President Fillmore had been added to the ticket to help carry New York State. He did not even meet the President until they arrived in Washington, where they quickly established that they did not like one another. Taylor swiftly closed Fillmore out of his administration, and even denied him patronage appointments in New York, which he instead granted to Fillmore’s bitter enemy, William H. Seward.

Millard Fillmore had been pushed off the stage. And would have remained there, if not for the black suit, the cherries and the milk. With Taylor suddenly dead, a forgotten man became the President of the United States. Taylor’s cabinet resigned and Fillmore named his own. For Postmaster General, he chose Nathan Kelsey Hall.

Nathan Kelsey Hall was born on March 10, 1810, at the farm of Nathan Kelsey, where his parents, Ira and Catharine Hall, lived. Their landlord and benefactor was a veteran of the Revolutionary War and a founder of the first church in Marcellus. His “substantial” farm was on West Hill, two miles west of the village of Marcellus. (In 1830, the site of Nathan Hall’s birth became part of the newly formed Town of Skaneateles, hence the towns share him as a native son.)

Early in life, Nathan Hall learned the abiding nature of friendship and the temporary nature of family. In the autumn of 1814, when Nathan was four years old, his three-year-old brother, Ira Jr., died and was buried in the Marcellus Village Cemetery. Less than three weeks later, Nathan’s mother died as well. Catharine Hall was just 26. Four years later, when Nathan was eight, his father left him with the Kelseys and moved west.

Nathan’s family was gone, but in a sense his home was intact. He would live on the Kelsey farm for his first 16 years. Young Nathan was schooled at the Onondaga Valley Academy, and when he reached adulthood, left the Kelseys to rejoin his father on the Niagara Frontier. Living just outside Buffalo, Nathan’s father tanned leather and made shoes. Nathan showed no gift for either. After a few other odd jobs, he began to study law. His first mentor was a man ten years his senior, a lawyer named Millard Fillmore.

Fillmore also was a son of the Finger Lakes, born in a frontier cabin in Locke (now Summerhill) in Cayuga County on Jan. 7, 1800. Fillmore studied at an academy in New Hope, where he met his future wife, Abigail Powers of Moravia. They married in 1823, and Fillmore set up a law office in East Aurora. In three years, he had a large enough practice to hire a clerk, and the lad he chose was sixteen-year-old Nathan Hall, who joined him on May 1, 1826.

Professionally and personally, Fillmore and Hall worked well together. They came from the same area. Both had risen from difficult circumstances. Each saw in the other someone they could trust. They shared the same values, the same work ethic.

In 1830, Fillmore and Hall began to practice law in Buffalo. Both thrived in business and politics, holding a succession of local and state offices. Elected to Congress for three terms, Fillmore was added to the Whig’s presidential ticket in 1848 to attract New York voters. As we have seen, Fillmore was meant to help win the election, and then disappear. But for the black suit, the cherries and the milk.

Once appointed Postmaster General, Nathan Hall remained true to form; he was honest, methodical, loyal. After requesting bids for the making of postage stamps, he actually gave the job to the firm best qualified. That many histories mention the contract points to the fact that it was a stunning development.

One biographer, James O. Putnam, noted of Hall:

“His integrity was almost of a romantic type; no importunity of friendship, no precedents of favoritism could ever bend him from the most inflexible observance of his role of duty… in his award of contracts for printing and mail services… he never knew any difference between friends and foes and had no eyes for anything but the most advantageous offers for the government.”

During Hall’s term, he oversaw the reduction of postage to three cents for domestic letters sent up to 3000 miles. He later noted:

“That the revenues of the Department have been perennially diminished by these reductions cannot be denied; but it is believed that this diminution has been slight in comparison with the public benefits which have followed.”

Hall, like Benjamin Franklin, our nation’s first Postmaster General, saw the Post Office as a service to the people, as an important way of linking the states, of forging its far-flung citizens into one nation. Under the stewardship of men like Franklin and Hall, there was no mention of the Post Office being self-sufficient or run like a business. Sadly, the presidents and postmasters of the present era have set this notion aside, and speak about “postal subsidies,” when they are necessary, as signs of failure. But when, one asks, did the Center for Disease Control last show a profit? Is the White House running in the black? How about Congress? But I digress.

As President, Fillmore was left to secure passage of five measures dealing with slavery. Known as the Compromise of 1850, the measures delayed the onset of the Civil War but ended Fillmore’s political career. The Whig Party, miffed by his actions, refused to nominate him for a second term in 1852.

When it became obvious to Fillmore that his party had no interest in seeing him remain in the White House, he found for Nathan Hall another federal appointment, this one for a lifetime. Hall was confirmed as United States District Judge of the Northern District of New York on August 31, 1852. He presided in Buffalo for the next 22 years. He was not a legendary jurist. He was slow to come to a decision, analytical rather than creative, but the worst his contemporaries could say about him was that he was so honest he found it difficult to believe that anyone would ever lie to him.

In 1874, in the florid style of the day, James O. Putnam noted:

“He was born for friendship and he abounded in those little offices of kindness which are among the sweetest solaces of life. He made our burthens lighter by his love, and we went from his presence with fresh courage and renewed strength for life’s weary march.”

In his unpublished autobiography, Hall said:

“That much of my success has been due to my own efforts, I feel bound to say in encouragement of those who shall come after me, while I admit with thankfulness and gratitude that much more has been due to the kindness of the Universal Father who cast my lines in pleasant places.”

Judge Nathan Kelsey Hall died in Buffalo on Monday, March 2, 1874, after keeping to his bed on a Sunday, weary from overwork. The following Sunday evening, after a short illness, Millard Fillmore once more joined his trusted friend and partner. In Forest Lawn Cemetery, the Fillmore and Hall family plots are side by side. The two great friends, Millard Fillmore and Nathan Kelsey Hall, rest just steps from one another.

* * *

My thanks to John P. Curtin of the Village of Marcellus Historical Society, and Janice Burnett, Office Manager at Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo, N.Y.

Also: Nine Mile Country, Kathryn C. Heffernan, Visual Arts Publications, 1978, p. 239; The Marcellus Village Cemetery – An Epigraphic Record 1980-1985, Florence Coville Brock and Mary M. Losky, 1986; “The Postal Service of the United States in Connection with the Local History of Buffalo” Read Before the (Buffalo Historical) Society January 6, 1865, by the Hon. Nathan Kelsey Hall and Thomas Blossom; “Nathan Kelsey Hall” Read Before the (Buffalo Historical) Society March 30, 1874,  by the Hon. James O. Putnam; Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

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