John Fagant - Table of Contents ................... Millard Fillmore - Table of Contents
By John Fagant
Presidential trivia: The last U.S. President who was neither a Democrat nor a Republican was Millard Fillmore, the final Whig Party President, who served in the executive office from July 1850 to March 1853.
Born on January 7, 1800, in a log cabin in the Finger Lakes region of New York State, his early life took on the shape of so many others of his time period. Growing up on the American frontier was not an uncommon experience. In his own words, he described his childhood as “spent, as it were, in the forest.”
By the 1820’s, he had moved into the western New York area, opening up a law practice in East Aurora. Fillmore built a simple 1 * story clapboard house on Main St where he and his wife, Abigail Powers, lived from 1826 to 1830. The home has since been removed to 24 Shearer St in the village and is open for tours. Although there have been changes to the structure over the years it still has, among other features, the original pine floor boards and the unique 12 over 8 glass windows.
The 1830’s had the Fillmores living in Buffalo at 180 Franklin St. His law practice was now thriving as he took on two partners, Nathan K. Hall and Solomon Haven. The firm of Fillmore, Hall & Haven was the best known one in Buffalo for many years; at least until the arrival of Cellino & Barnes to the airwaves. Fillmore also stepped into the world of politics, with his initial election to the state legislature and eventually serving six terms as a Congressman in the House of Representatives. After losing the election for Speaker of the House, he was appointed as Chairman of the powerful Ways & Means Committee and was the main author of the Tariff of 1842. Frustrated and annoyed with Congress and Washington, D.C., he retired back to Buffalo and his law firm. However, politics was in his blood and he stayed involved both in the national and state levels. The 1848 national Whig Party Convention gave him the nomination for the vice-Presidency.
When Zachary Taylor died in 1850, Millard Fillmore became the 13th President of the United State. Overnight, he had moved from a position of obscurity & anonymity to becoming the central figure in one of the most volatile periods ever to affect the nation. He entered the presidency during a monumental crisis involving the lands obtained from Mexico in which civil war seemed eminent. Within two months he had hammered out a compromise that brought a temporary peace (is there such a thing as a permanent one?) to the country. One historian of that period noted that Fillmore “settled a very inflamed crisis … and settled it was such adroitness and seeming ease that history has scarcely recognized the magnitude of his achievement.”
Tragedy struck as he retired from the Presidency in 1853. His wife, Abigail, died just 3 weeks after leaving the White House. Instead of returning to Buffalo triumphant, he came home with a casket. His only daughter, 22 year old Mary Abigail, died suddenly a year later. Grief stricken and heart-broken, he traveled through the South & West and then through Europe before finally returning to Buffalo. He came back with a new wife and a new home, having moved in 1858 into the mansion on Niagara Square.
But maybe Fillmore’s greatest accomplishment was in his passion and commitment to his adopted city. Throughout his 50 + years of living in Western New York, Fillmore was actively involved in the formation or funding of several organizations including the Buffalo Fine Arts Society, the Buffalo Historical Society, Natural Sciences Society, several libraries including the Grosvenor Library, the University of Buffalo, Buffalo General Hospital, the Buffalo Orphan Society and even the SPCA, for which he gave several speeches calling for the enforcement of laws against the cruelty to animals.
Universally appreciated during his lifetime as a man of impeccable honesty & integrity, quite possibly Fillmore’s local recognition could be improved if we remember his commitment & love for his adopted city. Upon leaving the office of the Presidency, several national figures recommended to him that it would be more appropriate for a former president to live in a place with a higher public profile, such as Washington, D.C. or New York City. Fillmore said that it was not possible, as Buffalo was his home and where his heart was. Perhaps our appreciation of this man has dwindled over the years and maybe the time has come to give him another look.
Millard Fillmore Papers, Volume 1 & 2, edited by Frank Severance
Robert Raybeck, Millard Fillmore
David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848 - 1861