President #13, C-SPAN historians ranking #37
Yes, I Was President
For a job that has only had 43 different men in it, it seems to hard to believe that some people to hold the office could be as obscure as Millard Fillmore. America’s 13th President, an amiable politician from Buffalo, somehow managed to work his way up to the highest office in the land. Yet, he failed to make much an impression. For some people, he’s just a joke. He’s the namesake of a conservative cartoon duck.
However, Robert J. Scarry, a retired high school history teacher from Moravia, New York, dedicated much of his life to the rehabilitation of Fillmore’s image. He tried to chronicle all aspects of Fillmore’s life. His 2001 book, published near the time of his death, can be quite a chore to read. The book goes on and on and on about just about everything in Fillmore’s life, but doesn’t really explain much. Scarry wants us to come to respect what Fillmore accomplished. But, in the end, you don’t really learn much of anything about Fillmore.
Millard Fillmore was born on January 7, 1800 in a log cabin in Moravia, New York. He had little formal education growing up. When the War of 1812 started, young Millard wanted to serve in the Navy, but his father prevented him from signing up. Instead, Millard Fillmore was hired out as an apprentice and eventually learned the trade of wool carding.
In addition to earning some money, Fillmore received an education. It wasn’t much of one, but he managed to get a job when he was 18 as a school teacher. Such was the state of American education at the time, that a young man with little education and who could barely read or write better than the students was the teacher. Nevertheless, Fillmore worked hard at the job and also learned how to read and write better on his own.
At age 19, Fillmore met his future wife, Abigail, who was also a school teacher. Abigail was far more learned than Millard and she would help round out his education. Around the same time, Fillmore met a local judge, Walter Wood, and learned the law from him. Eventually, Fillmore moved to East Aurora where he set up a practice.
In 1826, Millard and Abigail finally married. They had two children, a son Millard Powers, and a daughter, Mary Abigail. Fillmore also began to develop political connections in the area. He moved to the biggest city in the area, Buffalo, in 1830.
In 1828, Fillmore ran for the New York State Legislature as a member of the Anti-Masonic Party. As you might guess from the name, this party was opposed to the practice of Freemasonry. This was actually a potent political force at the time. The Anti-Masonic Party is credited with being the first party to nominate a Presidential candidate by convention.
Fillmore worked his way up in notoriety in the New York legislature, becoming an expert on bankruptcy law. In 1833, Fillmore was elected to a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He eventually aligned himself with Henry Clay’s supporters, who would become the Whig Party in 1836.
When William Henry Harrison was elected President in 1840, the Whigs took control of the House. Fillmore was a candidate for Speaker, but lost the race. As a consolation prize, he was made Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Outside of one tariff bill, Fillmore did not seem to accomplish much during his time in the House. But, people seemed to like him. In 1844, he was considered for the Vice Presidential slot alongside Clay, but lost out to Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey. Frelinghuysen was serving as chancellor of NYU at the time. Frelinghuysen’s father was a Senator, his nephew and adopted son became a Senator and Secretary of State, his great-great nephew served in the House, and his great-great-great nephew currently serves in the House. Another Frelinghuysen was also a Senator from New Jersey.
Fillmore decided to run for governor of New York. However, 1844 was not a good year for the Whigs. Democrat James Polk won the Presidency and Silas Wright was elected Governor of New York. It seemed that Fillmore’s political career was over.
But, you can’t keep a good man down. Or, in this case, you can’t keep a guy who doesn’t seem to get anybody angry down. In 1847, the state of New York made the office of comptroller elected. Fillmore won that race. The job served to keep Fillmore in the public eye.
In 1848, on the heels of the Mexican War, the Whigs nominated war hero Zachary Taylor for President. Taylor was an unknown politically, but the Whigs figured that a popular candidate was better than having a three-time loser in Clay running again. Fillmore was tabbed as the running mate to bring sectional balance to the ticket. (Taylor was born in Virginia, but lived in Louisiana.)
