True Stories of Our Presidents - Charles Morris

Millard Fillmore



The Second-Hand President

As far away as 1723 we come across a man named Fillmore who did a brave and daring deed. He was a fisherman, and the sloop in which he sailed was taken by a pirate vessel. A fine, strong seaman was Fillmore, and the pirate captain took him for one of his crew. But he refused to be a pirate, and he was treated harshly and cruelly. In the end, after several months, he and two others rose against the pirates when they were all drunk, killed four of them, and brought six others into Boston harbor. They were all hung, and the gun and sword, the gold rings and silver shoe buckles and other things, of the pirate captain were given as rewards to John Fillmore.

He had a son named Nathaniel, to whom, in time, he left the pirate captain's silver-hilted sword and other relics. Nathaniel went into the wilderness and made himself a home near what is now Bennington, in the State of Vermont. He fought against the red men in the French and Indian War. In the Revolution he was one of General Stark's Green Mountain Boys. He was a lieutenant at the battle of Bennington. He lived till the end of the war of 1812.

His son, also named Nathaniel, left Vermont for the wilderness of western New York, and built himself a home near what is called Sumners Hill, in Cayuga County. Here his son Millard was born on January 7, 1800. It was a humble home to which the boy came. There was little chance for an education or any other advantage. He got a little schooling, of the poorest kind, and certainly did not do much reading, for there were only two books in the house, one of them a Bible and the other a hymnbook. But the child was a merry, good-tempered little fellow, who did not shed any tears for the want of books, and no doubt had a good time at play.

He had some hard work to do on the farm, but it was a poor bit of ground, and the father thought that his son ought to learn a better business. So when the boy was fourteen he was sent to a place a hundred miles from home. Here he was to try his hand for a few months at "carding wool and dressing cloth."

Young Fillmore did not take to the business, nor to his master either, for he was hard and severe. But he stayed out his months, and then he shouldered his knapsack and started out on foot through the wilderness for home, a hundred miles away. You may see from this that he was a boy of great pluck and energy.

After he got home he went as apprentice to a place near; by to learn the cloth and clothing business. The boy now began to show that he had a mind of his own. As soon as he got a little money he bought a small English dictionary, which he studied while at work. And there was a small library in the village whose books he eagerly read. In that way he got to know a great deal about history and other things.

He grew to be a very handsome youth, and showed already much grace and polish of manner. His reading had roused in him a new ambition, and a rich lawyer near by advised him to study law, and offered him the use of his own office and his law books. The boy jumped at the chance. He had three years still to serve at his trade, but he bought out the balance of the time from his master, giving him his note instead of money, and promising to pay it out of the money he might earn as a lawyer. So we see the growing statesman launched at nineteen in the study of the law.

When he was twenty-one he went to Buffalo and there got into a good law office where he had an excellent chance. He paid his way by teaching school. You may see that the Bible and hymn-book in his father's home and the library in the village had borne good fruit. He was twenty-three years old when he began to practice law. He settled in the pretty little village of Aurora, and won his first suit, for which he was paid four dollars. Very likely he felt quite rich with his first earnings in his pocket.

In three years he was making money enough to get married, and chose for his wife Mrs. Abigail Powers, a clergyman's daughter, and a young lady of fine character and much good sense. Three years later he moved to Buffalo, where he began a prosperous practice. But certainly there was nothing in his life up to that time to show that, in little more than twenty years later on, he would be President of the United States.

Yet he now began to make his way in politics. He was sent to the Legislature and made some good speeches there. In 1832 he was elected to Congress. He continued to serve in Congress for three terms with an intermission. He was elected as Governor of his State and served with honor.

A new and much greater honor was in waiting for him. In 1844, when the Whig party had its National Convention, the members for New York spoke of Millard Fillmore for Vice-President. In 1848, when Zachary Taylor, the old hero fresh from victory in Mexico, was named by the Whigs for President, Millard Fillmore was named for Vice-President. The old soldier was a slave-holder, and it was thought the Northern lawyer would win many votes that might be lost. So the rugged Southern warrior and the polished Northern lawyer, were harnessed together and went briskly to the winning post. Taylor was elected President and Fillmore Vice-President of the United States.

Sixteen months passed by and the soldier President went to a soldier's grave. The Buffalo lawyer was President. Fortune had come to his side. As in the case of Tyler, he had risen to an honor which he probably never could have reached if death had not cleared the way for him.

You will be interested in an amusing little anecdote of President Fillmore. Soon after he took the oath of office he concluded that he must have a new carriage. He was told of one that could be bought, belonging to a gentleman who was about to leave Washington. There was about the White House an old Irish servant named Edward Moran, who was full of ready wit and had been much liked by President Taylor. The old chap did not quite approve of the change that had been made in Presidents.

When Fillmore went to look at the carriage he took "Old Edward" with him. They inspected it closely and concluded it would do.

"This is all very well, Edward," said the President, with a smile, "but how will it do for the President of the United States to ride in a second-hand carriage?"

"Sure that's all right, your Honor," said the old man, with a twinkling eye. "You're ownly a sicond hand President, you know."

Did Fillmore get angry at this remark? Not he. He was good-natured enough to laugh at it heartily, and he told it in after years as a good joke.

After leaving the Presidential chair, Mr. Fillmore spent much of the remainder of his life among his books and his friends. He visited Europe two years afterward and had a flattering reception. And after he came home the "Know-Nothing" party nominated him for President, but he carried only one State, the State of Maryland.

We cannot end without a word for Mrs. Fillmore. For a woman of her quiet habits and delicate health the duties of her position as mistress of the White House had been very trying. One serious deficiency she found. She was a great reader and the White House was nearly empty of books. To please her, Congress was asked to make an appropriation for a library. This was the beginning of the fine library which is now to be seen there. Her husband's term as President ended in March, 1853, and she died in the same month. Soon after her only daughter followed her to the grave.

Mr. Fillmore married again, his second wife being a Miss McIntosh of Buffalo. After that his life moved on serenely. The Civil War came and went, but he took no part and had not a word to say. Many thought that his sympathies were with the South. But he had sunk out of the channel of politics, and neither party troubled itself about what he might say or think. He lived on at his handsome home in Buff do, amid his friends and his books, and died there on March 8, 1874.