George Will’s latest column in Newsweek discusses President Obama’s much-disputed claim, during his just-concluded trip to Asia, that he is America’s “first Pacific President” because he was born in Hawaii and raised there and in Indonesia. Other pundits in recent days have discussed twentieth-century Chief Executives in this regard – Richard Nixon’s status as a California native, William Howard Taft’s years a century ago as governor of the Philippines, Herbert Hoover’s years as a mining engineer in Australia and China. But Will looks into the relationship of nineteenth-century Presidents to Asia.
Now, it is true that, from the very earliest days of the Republic, the nation’s leaders have had Asia in mind, long before any American territory had a Pacific coastline. George Washington was often in communication with businessmen like Robert Morris about trade with China. Thomas Jefferson took the step of acquiring the Louisiana Purchase territory from Napoleon so that the United States could one day develop ports from which ships could cross the Pacific without bothering, in those pre-Panama Canal days, with Cape Horn.

But, as Will indicates, the resident of the White House who really undertook the first sizable effort to establish America as a significant power in the Pacific was Millard Fillmore. The thirteenth President has, of course, long been a figure of fun, perhaps best known to some Americans for lending his name (with the Millard changed to Mallard) to the web-footed right-wing journalist in Bruce Tinsley’s comic strip.

But Fillmore was a man of several considerable achievements. Born, like Lincoln, in a log cabin in upstate New York, he pursued his education in country schools and law offices, and worked his way up the ladder of the legal profession in Buffalo. A few years before being elected Vice-President on the ticket headed by Gen. Zachary Taylor, he founded a college which ultimately became the State University of New York at Buffalo, now the biggest school in the biggest higher-education establishment in the nation.

(It was for this achievement, as well as his deeds as President, that Oxford University wanted to award Fillmore with an honorary doctorate of laws degree when he visited England after leaving office in 1855. But Fillmore declined the honor on the grounds that his achievements and educational attainments did not merit it. He also said that he had never learned Latin and felt that a man should not accept a degree that he could not read himself. As we all know, President Obama was quick to say his achievements to date did not merit a Nobel Peace Prize, but that’s not stopping him from receiving it next month.)

Just after Fillmore took office, California joined the Union, followed soon after by Oregon. With trade to China increasing, Fillmore decided, in 1852, that the time had come for the nation of Japan to emerge from nearly two centuries of isolation in which it had traded only with China and the Netherlands. Therefore, he directed Commodore Matthew Perry to go to that land. Perry led his group of what the Japanese called “black ships” to the city then known as Edo (now Tokyo) and there told the Japanese emperor’s representatives that the United States wished to open relations with the nation, and would not take no for an answer.

Perry then went home, and, the next year (with Franklin Pierce now in the White House), came back to Edo to hear the Japanese government’s response. The emperor agreed to open his nation to the outside world, and thus began the process that ultimately made both nations among the world’s most important commercial powers – and which ultimately led to Hawaii, our current President’s home, becoming part of the United States.

So let’s give old Millard a little credit.