Taylor and Fillmore beat the Democratic ticket of Lewis Cass and William Butler by a margin of 5%. Former President Martin Van Buren ran as a third party candidate for the Free Soil Party and won 10% of the vote, but no states.
Fillmore and Taylor didn’t meet each other until shortly before the Inauguration. Fillmore’s political enemies in New York, Whig party bosses Thurlow Weed and William Seward, had managed to isolate Fillmore from Taylor, and controlled the patronage for the state. Fillmore had little to do but sit around in the Senate and listen to debates.
This wasn’t a bad thing. Fillmore got the best seat in the Senate chamber for some of the greatest orations in the nation’s history. The biggest political issue of the day was an Omnibus Compromise Bill proposed by Clay to solve the problem of how to incorporate the new territories won from Mexico into the United States as either free or slave states.
The proposed compromise would:
- admit California as a free state
- create the territories of Utah and New Mexico with no prohibitions against slavery
- force Texas to accept the border that exists today between it and New Mexico
- abolish the slave trade in the District of Columbia
- strenghten the laws regarding the return of fugitive slaves
Antislavery Senators like Seward denounced the Compromise as being against a “higher law.” On March 7, 1850, Daniel Webster gave a speech in favor of the Compromise. That speech became known as the “Seventh of March Speech.”
However, some of the debate was quite heated. Fillmore wanted to be able to rule Senators out of order for using impolite speech, but the Vice President had lost this power back in 1828. Fillmore tried to get the Senate to amend its rules to restore this power to him.
On April 3, 1850, Fillmore tried to rule that Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton was out of order. Clay was furious. Words were spoken. Eventually, Mississippi Senator Henry Foote pulled a gun on Benton. Fortunately, Foote didn’t fire.
The Omnibus Bill was too big for Congress to act on before it adjourned for the summer. While Congress was away, President Taylor stayed in Washington in the summer of 1850. President Taylor contracted cholera and died on July 10, 1850. Millard Fillmore became the 13th President of the United States.
Taylor had indicated that he would veto the Compromise bill, but Fillmore was inclined to support it. However, it was still having trouble getting through Congress. Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas hit upon the idea of separating the bill into several parts and having them passed separately. This allowed different coalitions to support each bill. The plan worked. Fillmore signed into law all the parts of the Compromise of 1850.
The most controversial part of the Compromise of 1850 turned out to be the Fugitive Slave Act. The return of runaway slaves had now become a Federal matter. Slaves could be hunted down by special marshals and returned to their owners without any court hearing. The measure was bitterly opposed in some parts of the North. Fillmore believed that the Act was necessary to keep the Union intact.
For the rest of his term in office, Fillmore did not accomplish much of note. He did threaten South Carolina with force to keep that state’s governor from calling for a secession vote. (And the governor did not go to Argentina either.) Fillmore also had to send in troops to keep Texas redrawing the New Mexico border line.
There wasn’t much for Fillmore to do legislatively. Congress was too deeply divided to accomplish much of anything.
Fillmore did try his hand in foreign affairs. He sent a fleet of ships under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry to Japan in an attempt to open trade with that mysterious nation. However, the ships didn’t arrive until Fillmore’s term in office ended. Also, Fillmore managed to avoid going to war with Peru over some uninhabited islands in the Pacific that were rich in guano deposits.
In 1852, Fillmore hoped that the Whigs would renominate him. But, he couldn’t run away from the Compromise of 1850. Even though it managed to keep the Civil War at bay for 10 years, it managed to anger enough people on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line to make Fillmore’s name mud.
Fillmore hoped that his Secretary of State, Webster, would get the nomination. But, the Whigs nominated another Mexican War hero, Winfield Scott. This might have been a good thing as Webster died before the election was held anyway. Also, Webster was likely an alcoholic. But aside from being a dying alcoholic, Webster was Presidential material! Democrat Franklin Pierce won the election.
