Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Happy Birthday, Mr. President!

Future president Millard Fillmore was born this day, two hundred nine years ago, on January 7, 1800. Like Abe Lincoln, born nine years later, Fillmore’s story is a classic example of the American Dream.

Fillmore was born into abject poverty in a wilderness cabin in Locke Township, Cayuga County, New York. His father, Nathanial, had purchased the land, sight unseen, in 1799, from a land speculator, whose glowing description of the land had proved illusory. “Instead of fertile loam, [Nathaniel and his brother] found unyielding clay. Instead of prosperity, they found poverty.”

Within a few years, Nathaniel and his wife, Phoebe Millard Fillmore, lost their farm and were reduced to tenancy:
To his woes of poor crops, poor weather, and a crowded cabin was added a defective land title. . . . The Fillmore brothers, unable to defend their ownership . . . packed their families and few belongings on the farm wagon and moved a few miles north to Sempronius. This time, instead of settling on their own land, they took a perpetual lease on a 130-acre farm and condemned themselves to tenantry.

This “tenant farm also proved to be clay-condemned.” It was here, “[o]n the edge of civilization in the forest country of New York,” that young Millard grew up, helping his father eke an existence out of soil until, at the age of fourteen, he was apprenticed to a cloth-dresser.

Yet within ten years, by his mid-20s, native intelligence, hard work and a little luck transformed this “country bumpkin” into a respected lawyer in the booming town of Buffalo, New York. At the age of 28, he became a delegate to the first statewide convention of the Anti-Mason party. That same year (1828) he was elected to the New York State Assembly. Four years later, in 1832, he was elected to Congress.

In the Preface to Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President, Robert J. Rayback confesses that, before he began his research on Fillmore, he expected to find "a weak and pompous President." To his surprise, Rayback discovered a man with "extraordinary strength of character and an enviable tenacity of purpose -- as well as an admirable personality." He also discovered a fine president and man whose virtue shone through:
[I]f promotion and preservation of the nation are the criteria, he was a statesman with only a handful of White House rivals. Even after retiring from a lifetime of public service, his actions for civic improvement at the local level were nearly boundless, and his personal life was impeccable. Instead of a self-serving politician, the person who emerged from the sources was a quiet, almost modern, man who had no desire for power and who wanted to do good and make good according to the best conventions of the day. And he succeeded.

Who among us would merit such an epitaph?

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