A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Where can I join the Millard Fillmore Society?

February 13, 1976

Dear Cecil:

Where can I join the Millard Fillmore Society?

Dear W.:

The last address I have for the Millard Fillmore Society is out of date and we must face the distressing possibility that the group is no more. Too bad. The society sponsored many activities, all dedicated to the honor of the thirteenth President, are an annual birthday party (January 7), a national essay contest on the theme "What would America be today if there had been no Millard Fillmore?", and the publication of a magazine, Milestones With Millard.

No doubt the recent surge of interest in Fillmore is due to several uncanny parallels between Millard's career and recent occupants of the White House. Fillmore, who had the forethought to be born in a log cabin (thus ensuring that one day he would become president), was a political nonentity when he was chosen as the Whig Party's vice-presidential candidate in 1848, sharing the ticket with Zachary Taylor.

Fillmore was selected to give the ticket balance--not, in this case, geographic, but aesthetic. Taylor, a Mexican War hero, was short, fat, grubby, and crude. Millard was athletic, handsome, and polite.

Taylor won the election by taking advantage of a squabble between the Democrats and the "Free Soil" Party over the slavery question. He refused to say anything about the issues at all, anticipating the technique of modern politics by over one hundred years. But sadly, Taylor died in office after eating too many strawberries on a warm day. This left the ship of state in Millard Fillmore's trembling hands.

Millard faced up to the responsibilities of his new office by doing, as far as anyone could tell, nothing at all. But every dog has his day, and Fillmore's Mayaguez came when he settled an historic dispute between American businessmen and the Peruvian government over the exploitation of Peru's guano resources. (Guano, mined from the mountains of dried sea-gull droppings along the Peruvian coast, made an excellent fertilizer.) A relieved America showed Fillmore its gratitude.

Fillmore prepared to run for another term, but his party passed him over in favor of another Mexican War hero, Winfield Scott. A disappointed Fillmore died in 1874. His last words, on being given a spoon of soup by his doctor, were the legendary "The nourishment is palatable." His greatness, obviously, was with him to the end.

Many people today believe that Fillmore's greatest accomplishment while in office was the installation of the first bathtub in the White House. Alas, this turns out to have been a cruel hoax, perpetrated by newspaperman H.L. Mencken. On December 28, 1917, he included the Fillmore yarn in a column he wrote for the New York Evening Mail. So many people believed the column, a bogus history of plumbed bathtubs, that Mencken was forced to write a second and third column denying the first one. Unfortunately, people preferred the hoax to the truth, and to this day trivia books and even a few encyclopedias perpetuate the error. Cecil is glad to set the record straight here. The Fillmore legend has no need of embroidering.

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