Abigail Fillmore died soon after Pierce’s inauguration. In 1854, Fillmore’s daughter Mary Abigail died at age 22 of cholera.
To get over the grief of losing his wife and daughter so soon, Fillmore went on the grand tour of Europe. While he may have appeared to have been out of politics, Fillmore was still in the game.
There was a new political movement in the country called the Know Nothings. This political party, which swore its members to secrecy about its platform (hence the name), was the Lou Dobbs Party of its time. The party opposed increased immigration into the United States for fear of losing jobs to lower paid immigrants. (And you thought this was a new issue.) The Know Nothings were also anti-Catholic, primarily because many Catholics were Irish immigrants.
The Know Nothings (officially called the American Party) nominated Fillmore for President while he was in Europe. Fillmore didn’t get back to the U.S. until June 22, 1856.
Why did Fillmore decide to join the Know Nothings. Scarry thinks that Fillmore didn’t identify closely with the Know Nothings nativist platform, but felt that they were better equipped to run the country than either the deeply divided Democratic party, or the new antislavery party, the Republicans. There was also the matter that Fillmore might have wanted to become President again because he needed the money. Ex-Presidents received no pension at this time.
One of the paradoxes of Fillmore running as a Know Nothing was that he started out as an Anti-Mason. So his political career began with him being opposed to secret societies. And being opposed to anti-Catholic groups. And as a Know Nothing, Fillmore had to join a secret organization and become anti-Catholic.
Fillmore finished third in the 1856 election with 21.7% of the vote and eight electoral votes from Maryland. Fillmore realized that he was through as a politician.
He remarried in 1858 and spent the rest of his retirement acting like a former President with very little to do. Fillmore gave speeches. He took vacations. Sometimes people would ask him his opinion on important matters.
Right before Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, the United States was going to have its greatest glut of former Presidents living. Van Buren, John Tyler, Fillmore, Pierce, and James Buchanan were all still alive when Lincoln was inaugurated. There was talk of asking the five former Presidents to come up with some plan to save the union, but Lincoln wasn’t interested. Also, it’s doubtful that those five men could have agreed on anything. It probably didn’t help that Tyler had been elected to the Confederate Congress either.
Millard Fillmore passed away at his home in Buffalo on March 8, 1874. It was a big event in Buffalo, but not much of a news event in the rest of the country.
In Scarry’s book, many, many, many words are written to try to convince you that Millard Fillmore is worthy of greater respect. But I don’t buy it. Fillmore’s greatest trait was his honesty. However, he didn’t seem to have enough backbone to go with his honesty. Millard Fillmore was a guy who seemed to get ahead in life by keeping his nose clean and not causing trouble. But, like a President who would be in office over 130 years later, Fillmore didn’t have “the vision thing.”
After about 350 pages (I skipped some parts where the author just reprinted the full text of some rather uninteresting letters) about Millard Fillmore, I can only think that Millard Fillmore’s principal accomplishment as President was just showing up for work.
Other stuff: The Millard and Abigail Fillmore House and Museum is in East Aurora, New York. A replica of the log cabin where Fillmore was born is part of Fillmore Glen State ParkForest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo. The University of Buffalo’s school for distance learning and adult education is named for Millard Fillmore, one of the school’s founders.
H.L. Mencken, as a gag, wrote that Millard Fillmore installed the first bath tub in the White House. This was not the case, although the story has been perpetuated until this day. Scarry spends a couple pages on the story and determines that it was likely James Madison who installed the first bath tub. Hot and cold running water took longer to install. I am trying to contemplate Thomas Jefferson spending eight years in Washington without a bath. Good thing he was single at the time.
Millard Fillmore’s father, Nathaniel, lived to be 91, which was the oldest age of any Presidential father to date. John Adams had held the record by living to be 90. George H.W. Bush is the only person alive now with a chance to break the record.