Remembering Millard Fillmore on his birthday

January 7, 2009

Millard Fillmore was born January 7, 1800. Had he lived, Millard Fillmore would be 209 years old today, and probably very cranky.

Millard Fillmore, official portrait - WhiteHouseHistory.org; 1857, by George P. A. Healy

Millard Fillmore, official portrait - WhiteHouseHistory.org; 1857, by George P. A. Healy

Would you blame him?  He opened Japan to trade.  He got from Mexico the land necessary to make Los Angeles a great world city and the Southern Pacific a great railroad, without firing a shot.  Fillmore promoted economic development of the Mississippi River.  He managed to keep a fractious nation together despite itself for another three years.  Fillmore let end the practice of presidents using slaves to staff the White House (then called “the President’s Mansion”).

Then in 1852 his own party refused to nominate him for a full term, making him the last Whig to be president.  And to add insult to ignominy, H. L. Mencken falsely accused him of being known only for adding a bathtub to the White House, something he didn’t do.

As Antony said of Caesar, the good was interred with his bones — but Millard Fillmore doesn’t even get credit for whatever evil he might have done:  Fillmore is remembered most for being the butt of a hoax gone awry, committed years after his death.  Or worse, he’s misremembered for what the hoax alleged he did.

Even beneficiaries of his help promoting the Mississippi River have taken his name off their annual celebration of the eventFillmore has been eclipsed, even in mediocrity (is there still a Millard Fillmore Society in Washington?).

Happy birthday, Millard Fillmore.

The Buffalo News, in the town Fillmore loved and worked to make great, said this morning:

Today is Millard Fillmore’s 209th birthday. Every year we vow to join those hardy folks from the University at Buffalo for their birthday observance at the monument to the 13th President on his grave in Section F in Forest Lawn. And every year the weather convinces us to stay inside. If you want to brave it, it starts at 10 a.m. There’s a reception in the chapel after the ceremony.

I’m in Dallas.  You won’t see me there.

All the living presidents meet today in the White House.  Will they toast Fillmore?

Millard Fillmore was a man of great civic spirit, a man who answered the call to serve even when most others couldn’t hear it at all.  He was a successful lawyer, despite having had only six months of formal education (a tribute to non-high school graduates and lifelong learning).  Unable to save the Union, he established the University of Buffalo and the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.  And, it is said of him, that Queen Victoria said he was the most handsome man she had ever met.

A guy like that deserves a toast, don’t you think?

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