Happy 217th birthday, Millard Fillmore! Mo Rocca’s profile, from our archives to yours

January 7, 2017

Millard Fillmore as a younger man? Several sites claim this is a painting of Fillmore, but as with much about our mysterious 13th president, it's difficult to confirm, partly because images of Fillmore really are rather rare.

Millard Fillmore as a younger man? Several sites claim this is a painting of Fillmore, but as with much about our mysterious 13th president, it’s difficult to confirm, partly because images of Fillmore really are rather rare.

Our 13th president, Millard Fillmore, was born January 7, 1800. He’s 217 years old today, though he’s been dead most of that time.

After commemorating Fillmore’s birthday each year for the past several years, I’m running out of ideas to write about him that seem novel, at least to me. [No doubt you’ve noted this is roughly the same post as last year.]  Several years I’ve called the University of Buffalo to try to get copies of the remarks officials make at Fillmore’s gravesite, but those remarks rarely come through — so we don’t get enlightenment from them.

Reality? Few people remember anything about Fillmore even after we feature it here. For Fillmore’s 217th, let’s review what little we really know about him, with some encore posts.

Raconteur Mo Rocca profiled Fillmore for CBS’s Sunday Morning, a while back. That may be as good a place as any to review the highlights of Fillmore’s life, and meaning and place in U.S. history.

Most historians give Fillmore bad marks as a president, despite his having opened Japan for trade, and despite his having procured a steady supply of bird poop for U.S. industry.

I get this eerie feeling Fillmore would fit right in today in the GOP presidential scraps, and would be a serious challenge to fellow New Yorker Donald Trump. Do you agree?

You may view Mo Rocca’s “profile” of President Millard Fillmore for CBS Sunday Morning, on YouTube:

“CBS Sunday Morning” correspondent Mo Rocca, far left, poses with Kathy Frost, curator of the Millard Fillmore Presidential Site, and Robert Lowell Goller, town historian and director of the Aurora Historical Society, during his recent visit to East Aurora. Photo by Robert Lowell Goller

East Aurora Advertiser caption: CBS Visits East Aurora “CBS Sunday Morning” correspondent Mo Rocca, far left, poses with Kathy Frost, curator of the Millard Fillmore Presidential Site, and Robert Lowell Goller, town historian and director of the Aurora Historical Society, during his recent visit to East Aurora. Photo by Robert Lowell Goller

CBS broadcast this piece on February 16, 2014.

 974

More:

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience. Overcoming Mencken’s hoax requires an army, too.

Save


Quote of the moment, December 6, 1852: Millard Fillmore explains his legacy; history ignores it

December 6, 2016

For an accidental president, a man who no one expected to take the office; for a guy whose term was marked by his party’s rejection of his policies so much that they did not even entertain the idea he might be the nominee in the next election; for the last Whig president, an obvious dinosaur of a dying political view; for a guy so obscure that a hoax more than a half-century later remains his greatest acknowledged point of reference, Millard Fillmore left the U.S. in good shape.

Should that be his real legacy?

On the anniversary of his final State of the Union message, let us ponder what Millard Fillmore bragged about.

Millard Fillmore for President, campaign poster from 1856 (American Party)

Campaign poster for Millard Fillmore, running for president in 1856 on the American Party ticket. He carried Maryland, which is probably ironic, considering Maryland’s Catholic roots, and the American Party’s anti-Catholic views, views probably not entirely shared by Fillmore; the American Party is more often known as the “Know-Nothings.”  Image from the Library of Congress American Memory files.

These are the last two paragraphs of his final State of the Union message, delivered on paper on December 6, 1852 Perhaps establishing a tradition, he made the message a listing of current zeitgeist, starting out mourning the recent passing of Daniel Webster, and the abatement of epidemics of mosquito-borne plagues in several cities.  He recited activities of the government, including the abolishing of corporal punishment in the Navy and improvements in the Naval Academy; he mentioned U.S. exploration around the world, in the Pacific, in the Amazon River, in Africa, and especially his project to send a fleet to Japan to open trade there.  He noted great opportunities for trade, domestically across an expanded, Atlantic-to-Pacific United States, and in foreign markets reachable through both oceans.

The last two paragraphs would be considered greatly exaggerated had any president in the 20th century delivered them; but from Millard Fillmore, they were not.  He gave credit for these achievements to others, not himself.

