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Why Americans forget Millard Fillmore

For The Madera Tribune

Former U.S. President Millard Fillmore.


Today Millard Fillmore is probably the least known of all the presidents of the United States. He was an obscure ex-congressman when he was elected to the vice presidency in 1848, and when President Zachary Taylor died in 1850, Fillmore took over and served for two and a half years. He did not run for re-election in 1852.

If he is remembered at all, Fillmore is generally regarded as just another inept president who was unable to stop the Civil War, but this view leaves out the one thing that Fillmore did that definitely changed the culture of the United States.

For centuries, the Japanese had closed off their country to the outside world, and Fillmore desired to change that. He wanted to open up trade with Japan, figuring that this would benefit the United States economy. That is why he sent Commodore Matthew Perry and a fleet of warships to Nagasaki. He decided that a show of force was necessary to accomplish his goal.

Commodore Perry sailed into Nagasaki harbor with four steam-powered warships. The Japanese called them the “Black Ships,” and at first refused permission for them to dock.

When Perry responded with a threat to bombard the harbor, Japan relented, knowing it lacked the military power to resist. When he landed, Perry delivered a letter from President Fillmore, which led to a treaty that established diplomatic and trade relations with Japan.

Then Perry opened Pandora’s box. He brought the Japanese emperor gifts that illustrated how far the technology of the West had eclipsed that of Japan. One of these was a scale model of a steam locomotive that could travel twenty miles per hour!

These revelations so shocked the Japanese that they became convinced that they had to do something. Thus, they embarked upon a crash course of modernization that in time catapulted them into the position of a worldwide economic powerhouse. They analyzed, imitated, and duplicated themselves into the 20th Century out of necessity.

Today we see the effect of Perry’s 19th Century display of American ingenuity at every level of industry and commerce. Every time we buy a product that is marked, “made in Japan” — a car, a camera, a computer — we need to pause and think of how that came to be. If we do, we will see that one forgotten president got the ball rolling, and for better or for worse, we have never been the same.

In an economic twist in time, President Millard Fillmore made his mark and spurred a latent Asian ingenuity to action. Perhaps that’s why we would like to forget him.

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