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Where have you gone Millard Fillmore?


February 15, 2017
Every school kid knows that George Washington was the "Father of our Country."

"First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen," it is said. The people's representatives in the government loved Washington so much that they created a federal holiday to honor our first President. It was celebrated on his birthday, February 22.

We used to celebrate Lincoln's birthday in February, too (Feb. 12), but not as a federal holiday.

In 1971 Congress moved the Washington's Birthday holiday to the third Monday in February. They wanted another three-day weekend, as if they didn't have enough time off already. Ironically, it never falls on Washington's actual birthday anymore.

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By the 1980s the term "Presidents Day" began to be used though officially it's still George's birthday. It was thought that we should remember and celebrate the nation's other 43 men who held the office. Yes, I know Trump is said to be the 45th President but that's because Grover Cleveland is counted twice —as 22nd and 24th. Benjamin Harrison interrupted Grover's two terms.

It also made a good excuse for car dealerships and others to have great Presidents Day sales.

Next Monday, February 20, you can probably get a new car cheaper and we will have no mail service, most banks will be closed, the stock market will be closed, etc. so we can pause to remember our Chief Executives, all of them.

I'm confident we will all remember the current President. He will probably tweet something to catch our attention. But what about the others?

What about good ol' Millard Fillmore, for example? For years Millard has suffered the indignity of being remembered as one of the most obscure and worst Presidents ever, if he was remembered at all. Well then, does Mr. Fillmore really deserve this reputation? It's a safe bet that they will not have to make room for him on Mt. Rushmore. Maybe it was because he was the nation's 13th President and that was not a lucky number for him.

He was born into poverty in 1800 and had little formal education but became an attorney (Insert lawyer jokes here) in Buffalo, New York. He was elected to the State Assembly and then to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1832 as a member of the Whig Party. He served six years in the House and was the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. He chose not to run again and was elected Comptroller of New York. In 1846 he was one of the founders of the University of Buffalo.

In 1850, the Whigs nominated General Zachary Taylor for President. He had made a name for himself in the Mexican-American War. Though he was not Taylor's choice, the convention nominated Fillmore as Vice President on the fourth ballot. In the fall, with Fillmore helping carry New York, the ticket was elected.

As Vice President and President of the Senate, Fillmore presided over some of the most momentous and passionate debates in American history as the Senate debated whether to allow slavery in the new territories in what became known as "The Compromise of 1850."

On July 9, 1850 President Taylor died suddenly and Fillmore became President. He accepted the resignations of all of Taylor's Cabinet and inserted his own people. In Congress the Compromise of 1850 was enacted and signed into law by President Fillmore.

The Compromise of 1850 was a package of five separate bills which defused a four-year political confrontation between Slave and Free states regarding the status of territories acquired during the Mexican-American War. It consisted of laws admitting California as a free state, creating Utah and New Mexico territories with the question of slavery in each to be determined by popular votes, settling a Texas-New Mexico boundary dispute in Texas's favor, ending the slave trade in Washington, D.C., and making it easier for southerners to recover fugitive slaves.

President Fillmore was opposed to slavery but felt it was a state, not a federal matter. He enforced the Fugitive Slave Act sending escaped slaves back to their owners. Some say his actions postponed the Civil War by a decade. In today's language we would say "he kicked the can down the road again."

He was not re-nominated for another term but ran again four years later with the American Party. He lost badly carrying only Maryland.

According to Wikipedia, one biographer said, "No President of the United States ... has suffered as much ridicule as Millard Fillmore." He ascribed much of the abuse to a tendency to denigrate the Presidents who served in the years just prior to the Civil War as lacking in leadership. For example, later President Harry Truman, a self-proclaimed historian, characterized Fillmore as "a weak, trivial thumb-twaddler who would do nothing to offend anyone." Another biographer commented, "On the central issues of the age his vision was myopic and his legacy is worse ... in the end, Fillmore was always on the wrong side of the great moral and political issues."

Fillmore died on March 8, 1874.

As the late radio show host, Paul Harvey would say, "And now you know the rest of the story." So even if he isn't destined for Mt. Rushmore let's remember Millard Fillmore at least on Presidents Day.

Email Rick at rick.liblong@cox.net.

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