The Presidents of the United States, 1789-1914/Millard Fillmore

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MILLARD FILLMORE

Millard Fillmore, thirteenth president of the United States, born in the township of Locke (now Summerhill), Cayuga County, N. Y., January 7, 1800; died in Buffalo, N. Y., March 7, 1874. The name of Fillmore is of English origin, and at different periods has been variously written. Including the son of the ex-president, the family can be traced through six generations, and, as has been said of that of Washington, its history gives proof “of the lineal and enduring worth of race.” The first of the family to appear in the New World was a certain John Fillmore, who, in a conveyance of two acres of land dated November 24, 1704, is described as a “mariner of Ipswich,” Mass. His eldest son, of the same name, born two years before the purchase of the real estate in Beverly, also became a sea-faring man, and while on a voyage in the sloop “Dolphin,” of Cape Ann, was captured with all on board by the pirate Capt. John Phillips. For nearly nine months Fillmore and his three companions in captivity were compelled to serve on the pirate ship and to submit, during that long period, to many hardships and much cruel treatment. After watching and waiting for an opportunity to obtain their freedom, their hour at length came. While Fillmore sent an axe crashing through the skull of Burrall, the boatswain, the captain and other officers were despatched by his companions, and the ship was won. They sailed her into Boston harbor, and the same court which condemned the brigands of the sea presented John Fillmore with the captain's silver-hilted sword and other articles, which are preserved to this day by his descendants. The sword was inherited by his son, Nathaniel, and was made good use of in both the French and Revolutionary wars. Lieut. Fillmore's second son, who also bore the name Nathaniel, and who was the father of the president, went with his young wife, Phebe Millard, to what at the close of the past century was the “far west,” where he and a younger brother built a log cabin in the wilderness, and there his second son, Millard, was born. Nathaniel Fillmore was one of “God Almighty's gentlemen,” whose creed was contained in two words, “do right,” and who lived to see his son elevated to the highest position in his native land. Of the president's mother, who died in the summer of 1831, little is known beyond the fact that she was a sensible and, in her later years, a sickly woman; with a sunny nature that enabled her to endure uncomplainingly the many hardships of a frontier life, and that her closing days were gladdened by the frequent visits of her son, who was then in public life, with every prospect of a successful professional and political career.


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From a photograph by Baker, Buffalo, N. Y.


From a brief manuscript autobiography prepared by “worthy Mr. Fillmore,” as Washington Irving described him, we learn that, owing to a defective title, his father lost his property on what was called the “military tract,” and removed to another part of the same county, now known as Niles, where he took a perpetual lease of 130 acres, wholly unimproved and covered with heavy timber. It was here that the future president first knew anything of life. Working for nine months on the farm, and attending such primitive schools as then existed in that neighborhood for the other three months of the year, he had an opportunity of forgetting during the summer what he acquired in the winter, for in those days there were no newspapers and magazines to be found in pioneers cabins, and his father's library consisted of but two books — the Bible and a collection of hymns. He never saw a copy of “Shakespeare” or “Robinson Crusoe,” a history of the United States, or even a map of his own country, till he was nineteen years of age! Nathaniel Fillmore's misfortunes in losing his land through a defective title, and again in taking another tract of exceedingly poor soil, gave him a distaste for farming, and made him desirous that his sons should follow other occupations. As his means did not justify him or them in aspiring to any profession, he wished them to learn trades, and accordingly Millard, then a sturdy youth of fourteen, was apprenticed for a few months on trial to the business of carding wool and dressing cloth. During his apprenticeship he was, as the youngest, treated with great injustice, and on one occasion his employer, for some expression of righteous resentment, threatened to chastise him, when the young woodsman, burning with indignation, raised the axe with which he was at work, and told him the attempt would cost him his life. Most fortunate for both, the attempt was not made, and at the close of his term he shouldered his knapsack, containing a few clothes and a supply of bread and dried venison, and set out on foot and alone for his father's house, a distance of something more than a hundred miles through the primeval forests. Mr. Fillmore in his autobiography remarks: “I think that this injustice — which was no more than other apprentices have suffered and will suffer — had a marked effect on my character. It made me feel for the weak and unprotected, and to hate the insolent tyrant in every station of life.”

