Rochester in 1853 at the time of Fillmore’s visits. Reproduced in 1973 by HISTORICAL URBAN PLANS, Ithaca, New York from a lithograph in the Cornell University Library. This is number 208 of an edition limited to 500 copies. [Owned by David Kramer]
“May God save the country, for it is evident the people will not.”
In keeping with our Presidential Visits series, on May 20th, 1851, President Millard Fillmore met with local dignitaries and spent the night at the Eagle Hotel, located at the corner of Main and State Street where the Powers Building now stands. On June 27th, 1856, Fillmore returned as the presidential nominee of the American Party, popularly known as the Know Nothings.
For reasons known only to the gods of Madison Avenue (or perhaps to the intercession of St. Thomas More, the patron saint of politicians), back in the 1960s President Millard Fillmore was rescued from a well-deserved obscurity to became a media star, albeit a faint and short-lived one.
From the attempt to salvage Millard’s reputation in author Robert Rayback’s definitive biography, to record albums (in 1964 my old man gave me a copy of “Sing along with Millard Fillmore,” a compilation of presidential campaign songs) to 1965 when the University of Buffalo took over the city’s occasional observance of Favorite Son Fillmore’s Jan. 7 birthday and made it an annual media event, to a Fillmore 1968 anti-war “Peace at Any Price” button (more on that later), many factors seemed to coalesce to answer, at least temporarily, the question, Millard who?
We know of two occasions when Fillmore visited Rochester, in 1851 as an incumbent president, and five years later as a candidate seeking to regain his former office. Given that between 1828 and 1850 he also had served as a member of the New York State Assembly, the U.S. House of Representatives, Comptroller of the State of New York, and Vice President of the United States, it’s obvious that he would have had to travel through Rochester, on his way to and from Albany and Washington, many times, by horseback or canal boat or railroad, prior to his first recorded stop here.
Fillmore began his political career by joining the Anti-Masonic Party, America’s original third party organized in vehement opposition to the Masonic order in particular and secret societies in general. As that party faded out, Fillmore then jumped ship to join the Whigs, a rising political party created to oppose the policies of Andrew Jackson and the Democrats.
After four terms in Congress, Fillmore returned to Buffalo to build up his law practice. Nevertheless, within a year he was running, albeit unsuccessfully for the Whig nomination as Vice President on the 1844 ticket with Henry Clay. Blaming his failure to secure the VP nomination on “foreign Catholics,” and seeing the presidential election go to the Democrats and James Polk, Fillmore coined his one and only memorable quote, “May God save the country, for it is evident the people will not.” Denied office, Fillmore turned to civic affairs and became instrumental in the founding of the University of Buffalo, where he served as that institution’s first chancellor. However, by 1848 Fillmore was once again back in office, having been elected as Comptroller of the State of New York.
When the Whigs, meeting in convention later that year, selected Mexican War hero, Gen. Zachary Taylor of Louisiana (whose ill health prevented him from visiting Rochester in 1849) as their presidential candidate, a flurry of smoke-filled room maneuvering led to the selection of northerner Fillmore as his ticket-balancing running mate. Taylor’s election and subsequent death in July 1850 unexpectedly put Fillmore in the White House in the middle of America’s greatest sectional crisis prior to the Civil War. Perhaps as a sign of his future ill luck, Fillmore became our 13th President.
(On Taylor’s missed trip to Rochester, see HAND GRENADES, HORSE SHOES, TAYLOR AND MONROE)
The issues which lead to the Compromise of 1850 (consult your high school history texts in case you’ve forgotten the details), including the notorious Fugitive Slave Act, are too many and varied and complicated to go into here. Suffice to say that, though personally opposed to slavery, Fillmore supported the Compromise because, like almost every other national politician, he mistakenly thought that it would ensure the restoration of harmony between the slave and free states and avert civil war. As he later wrote, “The long agony is over…These several acts are not in all respects what I would have desired, yet, I am rejoiced at their passage, and trust they will restore harmony and peace to our distracted country.”
With a major crisis seemingly behind him, Fillmore was able to turn to a more positive national event, the completion of the New York & Erie Railroad. At 446 miles the longest railroad in America, it had been built as a faster and cheaper alternative to the Erie Canal. Its inauguration prompted Fillmore and several of his cabinet to accept the honor of riding the first passenger train from New York City to the shores of Lake Erie.
Leaving New York on May 14, 1851 (Secretary of State Daniel Webster, wishing for a truly open-air view of the countryside, spent much of the journey in a comfortable rocking chair securely fastened on a flat car), Fillmore’s train alternated between reaching speeds in excess of 60 mph, and making numerous stops for speechifying, before he and his party arrived at the railroad terminus at Dunkirk, NY after a journey of 32 hours. Taking a steamboat to Buffalo, Fillmore and his cabinet went sightseeing and then hopped aboard an express train on the Attica & Buffalo Railroad, switched to the Tonawanda Railroad, and reached Rochester on the morning of May 20.
