Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

1-7 Let's Not Forget Fillmore

MON, 1-07-08

SANTA FE - January 7 is former President Millard Fillmore's birthday. Many people have trouble remembering that, but here's a tip to remind you. It's my birthday too. It's that easy.
Why is Fillmore important? Actually he isn't. He's jokingly called our most forgettable president. He's also called our most mediocre president. He never did much of anything right or wrong. Fillmore has no library or museum. If fact, no books ever were written about him or his administration. He also was unlucky enough to be our 13th president.
None of this bothered Fillmore much. Following his administration, he traveled in England. Oxford University wanted to present him an honorary degree, but Fillmore declined, saying he was unworthy of such an honor.
The most important moves made by President Fillmore involved New Mexico, which was made a territory about the time he assumed the presidency upon the death of President Zachary Taylor in July 1851. Taylor reportedly ate too much ice cream at a 4th of July picnic and did himself in. Fillmore sometimes was referred to as "Your Accidency."
Anyway, Texas didn't want the New Mexico territory to become a state. It wanted all our land, at least as far west as the Rio Grande and maybe as far as the Colorado River. At that time, present-day Arizona was part of New Mexico.
Fillmore disagreed, saying New Mexico had a culture and history dating back to a time when the population of Texas consisted only of snakes and scorpions.
But Fillmore knew that Texas would stop at nothing to get its hands on New Mexico territory. It already had tried trade missions, diplomacy, politics, guile and even invasions.
So he had a fort built just south of Las Cruces to stop any further invasions. Previous invasions had come from the east, but Fillmore had a hunch that eventually Texans would figure out that coming up the Rio Grande was much smarter than crossing the dry eastern plains.
And he was right. In 1862, confederate troops from Texas invaded from the south. Unfortunately, the 750 troops Fillmore had ordered to man the fort, which was named after him, had shriveled to 500 and were headed by a commander who was a Southern sympathizer.
Fort Fillmore was easily overrun and the rebels took brief control of southern New Mexico and southern Arizona, with headquarters in nearby La Mesilla.
Although that claim didn't last long, Fort Fillmore didn't either. No trace of it remains in what is now a pecan grove just south of the intersection of Interstates 10 and 25.
That's the way Millard Fillmore's life went. Even when he did something right, circumstances developed that resulted in his actions becoming inconsequential.
Fillmore was a member of the Whig Party, which boasted many distinguished and influential political figures of the early 1800s, but he turned out to be the last Whig president.
At least three attempts have been made over the years to recognize Fillmore's unique importance to New Mexico. In the early 1970s, Dave Townsend and Peter Hendrickson, then history professors at the New Mexico State University branch in Alamogordo, began an effort to get a Millard Fillmore Day proclaimed.
Then in 1983, Phil Arkow and a group of Fillmorons prevailed on Gov. Toney Anaya to issue a proclamation calling for our state to honor President Fillmore yearly on Jan. 7. But no celebrations ever were held.
Finally, in 1997, a group of my friends decided to pick up Arkow's banner and try again. With the fine cooperation of Dan Hill in Gov. Gary Johnson's office and Joe Thompson in Lt. Gov. Walter Bradley's office, we got the original proclamation reissued and actually held a celebration.
Among those present were state GOP Chairman John Dendahl and television reporter Stuart Dyson, who was proclaimed our official librarian, entrusted with the safekeeping of all records generated on behalf of President Fillmore.
I trust he has kept them safe these past 11 years, because one never knows when another celebration will be held.

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