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I, Fillmore (1800–1819)
A Noble Birth—The Family Tree—Piratical Melancholia—Edible Pants—The Forbidden Excitements of the Frontier—The Disease of Education—Signs of Presidential Fortitude
“I was born,” the first page of Fillmore’s first journal reads, “on the snowy night of the seventh day of January, 1800." The second child and eldest son in a family of nine, Fillmore would later recount that his birth was not “marked by any striking signs in the heavens above or the earth beneath calculated to alarm the superstitious fears of the scattered inhabitants of that howling wilderness.” Nevertheless, Johann Wilson, a neighbor of the family, chose the night of Fillmore’s birth to be convinced that men from the “outer depths of the sky” had come to “vanish me away,” and threw himself under his own plow.
Fillmore’s mother and father were simple dirt farmers, poor beyond their wildest dreams, and it showed in the naming of their son.Millard was his mother’s unused maiden name, and such was their poverty that they could not afford to bestow upon their eldest son a middle name (unlike the wealthy family of Thomas Jebediah Birchard Gamaliel Redondo Jefferson). Too honest to steal even a letter, as future president Harry S. Truman would do years later, their son would become known to the world simply as Millard Fillmore.
Fillmore would fondly remember his birthplace as being “completely shut out from all the enterprises of civilization and advancement.” The typical pioneer could often be seen clad in simple bearskin and deerhide, with leather jerkin, cowhide boots, britches made of guts, ties woven of pig hair, and carved wooden hats. Hairstyles were plain, manners unvarnished, and entertainments spare. It was all in sharp contrast to the conspicuous wealth on show in the cities of the East Coast, where styles aped those of a decadent Europe. While young Fillmore’s curly blond tresses were waxed down with wolverine fat, the “pussy-top” hairstyle, popularized by Marie Antoinette and involving the careful application of a dead cat to the crown of the head, was the most fashionable cut of the day in more elevated circles.
The inhabitants of the frontier may have lacked social graces, but they made up for it in robustness. In this landscape young children swiftly became excellent hunters and expert shots. Alas, Fillmore’s family was too poor to provide him with a gun, and even when he was gifted with an old musket by a neighbor, his natural timidity saw him spend much of his youth using it to measure mud holes, “to ascertain how their width compares with their length and whether their sides are perpendicular.” Thus firearms nurtured in him a gentle, contemplative side and spawned in him a lifelong love of bogs. But while the young Millard may not have been gifted with the certitude of aristocratic inbreeding and massive wealth, as most presidents are, he was bequeathed an even more important legacy—a thick adventurous streak.
It was Millard Fillmore’s great-grandfather who had first displayed a tendency for outrageous happenstance. The extraordinary tale of John Fillmore, “a good, stout, resolute fellow,” began in 1723, when at the age of twenty-one he heard the irresistible call of the sea. Signing on to work aboard the fishing sloop the Dolphin, he had barely left port when his boat was captured by the feared pirate Captain John Phillips, and John Fillmore was pressed into joining his crew.
Upon starting his new life as a scourge of the seas, Fillmore found that Phillips’ boat, the Revenge, was not a happy vessel, for its captain was a fiercely depressed man. On his good days, Phillips could be found with a maniacal gleam in his eye, bellowing at his terrified crew to “splice the main brace” and “make fast the bunt gasket.” On one day of particularly high spirits he had even ordered his crew to board a great white shark, with fatal consequences. More often than not, however, he slunk around belowdecks, his tricorn hat in his hand, tears smudging his temporarily tattooed cheeks. The fact was that Phillips had never really excelled at piracy. A carpenter by trade, his hooked hand had been gained not in battle but in an unfortunate cabinetmaking accident on land. He had lost an eye not while boarding another ship but to the eyepiece of his sextant on a day when the waves were particularly rough. He was forever complaining about his parrot, which was defiantly mute, and his ship’s monkey, which he said was “not mischievous enough.” When the lonesome sound of Phillips’ euphonium could be heard emanating from the captain’s cabin, it was a foolish man who dared disturb him.
After taking Fillmore captive, the Revenge circled the busy shipping lanes around Barbados. But for three months they failed to see another ship and as a result almost starved to death. Phillips’ deep melancholy was lifted only when his carpentry skills were called upon to saw off the leg of one of his crew, injured during a game of deck quoits. The subsequent death of his patient sent him into an even darker mood and left the Revenge still awaiting its first peg-legged sailor. The incident led to much whispered conversation around the water coolie.