In 1815 the youth again began the business of carding and cloth-dressing, which was carried on from June to December of each year. The first book that he purchased or owned was a small English dictionary, which he diligently studied while attending the carding machine. In 1819 he conceived the design of becoming a lawyer. Fillmore, who had yet two years of his apprenticeship to serve, agreed with his employer to relinquish his wages for the last year's services, and promised to pay thirty dollars for his time. Making an arrangement with a retired country lawyer, by which he was to receive his board in payment for his services in the office, he began the study of law, a part of the time teaching school, and so struggling on, overcoming almost insurmountable difficulties, till at length, in the spring of 1823, he was, at the intercession of several leading members of the Buffalo bar, whose confidence he had won, admitted as an attorney by the court of common pleas of Erie County, although he had not completed the course of study usually required. The writer has recently seen the dilapidated one-story building in Buffalo where Mr. Fillmore closed his career as a school-master, and has also conversed with one of his pupils of four-score years ago. The wisdom of his youth and early manhood gave presage of all that was witnessed and admired in the maturity of his character. Nature laid on him, in the kindly phrase of Wordsworth, “the strong hand of her purity,” and even then he was remarked for that sweet courtesy of manner which accompanied him through life. Millard Fillmore began practice at Aurora, where his father then resided, and fortunately won his first case and a fee of four dollars. In 1827 he was admitted as an attorney, and two years later as counsellor of the supreme court of the state. In 1830 he removed to Buffalo, and after a brief period formed a partnership with Nathan K. Hall, to which Solomon G. Haven was soon afterward admitted.

By hard study and the closest application, combined with honesty and fidelity, Mr. Fillmore soon became a sound and successful lawyer, attaining a highly honorable position in the profession. The law-firm of Fillmore, Hall & Haven, which continued till 1847, was perhaps the most prominent in western New York, and was usually engaged in every important suit occurring in that portion of the state. In 1853, while still in Washington, Mr. Fillmore made an arrangement with Henry E. Davies to renew, on retiring from the presidency, the practice of his profession in New York, in partnership with that gentleman, who, after occupying a judge's seat in the court of appeals, returned to the bar. Family afflictions, however, combined with other causes, induced the ex-president to abandon his purpose. There were doubtless at that time men of more genius and greater eloquence at the bar of the great city; but we cannot doubt that Mr. Fillmore's solid legal learning, and the weight of his personal character, would have won for him the highest professional honors in the new field of action.

Mr. Fillmore's political career began and ended with the birth and extinction of the great Whig party. In 1828 he was elected by Erie County to the state legislature of New York, serving for three terms, and retiring with a reputation for ability, integrity, and a conscientious performance of his public duties. He distinguished himself by his advocacy of the act to abolish imprisonment for debt, which was passed in 1831. The bill was drafted by Fillmore, excepting the portion relative to proceedings in courts of record, which was drawn by John C. Spencer. In 1832 he was elected to congress, and, after serving for one term, retired until 1836, when he was re-elected, and again returned in 1838 and 1840, declining a renomination in 1842. In the 27th congress Mr. Fillmore, as chairman of the committee on ways and means — a committee performing at that period not only the duties now devolving upon it, but those also which belong to the committee on appropriations — had herculean labors to perform. Day after day, for weeks and months, Fillmore had to encounter many of the ablest debaters of the house, but on all occasions he proved himself equal to the emergency. It should not be forgotten that, in the opinion of John Quincy Adams, there were more men of talent and a larger aggregate of ability in that congress than he had ever known. Although Mr. Fillmore did not claim to have discovered any original system of revenue, still the tariff of 1842 was a new creation, and he is most justly entitled to the distinction of being its author. It operated successfully, giving immediate life to our languishing industries and national credit. At the same time Mr. Fillmore, with great labor, prepared a digest of the laws authorizing all appropriations reported by him to the house as chairman of the committee on ways and means, so that on the instant he could produce the legal authority for every expenditure which he recommended. Sensible that this was a great safeguard against improper expenditures, he procured the passage of a resolution requiring the departments, when they submitted estimates of expenses, to accompany them with a reference to the laws authorizing them in each and every instance. This has ever since been the practice of the United States government.