Having been notified only three weeks before that Fillmore would be stopping in town, the Daily Advertiser wet-blanket-opined that, “The reception, from the short period allowed for its preparation, cannot be expected to be very extended or imposing in its arrangements”. However, its competitor, the Daily Democrat, pointed out that, “The Common Council, with gratifying cheerfulness and unanimity…made the preliminary arrangements for the reception by the appropriation of a liberal sum of money.” After being greeted at Centre Square (near today’s Frontier Field) by an artillery salute and the ringing of church bells, and accompanied by military units, marching bands, several companies of firemen, a contingent from the newly-founded University of Rochester, and assorted citizenry, Fillmore was conducted to Washington Square Park where the city’s official welcome took place. According to the Daily Democrat, along the route Fillmore saw flags adorned with such sentiments as “Our Fillmore” and “The Defender of the Constitution”. Describing his participation in the festivities, one local diarist wrote that, “Some of the young men turned out in a cavalcade of horses. I among them. I was especially honored by a kick from the parade marshal’s horse on the knee.”
Samuel Richardson, mayor of Rochester, supplied the usual flowery prose in speaking of Fillmore and the country’s recent crisis, “All eyes were turned toward you as the conservator of the national integrity. You stood firm, farseeing, patriotic – and nobly meeting the exigency of the occasion and the expectations of your most sanguine friends –dispelled all fears, established order, and reconciled the jarring political elements of the country.” With equal sincerity, Fillmore responded that, “allusion has been made to the humble efforts made by myself and my associates to preserve the Constitution and the peace of the country…The result was not due to party or to particular men, but to all parties and to men of all sections.”
At 3:00 Fillmore was conducted to the Eagle Hotel (located at the corner of Main and State Street where the Powers Building now stands) for a banquet with 200 local dignitaries where, in response to the toast, “The president of the United States and his Cabinet”, Fillmore stood and asked those assembled to wait until his term of office was concluded before passing judgment on his actions but to, “still award me the credit of having been governed by disinterested convictions of duty to my country.” Begging off from further ceremonies due to fatigue, Fillmore went to bed, leaving town the next day for Syracuse. In retrospect, the Daily Advertising noted that, “No party feeling was allowed to exhibit itself — party spirit was merged in the occasion — save now and then an isolated groan from some chafed abolitionist fanatic, on hearing the blessings of our happy Union extolled.”
As the 1852 election approached, Fillmore dithered over whether to run for a full term as president. Although he issued a letter stating he would not be a candidate, and knowing he was unpopular with northern Whigs for signing and enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act, he nevertheless ultimately allowed his name to be placed before the Whig convention, only to see the nomination go to Gen. Winfield Scott, yet another Mexican War hero, who in turn was soundly trounced at the polls by Democratic candidate, Franklin Pierce.
Leaving office on March 4, 1853, Fillmore had the dubious distinction of becoming the first president to return to private life without being independently wealthy or in possession of a landed estate, necessitating his returning to the law to make ends meet. Tragically, after catching a cold at Pierce’s inauguration, Fillmore’s wife, Abigail died of pneumonia on March 30. A further blow came the next year when their only daughter Mary died of cholera.
Over the next few years, as the Whig Party disintegrated, Fillmore moved to the political fringes where hostility to immigrants had led to the formation of nativist organizations such as the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner (which Fillmore joined in 1855), and eventually to the formation of the American Party, popularly known as the Know Nothings. Members of the party reportedly being told to respond, “I know nothing” when asked for specifics about their organization.
Warning against the alleged dangers of immigrant influence on America, particularly from the Irish and German Catholics, and sounding eerily like some modern day politicians, Fillmore wrote that, “I have for a long time looked with dread and apprehension at the corrupting influence which the contest for the foreign vote is exciting upon our elections…and, as usual in all such contests, the party that is the most corrupt is most successful…converting the ballot box into an unmeaning mockery, where the rights of native-born citizens are voted away by those who blindly follow their mercenary and selfish leaders…. I confess that it seems to me, with all due respect to others, that, as a general rule, our country should be governed by American-born citizens.” Despite his never joining the party, such views made Fillmore the most prominent American politician associated with the Know Nothing philosophy.
Calculating that by being out of the country he could avoid involvement with the many slavery-related issues which the Compromise had failed to resolve, Fillmore went abroad for a year. Offered an honorary law degree by Oxford, Fillmore modestly declined, allegedly stating that, since he lacked the benefit of a classical education he would not be able to understand the Latin text and, “no man should accept a degree he cannot read.”