Fed on this diet of mutilation, relentless intimidation, and hapless piracy, it was not long before John Fillmore grew restless and longed for his homestead once more. One day, while the other pirates were eating their daily serving of barnacles, Fillmore, who was in the crow’s nest, plunged his dagger into the mainsail and slid down its face, slicing it in two in the process. According to the statement he would later swear in court, he was greeted by “a smattering of applause” from the other crew members and a scream from the enraged Phillips, who was mad with jealousy at never having done anything so piratical in his life. The two fought across the ship, cutlasses flashing in the sunlight, swinging from ropes and rigging. The pirate captain seemed to have gained the upper hand when the duel reached the pristine plank that stuck out from the side of the Revenge, a plank no man’s feet had ever walked upon. As Phillips edged Fillmore toward its end with his sword, cackling demonically, he seemed for a moment to lose himself in a reverie. Turning to his astonished crew, he cried, “Look at me, boys, top of the world!” At which point Fillmore stepped forward and succinctly sliced the pirate’s head “in two.” Taking control of the ship, Fillmore sailed it to Boston, where he turned the body of Phillips over to the authorities. It was said that, despite the grievous wounds he had suffered, Phillips’ body had never looked so peaceful.
Millard Fillmore’s grandfather Nathaniel displayed equally heroic, if more landbound, qualities. At the age of seventeen he had enlisted to fight in the French and Indian War, one of the many conflicts that raged across North America in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.7 But Nathaniel Fillmore was no luckier than his father and, having been wounded in a woodland skirmish, was left for dead by his companions. In such a situation many other men would have resigned themselves to a slow and agonizing death by starvation, but not Nathaniel. As days turned into weeks and the last kernels of corn in his knapsack disappeared, Nathaniel turned to eating his shoes. When a rescue party stumbled upon him some weeks later he was described as being half naked and in the midst of roasting his blanket. When asked if he needed assistance, Nathaniel politely declined, asking only if he could eat his rescuers’ pockets. It took a week of negotiation before Nathaniel was eventually tempted out of the woods by a carefully laid trail of buttons.
Nathaniel Fillmore’s son, Millard Fillmore’s father, also shared the name Nathaniel. He married Phoebe Millard in 1797, soon after which the couple was enticed by the promises of a land promoter, who spoke of bounteous fertile land and a magnificent social scene in upstate New York. Selling their home in Bennington, Vermont, the Fillmores crossed the Appalachian Mountains into the west.
In 1799, the American continent was still largely unexplored and unconquered, and the pioneers who ventured into the interior had to be hardy and utterly fearless. Common pioneer qualities included coarseness, crudeness, bluffness, and rudeness, not to mention irritability, incivility, impropriety, and vulgarity. Moral values were expensive, and teeth were hard to come by; in any case, both were largely impractical in a region where men regularly added the prefix “Mad” to their names. For the male pioneer, entertainment was gained through two avenues: getting dangerously drunk on illegally distilled moonshine, and domestic abuse. However, the hardy pioneer women had an equal share of their husbands’ courage, determination, and cold-bloodedness, and were often known to hit back.
In the wilderness of the unexplored Finger Lakes region, Nathaniel and Phoebe built a small log cabin with one door and one window that gave pretty views onto the farm’s very own swamp. But the couple soon discovered that their land was not fertile loam, as promised—rather it was unyielding clay—and Phoebe was distraught to find that the highly vaunted nightlife consisted of dredging the quaking bog for disquisitive children.
The couple eked out a living as simple dirt farmers and soon became established in their backwoods community. Phoebe Fillmore was described as being a woman of “refinement, grace, and native intellect,” which in deepest New York State meant simply that she spat into a bucket, that she rarely missed the bucket, and that she always knew where the bucket was kept. Nathaniel Fillmore, for his part, displayed the pioneer’s masterly utilization of local materials, being obsessed with whittling. He had whittled the cabin they lived in out of a single giant sequoia and now, convinced that whittling would “make the Fillmore name resound with prosperity,” began his life’s work—the whittling of the Battle of Bunker Hill.