Mr. Fillmore retired from congress in 1843, and was a candidate for the office of vice-president, supported by his own and several of the western states, in the Whig convention that met at Baltimore in May, 1844. In the following September he was nominated by acclamation for governor, but was defeated by Silas Wright, his illustrious contemporary, Henry Clay being vanquished at the same time in the presidential contest by James K. Polk. In 1847 Fillmore was elected comptroller of the state of New York, an office which then included many duties now distributed among other departments. In his report of January 1, 1849, he suggested that a national bank, with the stocks of the United States as the sole basis upon which to issue its currency, might be established and carried on, so as to prove a great convenience to the government, with perfect safety to the people. This idea involves the essential principle of our present system of national banks.

In June, 1848, Millard Fillmore was nominated by the Whig national convention for vice-president, with Gen. Taylor, who had recently won military renown in Mexico, as president, and was in the following November elected, making, with the late occupant of the office, seven vice-presidents of the United States from New York, a greater number than has been yet furnished by any other state. In February, 1849, Fillmore resigned the comptrollership, and on March 5 he was inaugurated as vice-president. In 1826 Calhoun, of South Carolina, then vice-president, established the rule that that officer had no authority to call senators to order. During the heated controversies in the session of 1849-50, occasioned by the application of California for admission into the Union, the vexed question of slavery in the new territories, and that of the rendition of fugitive slaves, in which the most acrimonious language was used, Mr. Fillmore, in a forcible speech to the senate, announced his determination to maintain order, and that, should occasion require, he should resume the usage of his predecessors upon that point. This announcement met with unanimous approval of the senate, which directed the vice-president's remarks to be entered in full on its journal. He presided during the exciting controversy on Clay's “omnibus bill” with his usual impartiality, and so perfectly even did he hold the scales that no one knew which policy he approved excepting the president, to whom he privately stated that, should he be required to deposit a casting vote, it would be in favor of Henry Clay's bill. More than seven months of the session had been exhausted in angry controversy, when, on July 9, 1850, the country was startled by the news of President Taylor's death. He passed away in the second year of his presidency, suddenly and most unexpectedly, of a violent fever, which was brought on by long exposure to the excessive heat of a fourth of July sun, while he was attending the public ceremonies of the day.

