A (mostly) forgotten President

Unless you collect presidential dollars, live in Moravia, NY, or simply love presidential trivia, you probably did not know that the Millard Fillmore presidential dollar is being released today. If you’re like me, you didn’t even know that there was a new series of presidential dollar coins being released, starting with George Washington in 2007.

I think I may have seen one of those dollars recently. I got change from one purchase, which included a large gold-covered coin. From the size and color I knew it was a dollar, which was all that mattered to me as I hurried to put away the change and pick up my bags and hurry to the car. Later in the day I made another purchase and used the coin. I think I was vaguely aware it looked different, but I was again in a hurry. So I have no idea which president I passed up on the opportunity to keep.

I’ve never been a serious coin collector. When I was little, it was fun to check the date on coins and see if they were old. When I found out how little old coins were worth unless they were in excellent condition, however, I lost interest. My father-in-law started state quarter collections for each of his grandchildren, and for a while I kept it up. When I worked as a bank teller it was easy. But after leaving the bank I lost track of new releases.

I am also not a dedicated student of American history. In school we studied the events leading up to our country’s independence, several times in different grades, so I know that era reasonably well. I also enjoyed reading historical fiction set in those exciting times. I know less about the Civil War, and the world wars in the twentieth century, but more than I do about the decades in between those major conflict.

I never had to learn the names of all the presidents, though I could name all the ones from during my lifetime, as well as most from throughout the twentieth century (I never remember Taft). I’m pretty fuzzy on the nineteenth century presidents, however. Madison is easy (except when I mix him up with Monroe) – I associate him with the War of 1812. I know Grant was later than Lincoln, since he was busy fighting a war during Lincoln’s presidency. I know Pierce was later than Polk, because I remember learning the campaign slogan “We Polked you in ’44, We shall Pierce you in ’52” when I had to write a paper on Franklin Pierce.

But if you had asked me when Millard Fillmore was president, I would have guessed “sometime between the War of 1812 and World War I.” And if you hadn’t told me he was a President, I would have confused him with Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity. Or maybe with Charles Fillmore, who founded the Unity School of Christianity, which was probably the closest my mother had to a religious identity.

Apparently I’m far from alone in my ignorance of Fillmore’s accomplishments. An article in today’s Wall Street Journal refers to him as a “mostly forgotten president, whose very name is associated with mediocrity, and whose oft-cited greatest achievement—installing a bathtub in the White House—was a hoax perpetrated by the writer H.L. Mencken.”

Why, I wondered, would there be a coin bearing the image of a mediocre president? And why would two municipalities in New York argue over which of them should have the honor of hosting the ceremony to launch the coin? I suppose anything that gets your town in the news can bring visitors to your community, providing some extra revenue for local businesses. But do you really want to be associated with a president with such a lackluster reputation?

If you live in Moravia, NY, apparently you do. The president of a local historical society points out that “As a small town, we just have a few moments of history that are ours—and Fillmore is one of them.” (Moravia is where Fillmore was born.) But people of Buffalo, home of the State University of New York at Buffalo, feel they have greater claim to associate Fillmore with their city because he helped found the University of Buffalo (now part of SUNY) and was its first chancellor.

As for whether you think Fillmore accomplished anything worthwhile as President, that depends on how you value compromise as an approach to dealing with conflicts. He was selected to run as vice presidential candidate, along with Zachary Taylor, because it was thought that he could help heal rifts within the Whig party. According to Wikipedia, “party harmony became one of his primary objectives.”

He also wanted “to preserve the Union from the intensifying slavery debate.” He supported the Compromise of 1850 (which Taylor had opposed, and which likely would not have passed if Taylor had not died, just sixteen months into his term), which is thought to have delayed the Civil War by at least five years. The compromise included the Fugitive Slave Act, which made Northerners responsible to help return escaped slaves to their owners, and in practice resulted in many free blacks from being made slaves (because suspected slaves were not eligible to a trial).

His signature on that law no doubt blackens his memory for many people. Like many compromises, it merely delayed the conflict but did not resolve it. I know some people think that the Civil War could have been avoided entirely by just waiting longer, as the changing nature of the economy would have led to slavery going away on its own. But others argue that it would not have ended naturally anytime soon, and in the meantime millions of black people continued to be deprived of liberty and in many cases were treated very cruelly.

I doubt most people who handle a Millard Fillmore dollar (which may not be very many – most people still prefer dollar bills to dollar coins) will know any of that history, or care. But perhaps they might find it interesting that this man who is considered one of the worst presidents in U.S. history happened to be our 13th President. (From what I’ve read, superstition about the number 13 has origins in antiquity, but a quick google search didn’t tell me whether President Fillmore’s contemporaries thought it doomed his presidency.)

They might also be amused to learn that 154 years ago today, Fillmore was nominated as the Presidential candidate of the “Know Nothing” party. Despite his efforts, the Whig party had finally fallen apart over the issue of slavery. The new Republican Party and the American Party (nicknamed the Know Nothings because they were secretive and were instructed to say they knew nothing of the party’s activities) competed to replace it. Neither of them won that election – Democrat James Buchanan became President – and ranks as #1 in the list of Ten Worst Presidents (interestingly, most of these ten are from those periods of U.S. history that I know the least).

But four years later, most of the Know Nothings had become Republicans. And a lawyer (and former Whig) whom the Republicans had passed up as vice presidential candidate in 1856 was nominated as presidential candidate, and was elected our 16th president: Abraham Lincoln.

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4 Responses to A (mostly) forgotten President

  1. Margaret Packard says:

    Well, Pauline, the president you didn’t bother to look at on the dollar coin may have been our relative, Martin Van Buren. Or of course it may not have. Anyway, Van Buren was kind of a mediocre president, refusing to stand up for the rights of illegally kidnapped Africans lest his southern Democrat supporters think that he might be an abolitionist. My favorite coin is the small gold coin with Queen Victoria on it that Thomas Ward brought to the U.S. when he immigrated here, but I have no idea what it is worth, and unfortunately I didn’t put it in a protective cover to preserve it in excellent condition.

  2. Peter L says:

    Great post, Pauline. I know a little presidential history, so I at least know Fillmore had accomplished very little in the 2 1/2 years he served.

    One typo: you say the Republicans passed up Lincoln in “1956”. I think you mean a century earlier.

    BTW- If you want a good layman’s look at the presidents, go to Big Mo’s Presidents Review, written by someone who used to be a regular at WorldMagBlog.

  3. Margaret Packard says:

    Oops. Proofreader sister must have been in a hurry and was just skimming. (As long as I don’t do that at work!)

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