Happy 220th birthday, Millard Fillmore!

January 7, 2020

Millard Fillmore, bronzed, sitting at the corner of 9th and St. Joseph Streets in Rapid City, South Dakota. He still gets around. Photo by Ed Darrell. Please use.

Millard Fillmore, bronzed, sitting at the corner of 9th and St. Joseph Streets in Rapid City, South Dakota. He still gets around. Photo by Ed Darrell. Please use. Creative Commons copyright.

Millard Fillmore, our 13th President, was born on January 7, 1800.

That was 24 days after the death of our first President, George Washington.

Fillmore’s birthday isn’t such a big deal anymore, since fun organizers discontinued the bathtub races once word got out that the story of Millard Fillmore putting the first bathtub in the White House, is a hoax.

Historians from the University of Buffalo — an institution founded by Fillmore after his presidency — usually hold a graveside ceremony with speeches. In 2020 the service was scheduled for 10:00 a.m. EST, at Fillmore’s grave. No news I can find about whether it occurred. The ceremony has been cancelled for snow, ice and cold in recent years. (About as cold as the response I get from the University of Buffalo when I ask for a copy of the speech or paper to publish here.)

It’s a shame, really. Fillmore is the victim of fake news, a hoax perpetrated by H. L. Mencken 100 years ago, in 1917. Mencken claimed, falsely, that Fillmore’s sole good, memorable deed was putting that fictitious bathtub in the White House. That story crowds out the real history, and any good Fillmore should be remembered for.

Fillmore did a few notable things as president.

  • Fillmore secured a steady supply of bird guano for the United States. Funny as that may be, the guano was essential for making gun powder, which in turn helped fuel the military might of the United States for years (including through the Civil War).
  • Millard Fillmore and his first wife, Abigail, read books all the time. Deprived of the opportunity of going to school much in his youth, Fillmore became an ardent reader, read for the law, became a lawyer, got into politics and was selected Vice President for President Zachary Taylor. When Taylor died (probably of typhoid) in 1850, Fillmore succeeded to the presidency. In the White House, the Fillmores found few books to read, and so established the White House Library. Say prayers that library survives the current president.
  • Fillmore thought globally, and he could see world trade as a huge opportunity for a young nation with a strong navy and army, and a lot of resources including intellectual capacity to manufacture things. Trade in the Pacific was problematic, and a large number of problems stemmed from Japan’s closing itself off from the world. Japan had coal, which could refuel steamships. Japan instead closed its ports. An occasional U.S. sailor would be executed if he washed up on Japanese shores. Fillmore sent a small fleet of “black ships” under Commodore Matthew Perry, to tell Japan it was time to open up to trade and assume its place among nations. Perry was successful, after a second visit and a small round of cannon fire. Japan became a strong economic power in the West Pacific, and in its march to glory decided to take over resources of several other Asian nations. We might say Fillmore started the slide to World War II in the Pacific.

History should be kept to accuracy. Mencken upset the ship of accuracy with his essay, and America has not recovered, nor has Millard Fillmore’s reputation. There’s a moral there: Don’t spread hoaxes; seek the truth, and glorify it. (Mencken apologized for the hoax, but too late.)

Rapid City, South Dakota, is a booming town. Mineral wealth and oil in the state combine with a nearby Air Force Base, great housing prices and good weather to benefit the town. One of its civic watchdogs got the idea of putting statues of all U.S. presidents on downtown corners. That is how Millard Fillmore comes to be seated with a book to read, at the corner of 9th Street and St. Joseph Street, where I met him in August 2017. Altogether a fun little history enterprise for Rapid City, very well executed, and worthy of a stop there if you’re passing by.

Perhaps someday Rapid City will take to decorating the statues on the birthdays of the men (so far!) represented. I hope they won’t be frozen out like Buffalo, New York, is, if they commemorate Millard Fillmore’s birthday.

We can reflect on happier times, when even our disrespected and forgotten presidents were good people who did great things.

Millard Fillmore and Ed Darrell meet, in Rapid City, South Dakota, August 2017

Millard Fillmore and Ed Darrell meet, in Rapid City, South Dakota, August 2017; photo by Kathryn Knowles

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Happy 219th birthday, Millard Fillmore!

