“Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President” by Robert J. Rayback Review

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Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President

Author: Robert J. Rayback

Release Date: 1959

At times, reading Robert Rayback’s biography on Millard Fillmore felt like Déjà vu all over again, and not just because it’s the thirteenth presidential biography I’ve read in the last 18 months. I should have expected similarities after the numerous recurring themes between William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, but sure enough the John Tyler/Millard Fillmore comparisons are too apparent to ignore. Both Tyler and Fillmore were elected Vice Presidents for the Whig party under two older war hero Generals; both elections featured vague promises and unclear politics to try to catch as many Whig votes across the country as possible. Both took office shortly into their President’s first term as illness took their predecessor. Both were then turned on by their party, with neither man even representing the Whigs in the follow-up election. Both men were part of the string of presidents that attempted to preserve the union through compromise rather than confronting the sectional issues head on.

So considering all that, why did I not really care for Fillmore afterward while Tyler was absolutely one of my favorite presidents to read about? It boiled down to two reasons, Fillmore’s home state and Tyler’s convictions. Whereas Tyler was a southern man, his compromises appeared better in an historical light as they showed an understanding for the Northern goal of halting the expansion of slavery. Fillmore’s New York origin naturally meant that his compromises look much worse historically, as he embraced the Fugitive Slave act much more heartily than any other President. Despite being a New Yorker, it was only the Southern Whigs that continued to support him after his term. More intrinsically, Tyler stayed true to his own convictions even when they were completely opposed to Clay’s Whig party platforms. Fillmore was much more willing to bend his convictions to reach compromises and would even wait to see which way the wind was blowing (figuratively speaking) before making a decision.

Here’s how he scores up on my presidential ratings rubric:

Born into – Fillmore scores well here, as his father was a farmer who got duped by the land giveaways for veterans scheme in New York (those that fought in the Revolutionary War had opportunities to be compensated with farm land; in this case not particularly fertile or easy to sell farm land). Fillmore was the oldest son (a common theme with our highest office thus far) and his education was unexceptional. In addition to farming, Fillmore learned how to work in a mill before apprenticing as a clerk for an attorney; this was a great opportunity for him however he ended up quitting due to feeling taken advantage of by the man who offered him this position. Fillmore took a job for $3 using the skills he had picked up, his boss found out and chastised him for it. He caught his big break when he got another Clerk job and was admitted to practice law 27 months after starting, something that usually required seven years of education. 4/5

Pre-President – After Fillmore was an attorney, he went to a small town to be the only attorney rather than work with partners in bigger area. He became an important figure locally as a result. Drawn into politics by the Anti-Mason saga, he ended up becoming part of the Anti-Mason party following Jackson/Adams election (Fillmore supported loser eventual Adams). Taking advantage of his local statute, he was elected to the New York legislature.

Fillmore was quiet first year in legislature, still learning the ropes. After his reelection, he became much more vocal. His most impressive accomplishment in the entire biography was probably the creation of the first bankruptcy laws in the United States. In order to get it passed, he offered it as non-party legislation so Democrats would vote and take credit for it instead of its creators (the Anti-Masons).

After this success, he moved to Buffalo, where he was heavily involved in organizations and local affairs. His involvement directly created the Fire Fighting system that was in effect at least 70 years after its formation. Fillmore began his own law firm eventually employing future politicians Solomon Haven and Nathan Hall, and eventually Grover Cleveland as a law clerk. Haven and Hall were also prolific, in that one of them helped make Buffalo the first publicly funded free school system in America.

Once elected to the national Congress, Fillmore focused on creating a new national party because anti-masons were not succeeding at the national level. Fillmore’s first choice was having Supreme Court Justice John McLean head the ticket as a presidential candidate. Once the Whig Party was formed, Fillmore switched to it and immediately and the party immediately became more successful than Anti-Mason party ever was. Fillmore was instrumental in organizing the New York Whigs, however it is not a stretch to say they were the most divided group of Whigs in the country. As the Head of Ways and Means Committee, Fillmore’s biggest victory was the Tariff of 1842 that placed President Tyler in a no-win situation and contributed to his fall from grace in the Whig party. Fillmore lost interest in Congress however and retired to return to Buffalo.

At the state level, he shortly thereafter nominated for Governor against his will (he had made a promise to endorse John Collier, and did not want to go back on this). However, Thurlow Weed (the closest thing a biography can have to a villain) didn’t want Fillmore to be Vice President and arranged for support for Fillmore’s gubernatorial run to discourage a run for the national office. Fillmore lost his run for Governor and spent a few years as retired. Two years later he ran for comptroller at party’s urging and won in a landslide, moving his family to Albany. There he started newspapers to help the Whig party, including one in German for immigrants and was repayed by John Collier when Collier recommended him for Vice President to the New York assembly. The author noted this was alleged to be a scam by colleagues, and I certainly picked up on some Clay/J.Q. Adams underhandedness. Weed also managed to get Fillmore to support his guy William Seward for governor over Collier, which of course led to Fillmore’s lack of power over Federal patronage in New York and later difficulties as President. 3/5

Presidential Career – Fillmore didn’t get off to a good start, as he needed to build a cabinet from scratch in a short period while the south was threatening to secede prior due to the national question of how to address slavery in the western territories of Utah, New Mexico and California. Fillmore would have been the tiebreaking vote on Compromise of 1850, and while his personal beliefs made him want to support compromise, political aspirations had him wanting to support Taylor. He told Taylor he would support beliefs but ultimately the situation changed and vote never came to pass.