In closing this my last annual communication, permit me, fellow-citizens, to congratulate you on the prosperous condition of our beloved country. Abroad its relations with all foreign powers are friendly, its rights are respected, and its high place in the family of nations cheerfully recognized. At home we enjoy an amount of happiness, public and private, which has probably never fallen to the lot of any other people. Besides affording to our own citizens a degree of prosperity of which on so large a scale I know of no other instance, our country is annually affording a refuge and a home to multitudes, altogether without example, from the Old World.

We owe these blessings, under Heaven, to the happy Constitution and Government which were bequeathed to us by our fathers, and which it is our sacred duty to transmit in all their integrity to our children. We must all consider it a great distinction and privilege to have been chosen by the people to bear a part in the administration of such a Government. Called by an unexpected dispensation to its highest trust at a season of embarrassment and alarm, I entered upon its arduous duties with extreme diffidence. I claim only to have discharged them to the best of an humble ability, with a single eye to the public good, and it is with devout gratitude in retiring from office that I leave the country in a state of peace and prosperity.

What president would not have been happy to have been able to claim as much?  Historians often offer back-handed criticism to Fillmore for the Compromise of 1850; in retrospect it did not prevent the Civil War.  In the circumstances of 1850, in the circumstances of Fillmore’s presidential career, should we expect more?  Compared to Buchanan’s presidency and the events accelerating toward war, did Fillmore do so badly?

Compare with modern analogs: Donald Trump appears to be working exactly contrary to those things Fillmore said were beneficial to the U.S., then: Friendly relations with foreign powers, the U.S. recognized as a refuge for persecuted people, and domestic prosperity. Any president since Franklin Roosevelt would have loved to have left such a legacy.

Have we underestimated Millard Fillmore?  Discuss.

More:

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Save

Save


It’s Martin van Buren’s birthday, December 5

December 5, 2016

Former President Martin van Buren, circa 1855-1888. Matthew Brady photograph (Imperial print of Martin Van Buren. Salted paper print from glass negative. Provenance from W.H. Lowdermilk & Co., Rare Books, 1418 F Street, Washington, DC) Metropolitan Museum image, via Wikimedia

Former President Martin van Buren, circa 1855-1888. Matthew Brady photograph (Imperial print of Martin Van Buren. Salted paper print from glass negative. Provenance from W.H. Lowdermilk & Co., Rare Books, 1418 F Street, Washington, DC) Metropolitan Museum image, via Wikimedia

Martin van Buren was our nation’s 8th president, serving one term, 1837-1841.

This photo is roughly  15 years after van Buren left office, taken in the Washington, D.C., studio of Matthew Brady, whose photography gained fame from his work photographing battle sites during the American Civil War.

Martin van Buren was born December 5, 1872, in Kinderhook, New York. He is the only president to have the first name Martin.

 


December 2: Happy Guano Day! (Thank you, Millard Fillmore)

December 2, 2016

Why December 2?

(You couldn’t make this stuff up if you were Monty Python.)

English: Millard Fillmore White House portrait

Millard Fillmore’s White House portrait, via Wikipedia

President Millard Fillmore, in the State of the Union Address, December 2, 1850

Peruvian guano has become so desirable an article to the agricultural interest of the United States that it is the duty of the Government to employ all the means properly in its power for the purpose of causing that article to be imported into the country at a reasonable price. Nothing will be omitted on my part toward accomplishing this desirable end. I am persuaded that in removing any restraints on this traffic the Peruvian Government will promote its own best interests, while it will afford a proof of a friendly disposition toward this country, which will be duly appreciated.

Did any other U.S. President spend so much time thinking about guano?  Did any president ever mention it in a State of the Union Address?  The curious case of Millard Fillmore, Seer, just grows.

Guano, or bird poop (and its relative, bat poop), contains phosphorus, which is an essential element for life.  Consequently, it turns out to be a key ingredient in effective agricultural fertilizers.  In international competition for supremacy in farming and farm exports, guano became a key resource to fight over, in the 19th century.

It’s almost safe to say the fights were economic; but guano did play a key role in wars in South America (see Andrew Leonard’s article, noted below).

Fillmore figured out that the substance had great importance, coupled that with the rather esoteric knowledge that sea birds tended to deposit guano in great abundance on certain islands, often unoccupied, and ordered the U.S. Navy to claim islands found to contain guano deposits that were not claimed by other nations.