January 7, 2019

Millard Fillmore, future 13th President of the United States, was born on January 7, 1800, in upstate New York.

Victim of one of the most infamous hoaxes in history, Millard Fillmore’s good works are often forgotten.

It’s that hoax that gives the name to this blog, and preventing or stopping other similar hoaxes which is the hope of the author.

In the past 50 years residents of Buffalo revived the reputation of Fillmore, and started a tradition of celebrating his birthday.

Trumpeter plays taps at the grave site of President Millard Fillmore in Buffalo, New York's Forest Lawn Cemetery, with a military honor guard and dignitaries from the University of Buffalo, which traces its founding to Fillmore. This is a Buffalo News photo of an earlier celebration, perhaps 2015.

Trumpeter plays taps at the grave site of President Millard Fillmore in Buffalo, New York’s Forest Lawn Cemetery, with a military honor guard and dignitaries from the University of Buffalo, which traces its founding to Fillmore. This is a Buffalo News photo of an earlier celebration, perhaps 2015.

But so far as I have found, no bathtub races occurred this year.

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September 26, 1850: Millard Fillmore nominated Brigham Young as governor of the Utah Territory

September 26, 2018

Interesting exercise, probably for an undergraduate college history student:  What became of these men during their service in the Utah Territory, and afterward?  What effect did they have on Utah’s history, and Utah on them?

On September 26, 1850, Millard Fillmore sent the Senate, for confirmation, his nominations of officers to run the Utah Territory, three years after Brigham Young had led the first band of Latter-day Saints into the Salt Lake Valley to settle; Fillmore nominated Brigham Young as Governor of the Territory:

Letter from President Millard Fillmore to the U.S. Senate, nominating people (all men) to govern the Utah Territory, September 26, 1850 - U.S. National Archives image

Letter from President Millard Fillmore to the U.S. Senate, nominating people (all men) to govern the Utah Territory, September 26, 1850 – U.S. National Archives image

Page 2:

Page 2 of President Fillmore's letter to the U.S. Senate, nominating officers to govern the Utah Territory , in 1850. National Archives image

Page 2 of President Fillmore’s letter to the U.S. Senate, nominating officers to govern the Utah Territory , in 1850. National Archives image

National Archives notes:  Executive Nominations for the First Session of the 31st Congress, 12/03/1849 – 09/30/1850

Production Dates: 09/26/1850

Notes in red ink indicate that confirmation dates for each of these nominees — all but one done two days later.  Fillmore’s nominee to be U.S. marshall in the territory wasn’t confirmed until the following February.

Amazing to think of the speed with which these confirmations occurred, compared to today’s U.S. Senate — and remembering that Congress was not particularly friendly to Fillmore.

An animated GIF of the as it evolved from 1850...

An animated GIF of the Utah Territory as it evolved from 1850 to 1896, when statehood was granted. (Territory boundaries not exact, especially in the west, where early proposals took in parts of California) Wikipedia image

Nominations were:

  • Brigham Young, of Utah, to be governor of the Utah territory
  • Broughton Davis Harris, of Vermont, to be Secretary of the territory
  • Joseph Buffington, of Pennsylvania, to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Utah Territory
  • Perry E. Brocchus, of Alabama, to be Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the Utah Territory
  • Zerubabbel Snow, of Ohio, to be Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the Utah Territory
  • Seth Blain, of Utah, to be U.S. Attorney
  • Joseph L. Haywood, of Utah, to be U.S. Marshall.

What other odd little delights are hidden away in the on-line holdings of the National Archives?  What sort of DBQ exercise can history teachers make out of this stuff?

More:

Brigham Young in 1851; photo from LDS archives

Brigham Young in 1851; photo from LDS archives

This is an encore post.

Yes, this is an encore post. Defeating ignorance takes patience and perseverance.


Belated happy birthday, H. L. Mencken

September 14, 2018

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, September 12, 1880:  Henry Louis Mencken.

But I missed it. It’s worth noting a day or so late, though, just for his creed.

H. L. Mencken celebrates the end of Prohibition with a glass of beer with friends. (Who took the photo? In what bar? Who are those people with Mencken?)

H. L. Mencken celebrates the end of Prohibition with a glass of beer with friends. (Who took the photo? In what bar? Who are those people with Mencken?)