By name recognition, Fillmore created an impressive cabinet, let by Daniel Webster, John Crittenden, and Nathan Hall. As President, Fillmore’s focus was more on preserving the union than being anti-slavery, which turned off many in his party. Fillmore followed the lead of Congress in breaking the agreement up into several sections to make it more palatable to all. In particular, the federal government assuming Texas’s state debt was a novel solution to getting support from a state on that issue. As previously mentioned, Fillmore’s zeal for enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law is a tarnish on his legacy, taking it further than any other president including a well publicized case in Boston. Domestically, Fillmore was also the first president to subsidize railroad.

On the international side, Fillmore laid the groundwork for opening trade with Japan a few years later, however this was more a function of Japan being ready to open its borders than any shrewd execution on America’s part. The other notoriety was an international incident when Webster gave permission to private citizens to go get Guano from South America with the promise of Naval support if things went haywire; the citizens had no claim to the Guano and Fillmore had to come up with compromise of paying back involved parties by government to make avoid hostilities. Fillmore also had opportunities to add definitely add Hawaii and probably add Cuba to U.S., but chose against both as he was anti-expansionist/anti-conflict.

Per Rayback, Fillmore never intended to run for reelection; he had decided early on to not seek reelection but ended up being roped into it got elected because he was talked out of formally withdrawing and made vague statement about accepting will of people who then nominated him. I don’t buy it as Fillmore would run for president again a few years later, and his shrewdness in the Governor/V.P hustle with Collier earlier shows he valued the appearance of not wanting to appear he was seeking office but doing it for “the will of the people.”

Fillmore ended up defeated as nominee by Winfield Scott for reelection, which was considered by Rayback to be death the of Whig party; Scott lost 27 states to 4 but Pierce only got 56% of vote. Southern Whigs supported Fillmore but New Englanders preferred Webster and everybody else wanted Scott. Fillmore’s last attempted act as president was to address the slave issue. He believed shipping blacks to Africa at 100K per year was best solution as it would keep population levels manageable and additional workers could be replaced by Asians. He was talked out of it, so only us real history nerds got to hear his thoughts on it. 1.5/5

Vice President – Like Tyler, it doesn’t seem Fillmore had a Vice President. 0/5

First Lady – Abigail Powers was two years older than Fillmore, and the daughter of a reverend. They were married several years after meeting, once Fillmore was successful enough to propose marriage. She had two children with Millard, Millard Powers and Mary Abigail. By the time Fillmore was president, she was not in great health and Mary Abigail tended to many of the first lady duties. During Franklin Pierce’s inauguration, Abigail Powers got a flu and died shortly afterward. Fillmore’s daughter died shortly thereafter. 1.5/5

Post Presidency – It was a sad time after Abigail’s death. Whigs splintered into Republican (those that were Anti- Kansas/Nebraska act) party and No Nothing Party ( or “American” party, founded on an anti- Catholic and anti-immigrant.stance). Fillmore was concerned about political parties becoming entirely sectional and decided to throw in with the No-Nothing party which allowed him the best option for success after Whigs were no longer effective. He threw his name in for a presidential candidate option, and even seemed to agree that Immigrants were problem and should not be allowed to hold office. Fillmore then traveled the country for several months and Europe for a year to allow others to law groundwork for his nomination.

Alas, it was all for naught as Fillmore then lost convincingly to Buchanan (and actually finished in 3rd place overall) which ended his political career. Fillmore’s post political life included remarrying. This time, a very wealthy widow who actually had enough money that Fillmore took a $10,000 income a year to manage her finances while they were married. He also took part in nearly every new organization in Buffalo, including the Y.M.A., Library, Humane Society, Center for Arts and everything else you can think of. He even served as the first Chancellor of Buffalo University, although more in an honorary capacity.

When the Civil War began, Fillmore was on board supporting the North. He began an organization called the Union Continentals which was made up of older gentlemen former soldiers. The group helped raise morale and enlistments in the area and was in effect for a few years. Unfortunately, Fillmore’s lasting legacy on the Civil War is a speech he made at a community event in 1864, criticizing Lincoln and the refusal to make concessions for the their southern brothers. Rayback argues that this speech was a significant reason why historians have been so unkind to Fillmore. 2/5

Book itself – In the preface, the author discusses how he originally set out to write a history of the Whig party, which ascended with Fillmore (as he switched from Anti-Mason to Whig) and died with his loss for reelection. This was an interesting period in history that often gets overlooked, but Fillmore himself doesn’t appear to deserve much additional scholarship as his lasting legacy was as one of several who did nothing to solve the major issues facing the country. The book did not spend enough time on his personal life for my taste, and also glossed over several important political times such as Fillmore’s first run for national the House of Representatives. Many authors on these biographies do all they can do to make their subject likeable it’s much rarer that the author can make somebody interesting, likeable and understandable. While I understood many of Fillmore’s decisions, I never cared for the man or found this to be much of a page turner. 2.5/5

3-star

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