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What to do with Millard Fillmore’s dark, odd, quirky legacy

Buffalo’s mid-19th century bigwig Millard Fillmore has his name on a street, hospital and high school in spite of his zeal for hunting down runaway slaves. He’s the sort of past president who gets ignored in favor of more glamorous, obviously heroic ones.

As this President’s Day weekend approaches, the 13th president’s local legacy has been getting some new, amused and bemused attention: To report a story set to air on the “CBS News Sunday Morning,” comedian journalist and “Daily Show” veteran Mo Rocca found humor, contradiction and oddities.

His visit to Fillmore’s East Aurora home and museum last month coincided with the village’s annual Fillmore birthday dinner, complete with cake and a song sung to the tune of Davey Crockett that has fun with Fillmore’s obscurity. (“Least Known Prez of All!” goes the chorus.) A political skit with someone playing Fillmore commenting on current politics even featured Aurora historian Rob Goller in drag as health secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

“That just doesn’t happen at Monticello or Hyde Park … It’s outrageous. It’s great,” Rocca said. “I do question how far their devotion has gone.”

Rocca, a history buff who makes a habit of visiting the homes of the nation’s 43 presidents, spoke by phone as he was finishing up at the Anchor Bar. (Wings, Buffalo and the Super Bowl were the subject of another Rocca story. “I love this town!” he said as the phone call began.)

But Rocca hasn’t found much about Fillmore’s administration to celebrate, save for the way he worked with Portugal to settle a war debt. So he was puzzled by how little was said during his East Aurora visit about Fillmore’s zeal for capturing and returning escaped slaves in the decade before the Civil War.

“Millard Fillmore was really bad on slavery and really great at dealing with countries that start with the letter P ... I guess if we get into war with Papua New Guinea, I’ll be thinking, ‘Ah if only Millard Fillmore were alive,’ ” he quipped. “I do question the objectivity of the people at the Millard Fillmore house.”

As a member of the local pantheon, the regally handsome Fillmore is often forgiven, if not forgotten. With namesake institutions and an avenue that runs more than four miles through the heart of the city that is home to tens of thousands of African-American citizens, his name hangs quietly, as if inoffensively, in the background.

The community has obviously been grateful for Fillmore’s post-presidential contributions, like leading the University at Buffalo as chancellor, and serving as the first president of the Buffalo Club. Paul Finkelman, author of a 2011 Fillmore biography, said he understands the local impulse to focus on the good stuff.

“I think there is a desire, particularly among people who have kind of a local history icon, or a local history view, to want to praise the local historical figure, or the local historical event, and ignore anything that isn’t good. It’s kind of the difference between public relations and actual journalism.”

Like Rocca, he has a problem with Fillmore’s actions when it comes to America’s shameful record on slavery.

“I think the problem with Fillmore is, in many ways, he is the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Finkelman, the William McKinley Professor at Albany Law School and a visiting professor at Louisiana State University. “When it comes to the Fugitive Slave Law … he is unbelievably aggressive.”

Fillmore was born in a log cabin, one of eight children in a poor farming family.

“In some ways he is somewhat like Lincoln. He is one of the few rags-to-riches presidents that we have,” said Finkelman, who believes Fillmore’s pursuit of education is one of his few worthy aspects. “If you want somebody who proves anybody can be president, Millard Fillmore fits the bill.”

He worked toward an education and a political career as a young man, after a grim cloth-making factory apprenticeship. He studied law by clerking for a local judge. He got into politics by joining a new political party, which was opposing the political influence of the Freemasons.

His leadership led to a seat in the State Assembly, then Congress.

He made it to the White House after a stint as New York state comptroller when his party, the Whigs, needed a non-slave-owning Northerner as vice president to balance the 1849 ticket with slave-owning Louisiana general Zachary Taylor. “He’s almost an accidental vice president,” said Finkelman, who was set to fly to New York for an interview with Rocca. “Probably the best thing Fillmore has going for him is that nobody knows who he is.”

After watching Fourth of July parades, downing cherries and iced milk, Taylor caught a stomach disease that was treated with mercury and bloodletting, and died.

A few months after Fillmore took over, he seemed to eager for the Compromise of 1850, signing it within days after it passed Congress, Finkelman said. The package of legislation admitted California as a free state, allowed slavery in the Western territories and guaranteed that runaway slaves would be returned.

Finkelman said Fillmore should have known better than to sign the Fugitive Slave Act, with its unconstitutional provisions that slaves were not allowed to testify in their own defense or have a jury trial, and that judges earned $10 for favoring the slave owner and $5 for siding with slaves. “That seems like not the kind of law that any president who’s a lawyer should sign,” Finkelman said. “It’s just indicative of the fact that he just doesn’t care about anything to do with black people. They’re invisible to him.”

When a Boston mob rescued a slave during a court hearing, known as “Shadrack Case,” the Fillmore administration prosecuted the slave’s lawyer. In Pennsylvania’s “Christiana Case,” people were tried for treason for refusing to help a federal marshal capture a slave.

Later, in Syracuse, another mob rescued a slave during an anti-slavery convention. The episode, called the “Jerry Rescue,” led Fillmore to have the rescuers tried in Buffalo and Albany, forcing defendants and witnesses to take the expensive and slow trip across the state.

“His presidency,” said Finkelman, “is dramatically awful.”

So far, Rocca’s knowledgeable attention has seemed fortuitous. “He likes presidents and he likes things that aren’t talked about a whole lot … Not your Lincolns,” said Goller, the town historian. “Millard Fillmore certainly fits into that.”

When Rocca sent a CBS video crew to Fillmore’s birthday celebration last month, the Aurora Historical Society was grateful for the publicity. It’s just started to raise $500,000 put up a statue and rebuild his law office.

As for skepticism about Fillmore’s darker side, Goller was matter-of-fact.

“We don’t try to defend Millard Fillmore,” he said. “We certainly are trying to show Millard in context with history. … We do try to present both sides.”