Meanwhile, his allies in the American Party had stacked the delegate deck for the February 1856 convention to ensure that he received their presidential nomination, with ex-president Andrew Jackson’s nephew–by-marriage, Andrew Jackson Donelson being nominated for VP. Whether Fillmore was aware of these maneuverings on his behalf is still an open question.
Returned to America in June, Fillmore was feted from New York City to Buffalo. As he progressed across the state he was greeted at literally every town and city, at each giving his thanks for the welcome and getting in a few political plugs, all the time trying (with limited success) to avoid the appearance of campaigning so as not to violate the custom that considered it inappropriate for presidential candidates to canvass on their own behalf. He rarely spoke about the immigration question however, and instead focused on the growing sectional division, urging preservation of the Union.
On June 27 Fillmore’s train reached Rochester where he experienced a replay of his 1851 visit. Once again, to the sounds of an artillery salute and marching bands, he was escorted to the Eagle Hotel and officially greeted by a covey of distinguished citizens. One humorous incident resulted from the fact that a meeting to promote Republican John C Frémont’s presidential candidacy was being held the same day. With only so many cannon, brass bands and spectators available, a spirited and generally good natured struggle broke out between the Fillmorites and the Frémonters, with the Fillmorites gaining the upper hand and capturing the cannon, and securing the bands and the spectators.
At the rally at the Eagle Hotel, local political leader and future Congressman Roswell Hart praised Fillmore for his past services, “You retired from office with the serene conviction that civil strive was subdued, the storms of passion cleared away, the waves of agitation subsided, and the ship of state sailing away with swelling sails from the breakers which raged for its destruction.” Hart then proceeded to bemoan that, despite Fillmore’s efforts, the country was once more on the brink of chaos due to the antislavery agitation of the Republican Party and the sectional strife being sown by the press. In his response, Fillmore claimed that all would be well if not for those agitators who had formed an exclusively northern political party to elect a northern president. “You must therefore perceive that the success of such a party, with such an object, must be the dissolution of this glorious Union.” Fillmore finished his allegedly apolitical talk with, ”If you wish a chief magistrate to administer the Constitution and laws impartially in every part of the Union, giving to every state and every territory , and every citizen, his just due without fear or favor, than you may cast your votes for me.” Fillmore’s visit concluded with what the Daily Union called, “a pretty display of fireworks in which the words “Fillmore” and “Union Forever” were spelled out in letters of fire.”
As Fillmore’s campaign progressed, his supporters adopted the slogan, “Peace at any Price,” aimed at those willing to pay the price of slavery to avoid civil war. In 1968 this slogan was co-opted by some anti-war student groups who issued buttons bearing Fillmore’s image.
In September, the sorry fragments of the once-proud Whigs gathered in Philadelphia and went thru the motions of their last national convention. Mimicking the American Party, they nominating Fillmore and Donelson as their candidates before adjourning into history.
On Election Day, with just 22% of the popular vote, and carrying only Maryland, Fillmore came in a distant third behind winning candidate Democrat James Buchanan and runner-up Republican Frémont. Interestingly enough, Fillmore’s loss in several southern states was by such a small margin that a shift in his favor of only 8,000 votes in Louisiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee would have thrown the election into the House of Representatives where a split among 5 parties would have put the outcome up for grabs.
With his defeat in 1856, Fillmore continued to face the question of how to support himself, a problem he eventually resolved by marrying a rich widow in 1858. Dying in 1874, Fillmore was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, the funeral being attended by hundreds of mourners. His January 7 birthday is annually commemorated at the cemetery by a delegation from the University of Buffalo.
Since his death, poor Millard has become a sort of negative cult figure due in large part to his signing of the Fugitive Slave Act and his Know Nothing presidential candidacy. According to one biographer, “No president of the United States … has suffered as much ridicule as Millard Fillmore.” Harry Truman characterized Fillmore as, “a weak, trivial thumb-twaddler who would do nothing to offend anyone.” The Wall Street Journal stated in 2010 that, “Fillmore’s very name connotes mediocrity.” 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.” Even the White House’s official website damns him with faint praise: “Millard Fillmore demonstrated that through methodical industry and some competence an uninspiring man could make the American dream come true.” However Robert Rayback, perhaps his only sympathetic biographer, tried to show that Fillmore was a victim of the times and applauded “the warmth and wisdom with which he had defended the Union.”
I’ll leave the last word to American Heritage magazine in which a Yale history professor once wrote:
To discuss Millard Fillmore is to overrate him.
THE PRESIDENTIAL VISITS SERIES