Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: Millard Fillmore

Great, indeed, are the possibilities of our country. The subject of this narrative, thirteenth president of the United States, was born in Summer Hill, Cayuga county, New York, January 7th, 1800. The nearest house to that of Fillmore was four miles distant. Cayuga county was then a wilderness with few settlers, consequently young Fillmore’s education was limited to instruction in reading, writing, spelling and the simplest branches of arithmetic. At fourteen he was bound out to learn the fuller’s trade.

Think of it boys, what splendid opportunities most of you have; yes, all of you have, compared to that of Fillmore, for he had not the advantage of our glorious and complete school system, and at that was bound out when a mere lad. Yet at the age of nineteen he presumed to aspire to become a lawyer! He had two more years to serve in his apprenticeship, but “Where there’s a will there’s a way.” “To think a thing impossible is to make it so,” and he accordingly set to work contriving to gain for himself an education.

Contracting with his employer to pay him $30 for his release, that obstacle was overcome. He next made an arrangement with a retired lawyer, by which he received his board for services, and studied nights. This continued for two years, when he set out on foot for Buffalo where he arrived with just $4 in his pocket. Ah! methinks people who saw that boy must have felt that he was destined to be somebody in the world. “Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.”

How often are we so deeply impressed by reading the biographies of great men that it really does in a great measure rest with ourselves whether we amount to something, or worse than nothing, in the world. We have followed this man from childhood and have seen him overcome all obstacles thus far; will we then be surprised when we read that no sooner did he arrive in Buffalo than he succeeded in making arrangements with a resident lawyer, obtaining permission to study in his office and supported himself by severe drudgery, teaching and assisting the post master.

By the spring of 1823 he had so far gained the confidence of the bar that by the intercession of several of its leading members he was admitted as an attorney by the Court of Common Pleas of Erie county, although he had not completed the period of study usually required, and commenced practice at Aurora where his father resided.

In the course of a few years he acquired not only a large practice but a thorough mastery of the principles of the common law, and he rose to a place among the first lawyers of his State. In 1827 he was admitted as counselor of the Supreme Court of the State. In 1830 he moved to Buffalo where he continued in the practice of law until 1847, when he was elected Comptroller of the great Empire State.

He had previously been in the State legislature and in the national congress. In congress he rose gradually to the first rank for integrity, industry and practical ability. As a State legislator he particularly distinguished himself by his advocacy of the act to abolish imprisonment for debt, which was drafted by him, and which passed in 1831. In congress he supported John Quincy Adams in his assertion of the right of petition on the subject of slavery. He opposed the annexation of Texas, because it extended slave domain and advocated the immediate abolition of the inter-state slave trade.

At the death of President Taylor, Mr. Fillmore, according to the provisions of the Constitution in such cases, became President of the United States, and the poor boy who had entered Buffalo on foot now entered the National Capitol as the ruler of a mighty nation. During his administration a treaty with Japan, securing for the United States valuable commercial privileges, was consummated. His administration, as a whole, was a successful one, and had he not signed the fugitive slave law, he would, undoubtedly, have been the nominee of his party at the convention in 1852.

In 1854 he made an extensive tour in the Southern and Western States, and in the Spring of 1855, after an excursion through New England, he sailed for Europe. While in Rome he received information that he had been nominated by the Native American party in his native country for the office of President. He accepted, but Maryland alone gave him her electoral vote; however, he received a large popular vote. In 1874, March the 8th, he died in Buffalo, where he had resided many years in private life.