It was a critical moment in the history of our country when Millard Fillmore was on Wednesday, July 10, 1850, made president of the United States. With great propriety he reduced the ceremony of his inauguration to an official act to be marked by solemnity without joy; and so, with an absence of the usual heralding of trumpet and shawm, he was unostentatiously sworn into his great office in the hall of representatives, in the presence of both houses. The chief justice of the circuit court of the District of Columbia — the venerable William Cranch, appointed fifty years before by President John Adams — administered the oath, which being done, the new president bowed and retired, and the ceremony was at an end. Mr. Fillmore was then in the prime of life, possessing that which to the heathen philosopher seemed the greatest of all blessings — a sound mind in a sound body. The portrait which appears in this work is after a photograph taken in Buffalo some twenty years later. Of Fillmore's keen appreciation of the responsibility devolving on him we have the evidence of letters written at that time, in which he says he should despair but for his humble reliance on God to help him in the honest, fearless, and faithful discharge of his great duties. President Taylor's cabinet immediately resigned, and a new and exceedingly able one was selected by Mr. Fillmore, with Daniel Webster as secretary of state; Thomas Corwin, secretary of the treasury; William A. Graham, secretary of the navy; Charles M. Conrad, secretary of war; Alexander H. H. Stuart, secretary of the interior; John J. Crittenden, attorney-general; and Nathan K. Hall, postmaster-general.[1] Of these, Mr. Webster died, and Messrs. Graham and Hall retired in 1852, and were respectively replaced by Edward Everett, John P. Kennedy, and Samuel D. Hubbard. Stuart, of Virginia, who died February 13, 1891, was the last survivor of the illustrious men who aided Mr. Fillmore in guiding the ship of state during the most appalling political tempest, save one, which ever visited this fair land. It is certainly not the writer's wish to reawaken party feelings or party prejudice or to recall those great questions of pith and moment which so seriously disturbed congress and the country in the first days of Fillmore's administration, but yet, even in so cursory a glance as we are now taking of his career, some comment would seem to be called for in respect to those public acts connected with slavery which appear to have most unreasonably and unjustly lost him the support of a large proportion of his party in the northern states. Whatever the wisdom of Mr. Fillmore's course may have been, it is impossible to doubt his patriotism or his honest belief that he was acting in accordance with his oath to obey the constitution of his country. The president's dream was peace — to preserve without hatred and without war tranquillity throughout the length and breadth of our broad land, and if in indulging this delusive dream he erred, it was surely an error that leaned to virtue's side. There is a legend that “he serves his party best who serves his country best.” In Mr. Fillmore's action it is confidently believed that he thought not of party or of personal interests, but only of his bounden duty to his country and her sacred constitution.

One of the president's earliest official acts was to send a military force to New Mexico to protect that territory from invasion by Texas on account of its disputed boundary. Then followed the passage by a large majority of the celebrated compromise measures, including the fugitive-slave law. The president referred to the attorney-general the question of its constitutionality, and that officer in a written opinion decided that it was constitutional. Fillmore and the strong cabinet that he had called around him concurred unanimously in this opinion, and the act was signed, together with the other compromise measures. The fugitive-slave law was exceedingly obnoxious to a large portion of the Whig party of the north, as well as to the anti-slavery men, and its execution was resisted. Slaves in several instances were rescued from the custody of the United States marshals, and a few citizens of Christiana, in Pennsylvania, were killed. Although it was admitted that Fillmore's administration as a whole was able, useful, and patriotic, although his purity as a public man was above suspicion, and no other act of his administration could be called unpopular, still, by the signing and attempted enforcement of the fugitive-slave law and some of its unfortunate provisions, of which even Mr. Webster did not approve, the president, as has been already stated, lost the friendship and support of a large portion of his party in the north. Mr. Fillmore's administration being in a political minority in both houses of congress, many wise and admirable measures recommended by him failed of adoption; nevertheless we are indebted to him for cheap postage; for the extension of the national capitol, the corner-stone of which he laid July 4, 1851; for the Perry treaty, opening the ports of Japan, and for various valuable exploring expeditions. When South Carolina in one of her indignant utterances took Mr. Fillmore to task for sending a fleet to Charleston harbor, and he was officially questioned as to his object and authority, the answer came promptly and to the purpose, “By authority of the constitution of the United States, which has made the president commander-in-chief of the army and navy, and who recognizes no responsibility for his official action to the governor of South Carolina.” With stern measures he repressed filibustering, and with equal firmness exacted from other countries respect for our flag. Mr. Fillmore carried out strictly the doctrine of non-intervention in the affairs of foreign nations, and frankly stated his policy to the highly gifted Kossuth, who won all hearts by his surpassing eloquence. At the same time, however, it was clearly shown how little the administration sympathized with Austria by the celebrated letter addressed to her ambassador, Hülsemann, by Daniel Webster, who died soon after. His successor as secretary of state was Edward Everett, whose brief term of office was distinguished by his letter declining the proposition for a treaty by which England, France, and the United States were to disclaim then and for the future all intention to obtain possession of Cuba. In his last message, however, the president expressed an opinion against the incorporation of the island with this Union.

