Next Saturday, as every schoolboy knows, is when we celebrate the birthday of President Millard Fillmore, who, but for his untimely death, would be 212 years old on that day.
Millard Fillmore, our beloved 13th president, last visited Louisville on March 16, 1854, and was met at the train station by Mayor James S. Speed and George Prentice, editor of the Courier-Journal. He and Speed were conducted to the Galt House Hotel in a magnificent open carriage, pulled by four gray horses. A second carriage followed, carrying Prentice and John J. Crittenden, Fillmore’s former Attorney General. Press reports of the time describe the procession as including an escort of soldiers from the Louisville Legion, and a marching band.
A Louisville Courier (precursor to the C-J) article told of how the parade route was lined with dense crowds; the courts and schools having been closed for the festivities, “...so that all might have an opportunity of seeing a distinguished man who had elevated himself by his own industry to a lofty station, the duties of which he performed with a single ability and unquestionable purity…to do honor to the great upholder of the Union.”
From the hotel balcony, Fillmore gave a brief speech; with reporters describing the ex-president as “of sufficient stature to render his presence commanding, with a countenance very open and frank. His hair is quite gray, long and combed back, giving him a more venerable air than his years allow.”
Millard, of course, became president because Louisville’s Zachary Taylor got overheated while watching the laying of the Washington Monument cornerstone, on July 4, 1850. Old Zach went back to the White House and tried to cool off with a pitcher of iced lemonade and a bowl of cherries. This evidently caused a fit of gastroenteritis, and he died at about 10:00 in the morning on July 9, after telling his wife: "I have always done my duty, I am ready to die. My only regret is for the friends I leave behind me."
One of the friends he left behind was his vice-president, Millard Fillmore. Millard had Taylor’s body stored in Washington’s Public Vault until October 22, when it was shipped back for burial in Louisville, where, in 1883, the Commonwealth of Kentucky erected a fifty foot monument, topped by a life-sized statue of the 12th president. Rumor-mongers claimed Fillmore may have had something to do with Taylor’s untimely demise.
Louisville pathologist George Nichols—known affectionately to his friends as “Doctor Death”—finally put these rumors to rest (and, perforce, got Millard off the hook) on June 17, 1991, when he dug up Taylor’s remains and performed a forensic autopsy. Nichols, who was Kentucky Chief Medical Examiner at the time, concluded that, “In the unhealthy climate of Washington, with its open sewers and flies, Taylor came down with cholera morbus, or acute gastroenteritis as it is now called.”
Historian Samuel Eliot Morison, on the other hand, suggested Taylor was the victim of repeated medical malpractice. The president’s doctors “drugged him with ipecac, calomel, opium and quinine (at 40 grains a whack), and bled and blistered him too. On July 9, he gave up the ghost.”
In any event, Fillmore didn’t get nominated again by the Whig Party, and left office prior to his Louisville visit. Courier-Journal Editor George Prentice got Fillmore to run for president on the “Know-Nothing” (American) Party ticket, but with notable lack of success.
And, if you’re interested, the American Party supporters got the name of “Know-Nothings” because of a troublesome habit they had of sending their minions into polling places, armed with cobbler’s awls (sort of like ice-picks with large wooden handles), which they would sometimes thrust into the bellies of voters indicating a Democratic preference. When questioned by the police later, they would always respond, “I know nothing…” Sort of like a bunch of antebellum Sgt. Schultzes.
Back in the day, the folks over at the Courier-Journal were so proud of their racist, xenophobic editor, that they put his life-sized statue over the main entrance of their old offices at Fourth and Liberty Streets (later, the Will Sales Building; and now, the B&W Tower). Old George Prentice is now displayed in relative (and deserved) ignominy, seated across from the front entrance to the main branch of The Louisville Free Public Library, on York Street. Kids sometimes stick cigarette butts in his mouth.
Some of the Fillmore legacy can be found over at Louisville’s Filson Historical Society, on Third Street. A wonderful full-length portrait of the president—painted at New York in 1856 by Louisville artist Samuel Woodson Price—hangs in a place of honor. The Society also has a marvelous hand-written letter from Fillmore, dated December 10, 1856, to Louisville’s Philomathian Literary Society. It seems that J.V. Drake, W.W. Alexander, and S.G. Alexander, of the literary society, had written to the ex-president on November 21 of that year, asking him to come to Louisville and speak at the dedication of the Henry Clay statute being installed in the rotunda of the Jefferson County Courthouse (now, “Metro Hall”).
In beautiful Italic handwriting, Fillmore wrote to the Louisville luminaries that his ill health precluded another trip from Buffalo, New York, but that he had fond memories of his trip to the city at the Falls of the Ohio. He wrote that the late Henry Clay was one of his dearest friends, and one of the nation’s greatest orators. Humbly, the ex-president complained that nothing he could write or say about Clay would do justice to such a great man.
So, it is fitting that we pause to remember him Saturday, on the anniversary of his birth. The many accomplishments of his enlightened administration compare favorably to those the current White House incumbent. When President Fillmore passed away in March of 1874, The New York Times obituary stated: “The general policy of his Administration was wise and liberal, and he left the country at peace with all the world and enjoying a high degree of prosperity.”
And, while President Obama has some room for improvement in the areas of peace and prosperity, most reasonable observers would admit his administration has thus far been wise and liberal. Well, perhaps, some of the former and much of the latter. Certainly, President Obama would be well advised to emulate President Fillmore’s many virtues; not the least of which was his humility. Fillmore once refused an honorary degree from Oxford University because he felt he had "neither literary nor scientific attainment." This was, of course, many years before the creation of the Nobel Peace Prize, and one can only speculate as to how President Fillmore would have responded to the offer of such a distinguished honor.
Whenever we are tempted to dismay at the future of our still-young nation; whenever we are inclined to question the integrity of our leaders; whenever we are prone to say, “Who elected these bozos?” let us hearken to the last words of Millard Fillmore: “This nourishment is palatable.” That, we submit, says it all.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Your louisville.com Arena writer also serves as Immediate Past President of the Louisville Society to Venerate the Memory of Millard Fillmore. Along with members Ned McGrath, Bob Hill, Joe O'Reilly, and the Late Bob Schulman, we used to meet on January 7 and drink Genessee Beer, eat Beef & Weck, and watch Hill's old Buffalo Bills football videos. Ned's in Detroit, Bob Hill's retired, and Joe spends most of his time in court. But we are still proud keepers of the flame.
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