Mencken is the guy who invented the Millard Fillmore bathtub hoax.

As a quintessential curmudgeon, Mencken took a cynical pose on many issues.  Why?  His creed explains:

Mencken’s Creed

I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind – that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.
I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.
I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty…
I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.
I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech…
I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run.
I believe in the reality of progress.
I – But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.

The Mencken Society in Baltimore plans a commemoration of Mencken at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, on Saturday, September 15, 2018, starting at 10:30 a.m.

It would be a great day to be in Baltimore.

There are reports that Mencken's beer was an Arrow Beer, at the bar of the Hotel Rennert in Baltimore. Is that accurate?

There are reports that Mencken’s beer was an Arrow Beer, at the bar of the Hotel Rennert in Baltimore. Is that accurate?

The Hotel Rennert stood at the corner of Saratoga and Liberty Streets, at 31 West Saratoga Street. It was torn down in the 1940s.

Baltimore's Hotel Rennert, torn down in the 1940s, stood at the corner of Saratoga and Liberty Streets. Photo from the Maryland Historical Society.

Baltimore’s Hotel Rennert, torn down in the 1940s, stood at the corner of Saratoga and Liberty Streets. Photo from the Maryland Historical Society.

 

Yes, I know Mencken had many unpleasant views. He didn’t relish the title “curmudgeon” because it was wrong.


On July 10, 1850, Millard Fillmore ascended to the presidency

July 10, 2018

The popular hero of the Mexican-American War, Zachary Taylor, died on July 9. For the second time, a vice president was sworn in to replace the elected president.

Millard Fillmore was that vice president.

Millard Fillmore, in 1873, 20 years after he left the presidency. Portrait by C. M. Bell. From the Library of Congress.

Millard Fillmore, in 1873, 20 years after he left the presidency. Portrait by C. M. Bell. From the Library of Congress.

Fillmore ended the run of presidents by Whig Party members, the last Whig. He served out the term of Taylor, but despite trying, never succeeded in winning election on his own.

Most people including historians know little about Fillmore, except his unsavory role in signing the Fugitive Slave Act, and thereby pushing the nation closer to civil war. The hoax on Fillmore’s allegedly introducing a plumbed bathtub to the White House, by H. L. Mencken in 1917, stained Fillmore’s reputation and chased out most information about good things he had done, such as opening Japan to trade.

There are morals about hoaxes and fake news in Fillmore’s story. Those morals are much lost to history now.

More:

 

The author and a bronze likeness of Fillmore meet on a street in Rapid City, South Dakota, August 2016

The author and a bronze likeness of Fillmore meet on a street in Rapid City, South Dakota, August 2016


Trump is most like Millard Fillmore? Perhaps in his failures . . .

July 5, 2018

One story says Queen Victoria commented that Millard Fillmore was the handsomest man she'd ever met; true or not, imposing Trump's face on Fillmore doesn't improve anything. Illustration from BBC

One story says Queen Victoria commented that Millard Fillmore was the handsomest man she’d ever met; true or not, imposing Trump’s face on Fillmore doesn’t improve anything. Illustration from BBC

Millard Fillmore was a self-educated man, an ardent reader, the founder of the White House library.

Millard Fillmore understood the strategic geography of Japan, an opened Japan up to the world.

Has Trump done anything beneficial? Logical? Based on good, accurate information?

We may have a bone to pick with BBC.

BBC’s article, by Jude Sheerin from the Washington bureau, actually is quite well done. The article compares the nativism in Fillmore’s time, to which Fillmore fell victim, with Trump’s nativism — and the comparison is troubling.

In the end, the Whigs refused to nominate Fillmore to run for his own term in 1852 (he had succeeded President Zachary Taylor on Taylor’s death, remember); Fillmore was courted by the American Party, better known to school kids as the Know-Nothings. Fillmore led the Know-Nothings to a crushing defeat in 1852 (they did get Maryland), but the Whigs never recovered either. In 1856, partly in the ashes of the Whigs, rose the Republican Party to run John C. Fremont for President.

And in 1860, the new Republican Party managed to knock a homerun, getting Abraham Lincoln elected to the presidency on the party’s second try.