Nothing in Mr. Fillmore's presidential career was, during the closing years of his life, regarded by himself with greater satisfaction than the suppressed portion of his last message of December 6, 1852. It was suppressed by the advice of the cabinet, all of whom concurred in the belief that, if sent in, it would precipitate an armed collision, and he readily acquiesced in their views. It related to the great political problem of the period the balance of power between the free and the slave states. He fully and clearly appreciated the magnitude of the then approaching crisis, and in the document now under consideration proposed a judicious scheme of rescuing the country from the horrors of a civil war, which soon after desolated so large a portion of the land. His perfectable plan was one of African colonization, somewhat similar to one seriously entertained by his successor, Mr. Lincoln. Had President Fillmore's scheme been adopted, there are some who think that it would have been successful, and that our country might have been blessed with peace and prosperity, in lieu of the late war with its loss of half a million of precious lives and a debt of more than double the amount of the estimated cost of his plan of colonization. Mr. Fillmore retired from the presidency March 4, 1853, leaving the country at peace with other lands and within her own borders, and in the enjoyment of a high degree of prosperity in all the various departments of industry. In his cabinet there had never been a dissenting voice in regard to any important measure of his administration, and, upon his retiring from office, a letter was addressed to him by all its members, expressing their united appreciation of his ability, his integrity, and his single-hearted and sincere devotion to the public service.

The last surviving member of Fillmore's cabinet, who also sat in the 27th congress with him, in a communication, with which he favored the writer, says: “Mr. Fillmore was a man of decided opinions, but he was always open to conviction. His aim was truth, and whenever he was convinced by reasoning that his first impressions were wrong, he had the moral courage to surrender them. But, when he had carefully examined a question and had satisfied himself that he was right, no power on earth could induce him to swerve from what he believed to be the line of duty. . . . There were many things about Mr. Fillmore, aside from his public character, which often filled me with surprise. While he enjoyed none of the advantages of early association with cultivated society, he possessed a grace and polish of manner which fitted him for the most refined circles of the metropolis. You saw, too, at a glance, that there was nothing in it which was assumed, but that it was the natural outward expression of inward refinement and dignity of character. I have witnessed, on several occasions, the display by him of attributes apparently of the most opposite character. When assailed in congress he exhibited a manly self-reliance and a lofty courage which commanded the admiration of every spectator, and yet no one ever manifested deeper sensibility, or more tender sympathy, with a friend in affliction. . . . He seemed to have the peculiar faculty of adapting himself to every position in which he was called to serve his country. When he was chairman of the committee of ways and means, members of congress expressed their sense of his fitness by declaring that he was born to fill it. When he was elected vice-president, it was predicted that he would fail as the presiding officer of the senate, yet he acquitted himself in this new and untried position in such a manner as to command the applause of senators. And when advanced to the highest office of our country, he so fulfilled his duties as to draw forth the commendation of the ablest men of the opposite party. . . . For the last two years of my official association with Mr. Fillmore,” adds Mr. Stuart, “our relations, both personal and political, were of an intimate and confidential character. He knew that I was his steadfast friend, and he reciprocated the feeling. He talked with me freely and without reserve about men and measures, and I take pleasure in saying that in all my intercourse with him I never knew him to utter a sentiment or do an act which, in my judgment, would have been unworthy of Washington.”


