Fillmore returned to private life, unsure what he would do for a living. His friend, Judge Nathan Hall, assured him that it would be proper for him to practice law in the higher courts of New York. However his wife Abigail caught a cold at President Pierce's inauguration, developed pneumonia, and died in Washington on March 30, 1853. His grief was compounded when on July 26, 1854, his only daughter Mary died of cholera.
The following year, Fillmore decided to travel to Europe. There was a political motive for the tour. He had received some advice from his political friends, who felt that by touring, he would avoid involvement in the contentious issues of the day. (This was a strategy that would be successfully utilized by James Buchanan in winning his party's nomination in 1856). Fillmore was away from the United States for over a year, leaving on May 17, 1855 (aboard the steamship Atlantic) and returning home in June of 1856. He traveled to Europe and to the Middle East.
One of the stories most often told about Fillmore's trio is his meeting with Queen Victoria. It has been written that the Queen later described Fillmore as the handsomest man she had ever seen. Fillmore had a private audience with the Queen on June 12, 1855 at 3 PM. Lord Clarendon of the British Foreign office presented Fillmore to the Queen. On the evening of June 14, Fillmore attended a state dinner with the Queen. Also present were James Buchanan (who was then the US Minister or Ambassador to Great Britain), Buchanan's niece Harriet Lane, the Princess of Hohenlohe, and the Duchess of Kent. The Coldstream Guard band performed at the dinner. Then on June 20th, Fillmore was among the guests invited to a concert of classical music performed in the Salon at Buckingham Palace. This was followed by a dinner for 400 invited guests in the state dining room. Also present and attending the dinner at the same time was another former President, Martin Van Buren, who was also visiting Europe. That evening Fillmore later attended a diplomatic circle with the Queen, Buchanan, Prince Albert, the Duke of Wellington and others. He is described as attending in court dress consisting of a sword, a cocked hat, knee breeches, and silver buckled shoes.
Fillmore and Van Buren were both present in the gallery of the House of Commons at the same time. The presence of the two ex-presidents merited a comment from John Bright, a Member of Parliament. While in London, Fillmore was offered an honorary Doctor of Civil Law (D.C.L.) degree by the University of Oxford. Fillmore turned down the honor. He said that because he had neither the "literary nor scientific attainment" to justify the degree, he didn't think he had earned it and did not feel right in accepting it. He also said that he "lacked the benefit of a classical education" and could not understand the Latin text of the diploma. "No man should accept a degree he cannot read" said Fillmore.
Fillmore stayed at the Fenton and George Peabody Hotels in London. He visited Windsor Castle, Westminster Abbey and he dined at the Star and Garter at Richmond Hill. He was given a tour of the Bank of England by the bank's governor, who encouraged Fillmore to "heft a million pounds" sterling. On July 4th he attended a gathering of Americans living in London at the Willis Rooms in London, hosted by George Peabody.
Prior to Fillmore's arrival, Dorothea Dix had arrived in London. She was lobbying to improve conditions for the mentally ill in the United States and she was successful in lobbying to have a bill passed for such improvements, only to have it vetoed by President Franklin Pierce. Dix and Fillmore met several times while Fillmore was in Europe and they continued to correspond afterward.
Fillmore crossed the English Channel in August of 1855 and visited Paris, where he met with Napoleon III. While in Paris, Fillmore dug into his own pocket to contribute funds for the release of jailed journalist (and future Presidential candidate) Horace Greeley, who was being held for non-payment of debts. Greeley was not grateful, as he still resented Fillmore's support of the Fugitive Slave Act.
From France, Fillmore traveled to Brussels, Cologne, Berne, Geneva, Regensburg, Vienna, Prague, Magdeburg, Berlin, before returning to Paris in October. He later traveled to Munich, Berlin again, Hamburg, Hanover, Bremen, Dusseldorf, Dresden, Antwerp, Vienna and the Hague.
In Rome, Fillmore had an audience with Pope Pius IX, but not before Fillmore carefully considered the political advantages and disadvantages of meeting with Pius. He almost cancelled the meeting when he learned that he would have to kneel and kiss the pope's hand. To avoid this, a compromise was worked out in which the Pontiff remained seated throughout the meeting.
Fillmore also traveled to Naples before going on to Egypt, Jerusalem and Constantinople. He returned to Rome, before going to Florence, Bologna, and Venice. By May of 1856 he was back in Paris. By this time he had learned that he would be a candidate for president in the election of 1856 and it was from Paris that he sent his letter of acceptance. He sailed for home from Liverpool on June 11, 1856, and arrived in New York on Sunday, June 29.
While he was away, Fillmore's political allies managed to gain control of the American Party (better known as the "Know Nothing Party"). They arranged for him to get that party's presidential nomination while he was in Europe. The Know Nothing convention chose Andrew Jackson Donelson of Kentucky as their candidate for Vice-President. He was the nephew by marriage and onetime ward of his namesake Andrew Jackson. Fillmore returned home from Europe in June 1856. He received a huge reception in New York City and he gave a number of speeches on his way home to Buffalo. Although Presidential candidates did not campaign in those days, Fillmore used these occasions to warn his audiences that electing the Republican candidate, former California senator John C. Frémont, would divide the Union and lead to civil war. Both Fillmore and the Democratic candidate, former Pennsylvania senator James Buchanan, agreed that slavery was principally a matter for state and not federal government. Fillmore finished third in the election, winning 873,053 votes (21.6%) and carrying the state of Maryland and its 8 electoral votes. He would prove correct in his prediction that electing an anti-slavery Republican would lead to Civil War.
Fillmore's travels are the subject of part of a humorous and farcical work of fiction (told is a style much like that of Douglas Adams in his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy.) The book is by George Pendle and is called The Remarkable Millard Fillmore: The Remarkable Life of a Forgotten President. A review of the book published in this community can be found here.