Millard Fillmore - Table of Contents

Millard Fillmore
By William Richard Cutter

Reprinted from
"Genealogical and Family History of Western New York,"
ed. by William Richard Cutter, 1912, Vol. II, pp. 808-811

Millard, son of Nathaniel and Phoebe (Millard) Fillmore, was born in Locke, New York, January 7, 1800.

Cayuga county was then a western wilderness, and the schools of the region were very poor. Mr. Fillmore says, in an autobiographical sketch of his early life, that until he was ten years of age he never had seen a dictionary. Though he was drilled thoroughly in Webster's spelling book, he had little idea of the meaning of the words he learned.

At about that age his services on his father's farm became too valuable to admit of his going to school except for two or three mouths during the winter. He never saw a map or an atlas until he was nineteen years old.

First apprenticeship: His father occupied a leased farm, having lost his own through a defective title, and this gave him a prejudice against farming which decided him to have his sons taught trades. Millard, at fifteen, after being dissuaded from a boyish ambition to become a soldier, was sent to learn the trade of wool carding and cloth dressing with Benjamin Hungerford, of Sparta, Livingstoll county. He made the journey of one hundred miles mostly on foot. He became dissatisfied with his employer because he was kept at cutting wool and similar work, instead of being taught the trade. Mr. Hungerford threatened to chastise him, and young Millard replied by menacing the man with his axe. After about three mouths he returned to his home.

Second apprenticeship: He was next apprenticed to Zaccheus Cheney and Alvan Kellogg, who carried on the business of carding and cloth-dressing at Newhope, near his father's home. This trade occupied his time from June until about the middle of December. for which he received $50 a year. He had leisure during the winter to continue his studies. His father's library consisted only of the Bible, a hymn hook and an almanac, with an occasional weekly newspaper, but Millard gained access to a small circulating library which considerably broadened his field of study.

By the time he was eighteen he had begun to teach a country school during the winter season.

In May, 1818, he shouldered his knapsack and made a journey to Buffalo to visit friends. At that time he could and did walk forty miles in a day.

Third apprenticeship: About this time his father removed to Montville, Cayuga county, where Judge Walter Wood was a leading citizen. Without Millard's knowledge, his father made arrangements with Judge Wood to receive the young man into his office as a student. Millard was so overjoyed when his mother told him the news that he broke down and cried. He was set to reading "Blackstone," to which he offered some objection because he could not see why he should study the laws of England instead of those of New York.

Nevertheless, he made such progress that when the time came to return to his apprenticeship, the judge, who was a friend, said to him, "If thee has an ambition for distinction, and can sacrifice everything else to success, the law is the road that leads to honors; and if thee can get rid of thy engagement to serve as an apprentice, I would advise thee to come back again and study law." Millard replied that he had no means of paying his way, whereupon the Judge offered to give him some employment and to lend him such necessary money as he could not earn during his clerkship. Accordingly he made all arrangement with his employers to buy the remainder of his time for $30, and the following winter he resumed his law studies, teaching school at the same time.

Within two years, however, he quarreled with Judge Wood because the Judge objected to his undertaking pettifogging practice before justices of the peace. [In the later middle ages, there was a class of lawyers who earned their livings making a great deal of fuss over minor legal cases. About 1560 they came to be called pettifoggers. They often had limited concern for scruples or conscience and the term was deeply contemptuous.] Millard pleaded his poverty, but the Judge was inexorable, declaring he must promise not to take any more pettifogging cases or they must separate.

Suspecting, perhaps unjustly, that Judge Wood was more anxious to keep him in a state of dependence to look after his tenants than to make a lawyer of him, Millard determined to leave. He gave the judge his note for $65 which had been advanced to him, afterward paying it with interest. This was the only help he ever received in obtaining his profession.

Buffalo: His father had then removed to Aurora, Erie county. Thither Millard went and again to teach school and to practice in justice's courts.

In the spring of 1822 he removed to Buffalo, where he became a clerk in the office of Asa Rice and Joseph Clary He continued to teach school and to carry on a pettifogging practice to support himself, and in 1823, by the especial solicitation of some older members of the bar, he was formally admitted.

He opened his first office in East Aurora, where he practiced until May, 1830, when he removed to Buffalo, forming a partnership with Joseph Clary. He was admitted as an attorney in the supreme court in 1827 and as counselor in 1829.

The partnership with Mr. Clary was soon succeeded by the firm of Fillmore, Hall & Haven (Nathan K Hall and Solomon G. Haven). This firm continued until 1847, and became the most prominent in western New York.

Politics: Mr. Fillmore's political career began with the birth of the Whig party and ended with its extinction. He was elected to the assembly as a Whig in 1828, and continued to serve in the sessions of 1830 and 1831. Most of his legislative work was local, but he was chiefly responsible for one important law of general interest -- an act abolishing imprisonment for debt.

He was one of a committee of eighteen citizens who drew up the first charter for the city of Buffalo, which was incorporated in 1832.

In the fall of that year he was elected to congress. After serving through the Twenty-third Congress he retired for a term, but was re-elected in 1836 to the Twenty-fifth Congress, and continued to serve through the Twenty-sixth and Twenty-seventh.

Until the Twenty-seventh Congress he was one of the minority party. He took sufficient part in the debates, however, to gain for himself a position of leadership. He was proposed as a minority candidate for speaker of the Twenty-sixth Congress, and when the Whigs came into power in the Twenty-seventh Congress he was made chairman of the ways and means committee.