From an early age Fillmore was told stories of the great founders of his country, and at age six he chopped down his father’s prized cherry tree in an effort to emulate the young George Washington. “I remember feeling terrified a good deal when Father asked me who was responsible,” recalled Fillmore, “and so I swore that it was Tom Booth, the butcher’s boy, who had done the wicked deed.”
Forgoing imitation, he became entranced by tales of adventure and battle. The exploits of the heroes of the Revolutionary War still resounded powerfully throughout the country, and many of the stories had been amplified and improved upon by the unruly imagination of the frontiersman. Fillmore remembered being told how Benjamin Franklin “dangled from a kite, high above the British guns, focusing on them the burning rays of the sun through the glass of his bifocal spectacles,” and he recalled feeling “most fearful” when told how George Washington’s wooden teeth were replaced every week, “so bloodstained and splintered did they become with the tearing and rending of English throats.”
Word also crept through the thick forests of upstate New York of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition that was exploring the country from St. Louis to the Pacific coast. In two years and four months the explorers had discovered 178 new plants, 122 new species and subspecies of animals, and more than 54 different types of wind, including such well-known varieties as “gusty” and “blustery.” As Millard grew, so did America, for both were discovering themselves.
When war erupted against the British in 1812, the twelve-year-old Fillmore would hurry miles to the nearest village to hear the latest news. The causes of the War of 1812 are now lost in the mists of time,13 but the man who guided the United States through this struggle shines resplendently through the gloom of the ages. President James Madison, a man of small stature at a time when being small meant being very short indeed, had clambered his way onto the presidential throne through a gritty campaign of ankle-bites and shin-kicks. His aggressive temperament was matched only by his inferiority complex: upon seeing a line of graffiti in the congressional bathroom that read “James Madison is more presid-ant than presid-ent,” a tearful Madison declared war against both France and Great Britain, insisting in his thin and reedy voice, “They are naught but big bullies.” When informed of the French emperor’s equally small stature, Madison relented, to the relief of his advisors, and a lone rematch against the old enemy Britain was decided upon, under the official title “The Brawl in Montreal.”
Madison was unlucky in his choice of general for the task. Governor William Hull of Michigan, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, led the initial assault, taking 2,500 soldiers across the border to attack the British forces stationed there. Alas, the elderly general became greatly perplexed by his foreign surroundings. When told that the British forces were only 330 men strong, Hull somehow calculated that his own force was vastly outnumbered. He retreated, hid, and eventually surrendered, telling his surprised captors, “You are George III and I claim my five shillings.”
The war raged on into 1813 and 1814, but President Madison, having already christened it the War of 1812, dared not change its name for risk of confusing his already uncertain generals. As the battles moved to the Great Lakes and the Indian forces loyal to the British joined the Americans (and vice versa), both sides let their minds wander, and before either country knew what was happening, peace had been declared. If the war taught the young Millard anything, it was that the United States was now equal with the rest of the world’s superpowers in terms of demented leadership and pointless bloodshed.
Such excitement was a far cry from young Millard’s situation. From nearly the time he could walk, Millard was forced to mow, reap, hoe, heap, and row on the family dirt farm, this last skill being necessitated by his father’s attempts to diversify into goo and slime cultivation. By his early teens he had mastered most of the primitive frontier skills, although his sensitive disposition and love of animals meant he had eschewed hunting and badger baiting, preferring to concentrate on yodeling and quilting, skills that he would later use to great effect in his political life. Alas, Fillmore was passing his childhood on the edge of civilization, and the degradation of menial labor seemed to offer him no chance of escape. What’s more, in the strict Unitarian circles in which he was raised, corporal punishment was common. “I recall crying out in horror,” wrote Fillmore years later, “whenever my father ordered me to beat him.”
For the first ten years of his life, Fillmore did not attend school, education not being encouraged by his parents, who, due to a misunderstanding, believed it to be a cause of goiter. When a school was finally opened in the nearby town of Niles, Fillmore was grudgingly allowed to attend, on the understanding that he was not to bring his learning back home with him.
Fillmore was a voracious student. He was enamored of stories of far-flung discovery, particularly James Bruce’s Travels in Abyssinia, in which the dashing Bruce sought to discover the source of the Nile. But Fillmore was only allowed to attend school for two or three months a year, his parents constantly worrying about the price of his education, fearing “that you shall grow too big for thy boots, as I have heard it tell of those with learning, and we have no money for new ones.”