For those who love and share their lives with Cats, this is the first in an anticipated series about those Presidential Families who did likewise.
We know next to nothing about the plurality of cats that lived in the White House when Millard Fillmore was President.
What little is known comes from a snide 19th century newspaper article criticizing Fillmore’s fastidious manner and determination to keep the old mansion as clean as possible.
According the the story, during his family’s 1851 Thanksgiving Day dinner, President Fillmore wanted to be sure no food from the feast hit the floor.
Early that morning, however, he apparently heard the persistent but soft purrs of his cats, which had been closed off in the large East Room, where they apparently had their basket of blankets.
He couldn’t bear to deny his kitties their request for freedom (he was less generous towards humans held in bondage), and without telling the household staff, the President opened the door and let the cats out of the room, free to roam the state floor.
And they roamed right into the Family Dining Room and were the first Fillmores to enjoy the turkey luncheon.
The story was repeated in a mid-20th century column meant as yet another sarcastic hit on Fillmore, and the original report, in a newspaper clipping book in the Library of Congress had the date and publication snipped off.
But unlike most Presidential myths, this one has strong contextual evidence supporting it.
In March of 1867, as a former President, Millard Fillmore established the Buffalo branch of the newly-formed Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He was the leader of the local meetings, and used his prestige to initiate local ordinances calling for fines and punishments against starvation, torture and mistreatment of all animals and further publicly supported the first animal protection bill in New York State history, enacted in 1870.
Fillmore spoke of how he had come to understand the need for caring of animals:
When I was a thoughtless boy, I took the life of a mother bird. I remember my father was greatly grieved and said, ‘Millard, do you realize what you have done? You have taken the life of a mother, and have left her children to die of starvation in the nest. How would you like to have a great giant come along and kill your father and mother and leave you alone without food or care?‘
My father’s rebuke sank so deeply into my heart that since that day I never have taken the life of a living creature.”
The former President warned that getting the organization to be taken seriously would be extremely difficulty.
Becoming involved in animal protection also meant being “prepared to meet the cold indifference of the thoughtless multitude, the ridicule and scoffs of the reckless and the savage malignity of the cruel.. But it is a good cause.”
Two years later, Fillmore joined a ten-person advisory committee on drafting guidelines for statewide animal protection.
He found it “inconceivable,” he wrote the Rochester ASPCA how anyone “can stand by idly and see the cruelty and torture that is daily inflicted upon the brute creature.”
Millard Fillmore was not a great President, but he was a bit of alright as a person.
- Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, as poetry (timpanogos.wordpress.com)
- Millard Fillmore nominates the government of the Utah Territory (timpanogos.wordpress.com)
- First Family Photos on The Truman Balcony & the Myth Behind It (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Fillmore Street San Francisco: The Place to Be (ustravel.answers.com)