The great act of this session, for which Mr. Fillmore was chiefly responsible, was the tariff of 1842. The national treasury was virtually bankrupt, and the tariff was in the nature of an emergency measure. Nevertheless, it was vetoed by the president because of a duty on tea and coffee. A subsequent bill became a law without these duties.

Mr. Fillmore retired from congress by his own wish after the end of this session. As early as 1836 Mr. Fillmore was a delegate to the Whig state convention, and he was again a delegate in 1838, when William H. Seward was nominated for governor.

In 1842 he was proposed as a suitable candidate for vice-president on the ticket when Henry Clay was expected to head two years later. The choice, however, fell upon Theodore Frelinghuysen, of New Jersey.

Mr. Fillmore was made his party's nominee for governor. He conducted an energetic canvass, but was defeated by Silas Wright, the vote being 231,057 for Mr. Fillmore to 241,090 for Mr. Wright.

In 1846 his name was again put before the state convention and, although it was known that he would not accept, he received 65 votes to 44 for John Young. He declined and Mr. Young was nominated and elected.

The following year he consented to accept the nomination for state comptroller and was elected. In his report for 1849 he suggested the organization of national bonds with currency secured by deposits of national bonds -- the system which was adopted during the civil war and is still in force.

Vice-president: The Whig national convention at Philadelphia, on June 9, 1848, after naming General Zachary Taylor for president, nominated Mr. Fillmore on the second ballot for vice-president. He was elected, and inaugurated on March 5, 1849.

He presided over the senate during the exciting controversy over Clay's omnibus bill, and also distinguished himself by enforcing order, contrary to precedents, during a slavery debate.

President: On July 9, 1850, President Taylor died, and on the following day Mr Fillmore took the oath of office as president. His administration is rather national than personal history. His cabinet included

Slavery: Mr. Fillmore's temper was conciliatory and his guide was the written law of the constitution, rather than the higher law of the anti-slavery men. This explains his approval of the celebrated Compromise measures of 1850, including the fugitive slave law, which cost him the support of most of his party in the North. He sought a peaceful solution of the great controversy over slavery. His last message to congress, as originally written, contained a plan for the colonization of negroes in Africa, similar to the one later favored by Mr. Lincoln. By advice of his cabinet it was suppressed, but Mr. Fillmore was personally proud of it.

He was also much criticized for the appointment of Brigham Young as governor of Utah, but on that point it should be said that the doctrine of polygamy had not then been declared by the Mormon church.

The majority in congress was hostile to him throughout his administration, but the country, nevertheless, owes him thanks for a number of acts of great importance. Chief of these was the sending of Commodore Perry to Japan and the opening of that country to trade. He also sent the Lynch expedition to Africa, the Ringgold expedition to China, and the Herndon and Gibbon expedition up the Amazon..

The Lopez insurrection in Cuba called for rigid measures to suppress filibustering, and the visit of Kossuth to this country required a declaration against interference with foreign affairs, despite the President's personal sympathy with the Hungarian patriot,

Postal rates were lowered and the capitol was enlarged..

Mr. Fillmore's estrangement from his former friend, Thurlow Weed, was another famous incident.

He was a candidate for renomination at the Whig national convention in 1852, but could command only twenty votes from the free states, although his policies were indorsed by a vote of 227 to 60.

Retirement: After his retirement he made a tour through the south, speaking frequently in the hopes of calming the political animosity then raging.

Later, in 1855-6, he made a tour of Europe. It was while he was abroad in 1856 that he was nominated again for president by the American party, to which many of the former Whigs had gone at that time. The remnants of the Whig party met at Baltimore in September and indorsed Mr, Fillmore. He received, however, only the eight electoral votes of the state of Maryland.

Returning to Buffalo, he lived in the Fillmore mansion, now the Castle Inn, on Niagara Square. His lack of sympathy with the northern cause subjected him to some unpleasant experience in the early stages of the civil war.

Married life: He married (first) February 5, 1826, Abigail, daughter of Lemuel and Abigail (Newland) Powers, born in Stillwater, New York, March, 1789. Her father was a Baptist clergyman at Moravia, New York, at the time of the marriage.

Ill health and mourning for a deceased sister prevented her from taking a very active part in social affairs during her husband's administration, and soon after the close of his term she died at the City Hotel (Willard's) in Washington, March 30, 1853.

She was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo.

For his second wife Mr. Fillmore married, February 10, 1858, at Albany, New York, Caroline C. McIntosh, widow, daughter of Charles and Tempe (Blachly) Carmichael of Morristown, New Jersey.

She died August 11, 1881.

Mr Fillmore suffered a stroke of paralysis February 13, 1874, and died on March 8th following. He was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery.

Children, by first wife:

1. Millard Powers, mentioned below. Millard Powers, son of Millard and Abigail (Powers) Fillmore, was born in East Aurora, April 25, 1828. He became a lawyer, and served as his father's private secretary during Mr Fillmore's term as president. He remained a bachelor, making his home in Buffalo, and died November 15, 1889.

2. Mary Abigail, born in Buffalo, March 27, 1832; she was educated in the Buffalo Normal School, and taught for a time in one of the public schools. She was a talented musician, playing the harp and the piano, and was very attractive. She was a great social favorite at the White House during her father's administration. She started on a visit to East Aurora on the morning of July 26, 1854, and died the next day of cholera, aged 22.

See also: Fillmore Monument by Forest Lawn

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