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Fac-simile letter from Millard Fillmore to James Grant Wilson ]


His gifted contemporary, Henry Clay, thought highly of Fillmore's moderation and wisdom, said his administration was an able and honorable one, and on his death-bed recommended his nomination for the presidency (by the Baltimore convention of 1852), as being a statesman of large civil experience, and one in whose career there was nothing inconsistent with the highest purity and patriotism. After leaving Washington for the last time, Webster said to a friend that Fillmore's administration leaving out of the question his own share of its work was no doubt the ablest the country had possessed for many years. The same great statesman, in his speech at the laying of the corner-stone of the capitol extension, said: “President Fillmore, it is your singularly good fortune to perform an act such as that which the earliest of your predecessors performed fifty-eight years ago. You stand where he stood; you lay your hand on the cornerstone he laid. Changed, changed is everything around. The same sun, indeed, shone upon his head which shines upon yours. The same broad river rolled at his feet, and now bathes his last resting-place, which now rolls at yours. But the site of this city was then mainly an open field. Streets and avenues have since been laid out and completed, squares and public grounds inclosed and ornamented, until the city, which bears his name, although comparatively inconsiderable in numbers and wealth, has become quite fit to be the seat of government of a great and united people. Sir, may the consequences of the duty which you perform so auspiciously to-day equal those which flowed from his act. Nor this only; may the principles of your administration and the wisdom of your political conduct be such that the world of the present day and all history hereafter may be at no loss to perceive what example you made your study.”

It should be stated as a part of Mr. Fillmore's public record that he was a candidate for nomination as president at the Whig convention of 1852; but although his policy, the fugitive-slave law included, was approved by a vote of 227 against 60, he could not command 20 votes from the free states. Four years later, while at Rome, he received the news of his nomination for the presidency by the American party. He accepted the nomination, but before the close of the campaign it became evident that the real struggle was between the Republicans and Democrats. Many, with whom Fillmore was the first choice for president, cast their votes for Gen. Frémont or James Buchanan, believing that there was no hope of his election, and, although he received the support of large numbers in all the states, Maryland alone gave him her electoral vote. In the summer of 1864 Col. Ogle Tayloe, of Washington, wrote to Mr. Fillmore on the subject of the presidential nomination, and his response was: “I can assure you in all sincerity that I have no desire ever to occupy that exalted station again, and more especially at a time like this.” Apropos of letters, the writer had the privilege of perusing a collection of confidential correspondence written by President Fillmore during a score of years while in public life; and, after a most careful examination, failed to find a single passage that would not stand the light of day, not a word of ignoble office-seeking, no paltry tricks to gain notoriety, no base designs of fattening upon public plunder.

Having thus glanced at the professional and political career of Mr. Fillmore, it now only remains to allude very briefly to his private life from 1853 onward. “The circles of our felicities make short arches.” Who shall question the wise axiom of Sir Thomas Browne, the brave old knight of Norwich, a favorite author with the president? Three weeks after the close of his administration he sustained a severe affliction in the loss of his wife, Abigail Powers, the daughter of a clergyman, whom he married February 5, 1826, and who was emphatically her husband's “right-hand.” She had long been a sufferer from ill health and was looking forward most eagerly to a return to her old home, when she was taken away to those temples not made with hands. Irving says that she received her death-warrant while standing by his side on the cold marble terrace of the capitol, listening to the inaugural address of Mr. Fillmore's successor. To this Christian lady the White House is indebted for the books which to-day make the library one of the most attractive rooms in the presidential mansion. In the following year their only daughter, who had grown to womanhood, also passed away, leaving a memory precious to all who had the privilege of her acquaintance. His home, now lonely from the loss of those who spread around it sunshine and happiness, induced Mr. Fillmore to carry out a long-cherished project of visiting the Old World, and in May, 1855, he sailed in the steamer “Atlantic.” During his visit to England he received numerous and gratifying attentions from the queen and her cabinet ministers, and was proffered the degree of D.C.L. by the University of Oxford, through its chancellor, the Earl of Derby, the gifted orator who was known as the “Rupert of debate.” This honor he however declined, as did Charles Francis Adams a few years later while American minister to the court of St. James. They were alike indisposed to submit to the scenes usual on such occasions.

We can not dwell as we could wish on Mr. Fillmore's patriotic attitude during the early years of the late war; of his warm interest in all the charitable Christian work of the city in which he passed nearly half a century; of his establishing the Buffalo historical society; how, as the first citizen of Buffalo, he was called upon to welcome distinguished visitors, including Mr. Lincoln, when on his way to Washington in 1861, and frequently to preside over conventions and other public gatherings, for the control of which he was so admirably qualified by his thorough parliamentary abilities, his widely extended knowledge, his broad views, and a personal urbanity which nothing could disturb; of the method and exactness, the precision and punctuality, with which he conducted his private affairs, as in earlier years he had performed his professional and public duties; of another visit to Europe in 1866, accompanied by his second wife, Caroline C. McIntosh, who survived him for seven years; of his manner of life in dignified retirement, surrounded by all the comfort and luxuries of a beautiful and well-appointed mansion, including a large library, and with an attached wife to share his happy home. In a letter written to his friend Mr. Corcoran, of Washington, but a few weeks be fore the inevitable hour came, he remarks: “I am happy to say that my health is perfect. I eat, drink, and sleep as well as ever, and take a deep but silent interest in public affairs, and if Mrs. Fillmore's health can be restored, I should feel that I was in the enjoyment of an earthly paradise.”

The ex-president accepted an invitation to meet the surviving members of his cabinet and a few other valued friends at the residence of Mr. Corcoran. The month of January, 1874, was designated as the date of the meeting, but was afterward changed to April, by Mr. Fillmore's request. Before that time he was no longer among the living. After a short illness, at ten minutes past eleven o'clock, on Sunday evening, March 8, Millard Fillmore

Gave his honors to the world again,
His blessed part to heaven, and slept in peace.”

He was gathered to his fathers at the ripe age of seventy-four years, and passed away without the knowledge that his former partner, Judge Hall, with whom he had been so long and so closely united in the bonds of friendship, as well as in professional and political life, had also, a few days previous, rested from his labors, and was then lying in the Forest Lawn cemetery, where the ex-president now sleeps by his side.


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HOME OF MILLARD FILLMORE, NIAGARA SQUARE, BUFFALO, N. Y., AS IT APPEARS AT THE PRESENT TIME


A phenomenal instance of literary vandalism occurred in the city of Buffalo, early in 1891, when all the valuable letters and documents relating to the administration of Millard Fillmore were destroyed by the executor of the ex-president's only son, Millard Powers Fillmore (he died November 15, 1889), whose will contained a mandate to that effect. Why he should have wished in this way to destroy an important part of the history of his country, as well as of his father's honorable career, or why any intelligent lawyer should have consigned to the flames thousands of papers by Webster and other illustrious men without at least causing copies of the most valuable of them to be made, is entirely beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals. To the writer, in pointing out his carefully preserved papers, contained in the library of his beautiful home in Buffalo, the ex-president said: “In those cases can be found every important letter and document which I received during my administration, and which will enable the future historian or biographer to prepare an authentic account of that period of our country's history.” The only opportunity probably that ever would present itself for properly defending and explaining the signing of the fugitive-slave bill; the existence of an unquestioned and strong public sentiment in favor of the president's doing so; the recommendations that the act be done, made by Mr. Fillmore's most eminent advisers — the proof of all these things unquestionably would have been presented by the letters and documents referred to; and now every one of these is gone.[2]

