Next Monday, Jan. 7, at exactly 1:13 p.m. (or in military parlance, 13:13), I will take out a moment to meditate and gaze at my locked cell phone photo. It is a picture of Millard Fillmore, our one-and-only 13th U.S. president, who celebrates his 219th birthday that very day.
To those of you who cavalierly ask, “Why Millard Fillmore?” I respond, “Why not Millard Fillmore?” He was our president — lucky #13 — and deserves to be remembered, despite his rather dubious legacy. (Harry Truman once called Fillmore a “weak, trivial thumb-twaddler,” while journalist Anna Prior charged that “Fillmore’s very name connotes mediocrity.” Ouch.)
Was he our greatest president ever? Hardly. He made one major error in judgment during his presidency, by signing the Compromise of 1850, and another several years later by accepting the support of the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party in his subsequent presidential bid.
But was he really among our worst presidents, as the polls and rankings consistently indicate? Hardly. Just take a look at Warren G. Harding, John Tyler or Franklin Pierce — or that present occupant of the Oval Office.
To those of you who query, “Did Fillmore do anything noteworthy during his presidential tenure?” I can proudly answer in the affirmative. He installed the first library in the White House. He sent Commodore Matthew C. Perry to Japan to establish trade relations with the Far East. He delayed the start of the Civil War – no small feat — and brought California into the union.
Legend also has it that Fillmore put the first bathtub and running water system in the White House. (And Queen Victoria reportedly branded him the most handsome man she’d ever laid her regal eyes upon.)
To those of you who ask, “OK, well, why not Chester A. Arthur?” I respectfully submit, “You take Arthur, I’ll take Fillmore.”
Marylanders for Millard
Born in a log cabin in New York’s Finger Lakes region, and the eldest son of nine children, Fillmore grew up in abject rural poverty and was taught to read and write as an adult by his future first wife, Abigail Powers. A protégé of New York political boss Thurlow Weed, Fillmore was elected state assemblyman, U.S. representative and state comptroller.
In 1848, the Whig Party chose him to run for vice president with war hero Zachary “Old Rough and Ready” Taylor. The victorious Taylor lasted only 15 months before suddenly passing away at age 65, making Fillmore the commander-in-chief in July of 1850.
Despite personally abhorring the institution of slavery, Fillmore signed the Compromise of 1850 with its Fugitive Slave Act because he desperately wanted to preserve the union. Denied nomination for reelection at the 1852 Whig National Convention in Baltimore, Fillmore set his sights on returning to the White House in 1856 but the Whigs at that point had been eclipsed by the emerging Republican Party.
Fillmore’s latching onto the American Party brought him the eight electoral votes of Maryland, the only state he managed to carry in the election of ’56 (which was won by James Buchanan).
Returning home to Buffalo, N.Y., Fillmore commanded the Union Continentals, a National Guard type of support unit, during the Civil War, another major “accomplishment” considering that the bloody conflict never actually came to Buffalo. Fillmore died after suffering a stroke on March 8, 1874, his last words reportedly being, “This nourishment is palatable.” (Now how’s that for mediocrity?)
I’ve been celebrating Millard Fillmore’s birthday since 1967 when Jim Seidel, my 11th-grade City College classmate, and I held an after-school 167th birthday party for the 13th president. In 1972, Jim organized a convention of the Resurrected Whig Party at Union Square in South Baltimore, where we nominated Millard as a presidential candidate, with amiable passerby Robert E. Lee Moxley as a running mate.
Millard lost yet again.
From the late 1980s through the mid-‘90s, I joined Rae and Harry Rossen, who organized annual Millard Fillmore birthday soirees around town. A Buffalo native himself, Harry dressed up as good ol’ Millard each year and delivered a fine Fillmoreian speech. We charged admission and donated the proceeds to various adult literacy organizations, simply to honor Millard’s impressive accomplishment of conquering his own illiteracy as an adult.
Sadly like Millard, Harry Rossen and (most likely) Robert E. Lee Moxley have passed on. Last I’ve heard, Jim Seidel is living somewhere in Pennsylvania.
And Rae Rossen is living in the Weinberg senior living emporia, where she — like me — will no doubt be celebrating a “Millard Moment” at exactly 1:13 on Jan. 7.
Happy birthday, Millard!
Currently assistant to the upper school librarian at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Pikesville, Jeff Amdur, a Northwest Baltimore resident and self-proclaimed “Fillmorephile,” was the co-founder of the Students Committee for the Glorification of Millard Fillmore.