« PreviousContinue »
His lowly Birth. - Struggles with Adversity.-Limited Education. -Eagerness for Intellectual Improvement. - A Clothier. - A Law-student.- Commencement of Practice. Rapid Rise.. Political Life. - In Congress. - Vice-President. - President. His Administration. - Retirement. The Civil War.
MILLARD FILLMORE, the thirteenth President of the United States, was born at Summer Hill, Cayuga County, N.Y., on
the 7th of January, 1800. His father was a farmer, and, owing to misfortune, in humble circumstances. Of his mother, the daughter of Dr. Abiathar Millard of Pittsfield, Mass., it has been said that she possessed an intellect of very high order, united with
much personal loveliness, sweetness of disposition, graceful manners, and exquisite sensibilities. She died in 1831; having lived to see her son a young man of distinguished promise, though she was not permitted to witness the high dignity which he finally attained.
In consequence of the secluded home and limited means of his father, Millard enjoyed but slender advantages for education in his early years. The common schools, which he occasionally attended, were very imperfect institutions; and books were scarce and expensive. There was nothing then in his character to indicate the brilliant career upon which he was about to enter. He was a plain farmer's boy; intelligent, good-looking, kind-hearted. The sacred influences of home had taught him to revere the Bible, and had laid the foundations of an upright character. When fourteen years of age, his father sent him some hundred miles from home, to the then wilds of Livingston County, to learn the trade of a clothier. Near the mill there was a small village, where some enterprising man had commenced the collection of a village library. This proved an inestimable blessing to young Fillmore. His evenings were spent in reading. Soon every leisure moment was occupied with books. His thirst for knowledge became insatiate; and the selections which he made were continually more elevating and instructive. He read history, biography, oratory; and thus gradually there was enkindling in his heart a desire to be something more than a mere worker with his hands; and he was becoming, almost unknown to himself, a well-informed, educated man.
This intellectual culture of necessity pervaded his whole being. It beamed forth from his countenance; it inspired his words; it placed its impress of dignity and refinement upon his manners. The young clothier had now attained the age of nineteen years, and was of fine personal appearance and of gentlemanly demeanor. It so happened that there was a gentleman in the neighborhood of ample pecuniary means and of benevolence,-Judge Walter Wood, - who was struck with the prepossessing appearance of young Fillmore. He made his acquaintance, and was so much impressed with his ability and attainments, that he advised him to abandon his trade, and devote himself to the study of the law. The young man replied, that he had no means of his own, no friends to help him, and that his previous education had been very imperfect. But
Judge Wood had so much confidence in him, that he kindly offered to take him into his own office, and to loan him such money as he needed. Most gratefully, the generous offer was accepted.
There is in many minds a strange delusion about a collegiate education. A young man is supposed to be liberally educated if he has graduated at some college. But many a boy loiters through university halls, and then enters a law-office, who is by no means as well prepared to prosecute his legal studies as was Millard Fillmore when he graduated at the clothing-mill at the end of four years of manual labor, during which every leisure moment had been devoted to intense mental culture.
Young Fillmore was now established in the law-office. The purity of his character, the ardor of his zeal, his physical health, and his native abilities, all combined to bear him triumphantly forward in his studies. That he might not be burdened with debt, and that he might not bear too heavily on the generosity of his benefactor, he, during the winter months, taught school, and, in various other ways, helped himself along. After spending two years in this retired country village, he went to the city of Buffalo, and entered a law-office there, where he could enjoy the highest advantages. Here, for two years more, he pressed onward in his studies with untiring zeal; at the same time, supporting himself mainly by teaching.
In 1823, when twenty-three years of age, he was admitted to the Court of Common Pleas. He then went to the beautiful little village of Aurora, situated on the eastern banks of Cayuga Lake, and commenced the practice of the law. In this secluded, peaceful region, his practice, of course, was limited, and there was no opportunity for a sudden rise in fortune or in fame. Here, in the year 1826, he married a lady of great moral worth, and one capable of adorning any station she might be called to fill, - Miss Abigail Powers, daughter of Rev. Lemuel Powers. In this quiet home of rural peace and loveliness, Mr. Fillmore continued to devote himself to juridical studies, and to the fundamental principles of law. as if he had been conscious of the exalted destiny which was before him. Probably no portion of his life was more happy than these serene, untroubled hours.