Among the chief magistrates of our country there appear more brilliant names than Fillmore's, yet none who more wisely led on the nation to progress and prosperity, making her name great and preserving peace in most perilous times, without invoking the power of the sword, or one who could more truthfully say, “These hands are clean.” Without being a genius like Webster or Hamilton, he was a safe and sagacious statesman. He possessed a mind so nicely adjusted and well balanced that he was fitted for the fulfilment of any duty which he was called to perform. He was always ready to give up everything but conviction when once convinced. A single public act honestly and unflinchingly performed cost him his popularity. Posterity, looking from a distance, will perhaps be more just. All his acts, whether daily and common or deliberate and well considered, were marked with modesty, justice, and sincerity. What Speaker Onslow said of Sir Robert Walpole was equally true of President Fillmore: “He was the best man from the goodness of his heart, to live with and under, of any great man I ever knew.” His was an eminently kindly nature, and the last time the writer saw him, in 1873, he was relieving, with a liberal hand, the necessities of an old and unfortunate friend. He was a sound, practical Christian “without knowing it,” as Pope remarked of a contemporary. His temper was perfect, and it is doubtful if he left an enemy on earth. Frederick the Great announced with energy that “Peter the First of Russia, to govern his nation, worked upon it like aquafortis upon iron.” Fillmore, to win his way, like Lincoln and Garfield, from almost hopeless poverty to one of the most eminent positions of the world, showed equal determination, often times working, for weeks and months together, till long past midnight, which happily his powers of physical endurance permitted him to do with impunity, and affording a fine illustration of the proud boast of our country, that its loftiest honors are the legitimate objects of ambition to the humblest in the land, as well as to those favored by the gifts of fortune and high birth. See Chamberlain's “Biography of Millard Fillmore” (Buffalo, 1856); Benton's “Abridgment of the Debates of Congress from 1789 to 1856,” vol. xvi. (New York, 1861); Thompson's “The Presidents and their Administrations” (Indianapolis, 1873); Address before the Buffalo Historical Society, by James Grant Wilson (Buffalo, 1878); Von Holst's “Constitutional and Political History of the United States,” vol. iv. (Chicago, 1885), and “Millard Fillmore Papers,” edited by Frank H. Severance, 2 vols., Buffalo Historical Society, 1907.


  1. Buffalo enjoys the distinction of having given the country two presidents. It is a singular coincidence that both these chief magistrates should appoint their former law partners to the office of postmaster-general. Mr. Fillmore selected his partner, Judge Nathan Kelsey Hall, for that office. Judge Hall studied law in the office of Mr. Fillmore at Aurora. He was admitted to the bar in 1832, and became a copartner with his preceptor, who in the meantime had removed to Buffalo. For postmaster-general in his second administration, Mr. Cleveland selected Wilson Shannon Bissell, for many years his law partner in Buffalo.
  2. Soon after the death of Mr. Charles D. Marshall, of Buffalo, April 22, 1908, executor of the will of Millard Powers Fillmore, who was supposed to have destroyed all President Fillmore's valuable papers relating to his administration as directed by his son's will, the manuscript letters and documents were discovered uninjured and complete in the garret of Mr. Marshall's house. He had wisely disregarded the mandate to burn the valuable records which are now deposited among the archives of the Buffalo Historical Society, and it is believed a portion of them will be published at no very distant day. It may be added that the correspondence consisting of 8436 letters received by Mr. Fillmore as vice-president and president from March 4, 1849, to March 4, 1853, include many from Daniel Webster, Edward Everett and other of the most distinguished Americans of that period. The writer of the accompanying letter when a citizen of Buffalo and before he became president was the younger Fillmore's most intimate friend:
    816 Madison Avenue [New York], February 3, 1891.

    My Dear Sir: Powers Fillmore was a man of the kindliest impulses and disposition, but very odd in many ways. I do not know of anybody with whom he was at all confidential regarding personal or family affairs. It was plain to see that he loved his father and fondly cherished his memory though even that could not be gathered from any frequent communication he indulged in concerning him. But he was exceedingly shy, and, above all things, seemed to desire to avoid notice or publicity. You may not see that anything I have written accounts for his conduct in relation to his father's papers, but, knowing him as I did, I can imagine a connection.

    And still I am bound to say that he has acted strangely in the matter.

     Yours truly,

     Grover Cleveland.

    Gen. Jas. Grant Wilson.