By the American Civil War, the importance of phosphorus to the production of gun powder became an issue for the armies of the North and South.  Millard Fillmore had set the stage for the North to win an important advantage in gun powder production, just one of many that led to the defeat of the South.

It’s one more thing we should thank Millard Fillmore for doing. Our study of history should inform us that it is, indeed, important for politicians to understand the importance of guano.

Fillmore knew his guano.

Take a moment on December 2 to toast Millard Fillmore’s prescience, on Guano Day!

More:  

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Save

Save


George H. W. Bush’s letter to Bill Clinton reminds us what we have lost

October 28, 2016

Do they make Republicans so patriotic and thoughtful any more?

1992’s election was unnecessarily nasty, I thought. Incumbent George H. W. Bush had fallen from record approval ratings after Gulf War I, due to economic problems. GOP campaigning targeted Bill Clinton’s failings in personal life, and imaginary policies — much of what were real issues were ignored, I thought.

Transition was relatively smooth. GOP continued the tactic’s they’d adopted in 1977 against Jimmy Carter, constant harping on small issues, some refusal to cooperate.

George H. W. Bush is always gracious. In his last hours in office, he penned a personal letter to the man who had defeated him, Bill Clinton. He left the letter on the President’s Desk in the Oval Office, one of the first things Clinton would see after the ceremonies, and as the weight of his new job began dragging him into reality.

Bush’s grace, then, shines now as an example of a lost time, when despite deep divisions, Washington politicians understood the nation needed to run, and were willing to compromise to make the laws and appointments necessary to help America.

Bush wrote:

Letter from President George H. W. Bush to President Bill Clinton, January 20, 1993. Image via NBC News.

Letter from President George H. W. Bush to President Bill Clinton, January 20, 1993. Image via NBC News.

Bush wrote to Clinton:

You will be our president when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.

Your success is now our country’s success. I am rooting for you. Good Luck.

Are there any such Republicans left in the party? Does anyone make Republicans like that now?

We need that grace, and resolve to make America a better and happier place, back again. Send a thank-you letter to someone you know today.

More:

Save

Save


Cluster of presidents’ birthdays in August

July 22, 2016

If presidents’ birthdays were spread out through the months evenly, we’d be approaching four births per month as we approach 48 presidents (Obama is 44th administration, of 43 presidents; Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms, screwing up numbering for all time).

August has just more than its share of presidential births, five. In date order as we go through August:

  • Barack Obama, our 43rd President, was born August 7, 1961, in Honolulu, Hawaii
  • Herbert Hoover, 30th President, was born August 10, 1874, in West Branch, Iowa
  • Bill Clinton, 42nd President, was born August 19, 1946, in Hope, Arkansas
  • Benjamin Harrison, 22nd President, was born August 20, 1833, in North Bend, Ohio
  • Lyndon Baines Johnson, 34th President, was born August 27, 1908, in Stonewall, Texas

Obama will get cards and letters, and network news programs will probably make a light-hearted mention of his birthday. Are the other August presidents celebrated, even in their hometowns?

Barack Obama as an infant. Buzfeed

Barack Obama as an infant. Buzzfeed

Barack Obama, about age two, with his mother.

Barack Obama, about age two, with his mother. Parade Magazine image.

Herbert Hoover as an infant. Difficult to find photos of young Hoover. He was orphaned.

Herbert Hoover as an infant. Difficult to find photos of young Hoover. He was orphaned.

Bill Clinton, about age two. Parade Magazine image.

Bill Clinton, about age two. Parade Magazine image.

 

Lyndon Johnson's birthday is August 27. Even near his birth he looked like the cowboy-hatted president we remember. Image from Readers Digest

Lyndon Johnson’s birthday is August 27. Even near his birth he looked like the cowboy-hatted president we remember. Image from Readers Digest

Photos of Benjamin Harrison as an infant or young child appear to be exceedingly rare.

March and November also feature births of five presidents.

Save


Happy birthday, Gerald Ford, July 14, 1913

July 14, 2016

Today is the 103rd anniversary of President Gerald Ford‘s birth.

Happy birthday, Mr. President!

Gerald Ford, as an officer in the US Navy in 1945. Wikipedia image in the public domain.

Gerald Ford, as an officer in the US Navy in 1945. Ford left the Navy in 1946, and ran for Congress in 1948. Wikipedia image in the public domain.

More: 


%d bloggers like this: