By Tom Emery
Lincoln, Washington, and other great Presidents are part of everyday culture, in the names of schools, streets, towns, and faces on currency and coins. On the other end is Millard Fillmore, who may be our nation’s most obscure chief executive.
Little is remembered of Fill- more today, and perhaps, it’s better that way. His thirty- two months in office from 1850-53 were remarkably mundane, though he has beenlambastedforoneofthe few notable laws passed dur- ing his administration.
According to the Census Bureau, Lincoln has more landmarks named after him than any other American, ahead of Benjamin Franklin and Washington. By compar- ison, Fillmore’s name is rare- ly found, as only two coun- ties and a handful of villages and schools so honor him.
Perhaps superstition has something to do with it. Fill- more was our thirteenth President, indeed an unlucky number. But that’s hardly the only reason.
A product of the Buffalo area who rose from poverty, Fillmore brought a rather thin political resume to the office. Described as likeable and practical, he was a four- term Congressman who had served one term in the New York General Assembly and narrowly lost a bid for gov- ernor of the Empire State in 1844. Fillmore blamed his defeat on “the abolitionists and foreign Catholics,” a be- lief that came to define his future course of action.
Fillmore then served briefly
as New York state comptrol-
ler before becoming a com-
promise pick as Vice-Presi-
dent on the 1848 Whig ticket.
He was immediately over- shadowed by the top man on the ticket, Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor, who mostly ignored Fillmore during his administration, which ended with his death from illness – or possibly something more sinister, like poison — on July 9, 1850. He became the second chief executive to die during his term.
Whatever the case, Fill- more ascended to the office the next day, and did pre- cious little with it. The Com- promise of 1850, another failed effort to avert the slav- ery debate, was signed dur- ing his administration. That measure included the Fugi- tive Slave Act, a cross that Fillmore bears to this day.
The act forced the fed- eral government to help re- turn fugitive slaves to their masters, and in doing so, cost many free blacks in the North their freedom as well, as Southerners claimed they were runaway slaves. The Fugitive Slave Act enraged Whig abolitionists, and cost Fillmore any chance at re- nomination in 1852.
It also loomed over Fill- more’s few other accomplish- ments in office, including his order of Commodore Mat- thew Perry to Japan, which opened up the Far East to trade. A voracious reader, Fillmore also helped create the first White House library and backed Samuel Morse’s invention of the telegraph, which revolutionized com- munications.
Fillmore made another run
at the office four years later
on the third-party American
ticket, better known as the
“Know-Nothing” party for its
answer of “I know nothing” to
questions by non-members.
The Know-Nothings, orga-
nized in the late 1840s, were
fervently opposed to immi-
grants and Roman Catholics,
and Fillmore accepted their
Presidential nomination by
mail while in Europe. Dem-
onstrating the anti-immi-
grant sentiment of the nation
at the time, Fillmore cap- tured 22 percent of the vote.
Though he had an un- likely fan in Mary Todd Lin- coln, who opposed slavery, Fillmore never lived down the Fugitive Slave Act. Af- ter Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, the outside of Fillmore’s Buffalo home was vandalized. In recent years, minority groups have called for the removal of Fillmore from some of the few things actually named for him.
Twice married, Fillmore
died in Buffalo on March 8, 1874. Neither of his two chil- dren married, and Fillmore, predictably, is one of several Presidents to have no surviv- ing direct descendants.
Not surprisingly, Fillmore ranks low in most Presiden- tial polls. In a composite of nineteen rankings conducted from 1948-2018, he comes in 39th of 43 chief executives to be included.
His hometown of Buffalo is one of the few places in Amer- ica where Fillmore’s legacy is felt. He was a founder and first chancellor of the Uni- versity of Buffalo, and helped establish the Buffalo Histori- cal Society. He also founded a hospital, insurance com- pany, and arts academy in
But even in western New York, some don’t remember him. While millions read about Lincoln and Washington, and take days off school and work to honor their birthdays, the Millard Fillmore Society, established to honor his memory, has come and gone several times.
The tongue-in-cheek Society was profiled in a 1972 article of the New York Times and, eight years later, began awarding the Medal of Medi- ocrity to politicians who, in the words of one member, exhibit “mediocrity to combat the rising tide of overachiev- ers.” In 1988, the Society awarded the Medal to Vice- President-elect Dan Quayle as “living proof that mistakes do happen.”
But like everything else with Fillmore, the Society died out, only to be revived online with a Facebook page in 2015. Now, the Millard Fillmore Awards are given to national politicians who slip up or otherwise put their foot in their mouth.
That Facebook page is one of a remarkably few websites of any depth on Fillmore in a Google search. By compari- son, Lincoln has been the subject of over 15,000 books and countless online sourc- es.
Still, there are scattered diehards. Each January 7 since 1937, several dozen onlookers attend the Millard Fillmore Birthday gravesite ceremony at his resting place in Buffalo for a wreath-laying ceremony and speeches. For a more relaxed experience,