But true merit cannot long be concealed. His elevation of character, his untiring industry, his legal acquirements, and his skill as an advocate, gradually attracted attention; and he was in
vited to enter into partnership, under highly advantageous circumstances, with an elder member of the bar in Buffalo. Just before removing to Buffalo, in 1829, he took his seat in the House of Assembly of the State of New York, as representative from Erie County. Though he had never taken a very active part in politics, his vote and his sympathies were with the Whig party. The State was then Democratic, and he found himself in a helpless minority in the Legislature: still the testimony comes from all parties, that his courtesy, ability, and integrity, won, to a very unusual degree, the respect of his associates. To the important bill for abolishing imprisonment for debt he gave his earnest and eloquent co-operation, speaking upon the subject with convincing power.
The State Legislature is not unfrequently the entrance-door to the National Congress. After discharging, with great acceptance to his Whig constituents, his responsibilities in the House of Assembly for three years, he was, in the autumn of 1832, elected to a seat in the United-States Congress. He entered that troubled arena in some of the most tumultuous hours of our national history. The great conflict respecting the National Bank, and the removal of the deposits, was then raging. Experienced leaders, veterans in Congressional battles, led the contending hosts. There was but little opportunity for a new-comer to distinguish himself. In this battle of the giants, Mr. Fillmore could do but little more than look on, study the scene, garner wisdom, watch his opportunity, and cast his silent vote.
His term of two years closed; and he returned to his profession, which he pursued with increasing reputation and success. After the lapse of two years, he again became a candidate for Congress; was re-elected, and took his seat in 1837. His past experience as a representative gave him strength and confidence. The first term of service in Congress to any man can be but little more than an introduction. He was now prepared for active duty. All his energies were brought to bear upon the public good. Every measure received his impress. The industry and the intensity with which he applied himself to his Congressional duties were characteristic of the man, and have, perhaps, never been surpassed.
His reputation now began to be national. The labors which devolved upon him were more arduous than can well be conceived
of by one who has not been in the same situation. To draught resolutions in the committee-room, and then to defend them against the most skilful opponents on the floor of the House, requires readiness of mind, mental resources, and skill in debate, such as few possess. Weary with these exhausting labors, and pressed by the claims of his private affairs, Mr. Fillmore, just before the close of the session, wrote a letter to his constituents, declining to be a candidate for re-election. Notwithstanding this communication, his friends met in convention, and unanimously, and by acclamation, renominated him, with the most earnest expression of their desire that he would comply with their wishes. Though greatly gratified by this proof of their appreciation of his labors, he adhered to his resolve; and, at the close of the term for which he was elected, he returned to his home, rejoicing at his release from the agitating cares of official life.
Mr. Fillmore was now a man of wide repute, and his popularity filled the State. The lines between the two parties, the Whig and Democratic, were strongly drawn; and the issues involved excited the community to the highest degree. The Whig party brought forward Mr. Fillmore as the strongest candidate whom they could present for the office of governor. The canvass was one of the most exciting which had ever agitated the State, and the Whig party was signally defeated. In the year 1847, he was elected, by a very great majority, to the very important office of comptroller of the State. Many who were not with him in political principles gave him their vote, from their conviction of his eminent fitness for that office.
In entering upon the responsible duties which this situation demanded, it was necessary for him to abandon his profession, and, sundering those social ties which bound him to his numerous friends in Buffalo, to remove to the city of Albany. It was universally admitted that the duties of this office were never more faithfully discharged.
Mr. Fillmore had attained the age of forty-seven years. His labors at the bar, in the Legislature, in Congress, and as comptroller, had given him very considerable fame. The Whigs were casting about to find suitable candidates for President and VicePresident at the approaching election. Far away, on the waters of the Rio Grande, there was a rough old soldier, who had fought one or two successful battles with the Mexicans, which had