“What is past is prologue,” the wall of the National Archives tells us, and Santayana warns that those who do not remember history will repeat it. What lessons can we learn from comparing Donald Trump to Millard Fillmore?

Other than the fact that Fillmore was actually quite a bit better looking, that is.


Happy 218th birthday, Millard Fillmore!

January 8, 2018

Millard Fillmore, bronzed, sitting at the corner of 9th and St. Joseph Streets in Rapid City, South Dakota. He still gets around. Photo by Ed Darrell. Please use.

Millard Fillmore, bronzed, sitting at the corner of 9th and St. Joseph Streets in Rapid City, South Dakota. He still gets around. Photo by Ed Darrell. Please use. Creative Commons copyright.

Millard Fillmore, our 13th President, was born on January 7, 1800.

That was 24 days after the death of our first President, George Washington.

Yes, I’m a day late in noting the anniversary. Fillmore’s birthday isn’t such a big deal anymore, since fun organizers discontinued the bathtub races once word got out that the story of Millard Fillmore putting the first bathtub in the White House, is a hoax.

Historians from the University of Buffalo — an institution founded by Fillmore after his presidency — usually hold a graveside ceremony with speeches. But for at least the second time in recent years, they got frozen out. (About as cold as the response I get from the University of Buffalo when I ask for a copy of the speech or paper to publish here.)

It’s a shame, really. Fillmore is the victim of fake news, a hoax perpetrated by H. L. Mencken 100 years ago, in 1917. Mencken claimed, falsely, that Fillmore’s sole good, memorable deed was putting that fictitious bathtub in the White House. That story crowds out the real history, and any good Fillmore should be remembered for.

Fillmore did a few notable things as president.

  • Fillmore secured a steady supply of bird guano for the United States. Funny as that may be, the guano was essential for making gun powder, which in turn helped fuel the military might of the United States for years (including through the Civil War).
  • Millard Fillmore and his first wife, Abigail, read books all the time. Deprived of the opportunity of going to school much in his youth, Fillmore became an ardent reader, read for the law, became a lawyer, got into politics and was selected Vice President for President Zachary Taylor. When Taylor died (probably of typhoid) in 1850, Fillmore succeeded to the presidency. In the White House, the Fillmores found few books to read, and so established the White House Library. Say prayers that library survives the current president.
  • Fillmore thought globally, and he could see world trade as a huge opportunity for a young nation with a strong navy and army, and a lot of resources including intellectual capacity to manufacture things. Trade in the Pacific was problematic, and a large number of problems stemmed from Japan’s closing itself off from the world. Japan had coal, which could refuel steamships. Japan instead closed its ports. An occasional U.S. sailor would be executed if he washed up on Japanese shores. Fillmore sent a small fleet of “black ships” under Commodore Matthew Perry, to tell Japan it was time to open up to trade and assume its place among nations. Perry was successful, after a second visit and a small round of cannon fire. Japan became a strong economic power in the West Pacific, and in its march to glory decided to take over resources of several other Asian nations. We might say Fillmore started the slide to World War II in the Pacific.

History should be kept to accuracy. Mencken upset the ship of accuracy with his essay, and America has not recovered, nor has Millard Fillmore’s reputation. There’s a moral there: Don’t spread hoaxes; seek the truth, and glorify it. (Mencken apologized for the hoax, but too late.)

Rapid City, South Dakota, is a booming town. Mineral wealth and oil in the state combine with an Air Force Base, great housing prices and good weather to the benefit of the town. One of its civic watchdogs got the idea of putting statues of all U.S. presidents on downtown corners. That is how Millard Fillmore comes to be seated at a desk with a book nearby, at the corner of 9th Street and St. Joseph Street, where I met him last August. Altogether a fun little history enterprise for Rapid City, very well executed, and worthy of a stop there if you’re passing by.

Perhaps someday Rapid City will take to decorating the statues on the birthdays of the men (so far!) represented. I hope they won’t be frozen out like Buffalo, New York, is, if they commemorate Millard Fillmore’s birthday.

Millard Fillmore and Ed Darrell meet, in Rapid City, South Dakota, August 2017

Millard Fillmore and Ed Darrell meet, in Rapid City, South Dakota, August 2017; photo by Kathryn Knowles

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