Millard Fillmore : The American Presidents Series- The 13th President, 1850-1853
The oddly named president whose shortsightedness and stubbornness fractured the nation and sowed the seeds of civil war
In the summer of 1850, America was at a terrible crossroads. Congress was in an uproar over slavery, and it was not clear if a compromise could be found. In the midst of the debate, President Zachary Taylor suddenly took ill and died. The presidency, and the crisis, now fell to the little-known vice president from upstate New York.
In this eye-opening biography, the legal scholar and historian Paul Finkelman reveals how Millard Fillmore's response to the crisis he inherited set the country on a dangerous path that led to the Civil War. He shows how Fillmore stubbornly catered to the South, alienating his fellow Northerners and creating a fatal rift in the Whig Party, which would soon disappear from American politics--as would Fillmore himself, after failing to regain the White House under the banner of the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic "Know Nothing" Party.
Though Fillmore did have an eye toward the future, dispatching Commodore Matthew Perry on the famous voyage that opened Japan to the West and on the central issues of the age--immigration, religious toleration, and most of all slavery--his myopic vision led to the destruction of his presidency, his party, and ultimately, the Union itself.
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May 10, 2011
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Excerpt from Millard Fillmore by Paul Finkelman
The president's death caught the nation by surprise. At sixty-five Zachary Taylor had been one of the oldest men elected to the office, but he was strong and hardy. A lifelong soldier, he had led armies and endured combat in snowy Midwest forests, steamy Florida swamps, and, most recently, in ovenlike Southwestern deserts. Taylor had fought the British, the Mexicans, and numerous Indian nations. "Old Rough and Ready," as his troops affectionately called him, was a tough soldier. Who would have imagined that just sixteen months into his term he would die from gastroenteritis--a massive stomachache* There were rumors that Taylor had been poisoned, and in the most literal sense that was probably true. The gastroenteritis may have killed him, but it is just as likely the hero of the Mexican War died from the treatment of his physicians in the age of "heroic medicine." His doctors bled him, put blisters on him, and gave him massive doses of calomel, a mercury compound that is indeed poisonous. Either way, the end result was the death of a popular and tough president on July 9, 1850. For the second time in the nation's history, an "accidental president" would take the oath of office.1
Taylor's presidency and death were weirdly similar to the only other president who had died in office, William Henry Harrison, who had served for just one month in 1841. Popular generals and war heroes, both were well past sixty when they were elected. Both were Whigs--the only candidates of that party ever to have been elected to the presidency. Both were southern-born slave owners, although Harrison had relocated to Ohio as a relatively young man.2 However, the background and stature of the men who replaced each deceased president were completely dissimilar. John Tyler, Harrison's vice president, who became the first accidental president, was a significant figure. His wealthy father had been governor of Virginia. After graduating from the College of William and Mary, Tyler began his long prepresidential career at age twenty-one when he was elected to the state legislature. He later served as a congressman, governor, and U.S. senator, and he was elected president pro tempore of the Senate. When he was offered the vice presidential nomination in 1840, he was nationally prominent.
Millard Fillmore, who became president after Taylor's death, was inexperienced and virtually unknown when he was nominated for vice president at the 1848 Whig convention. He was born in poverty in central New York, poorly schooled as a child, and largely self-educated after that. He achieved a comfortable middle-class status and struggled to fit in with men who were better educated, culturally more sophisticated, and more socially adept than he. Moving to Buffalo, he practiced law and entered politics at age twenty-eight, serving three terms in the state legislature and later four terms in Congress. He was an unsuccessful candidate for governor of New York in 1844, but in 1847 he was elected state comptroller--an important but hardly a major office. A year later, this obscure politician was nominated to run for vice president alongside General Taylor.
Fillmore's presidency would be much like Tyler's. He is remembered as a thoroughly unsuccessful president who catered to the South at the expense of the North and energetically favored slavery over liberty. He alienated the party that nominated him for the vice presidency and, in the end, abandoned his party. The second accidental president, like the first, was a failure. Tyler left office rejected by his party. The same is true for Fillmore, except he also left office vilified in much of his home state and region. The final political ventures of both accidental presidents added no luster to their memory. Tyler's political career ended disgracefully. A man who had taken an oath "to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States"3 turned traitor, accepted a position in the Confederate government, and helped make war on the nation he once led. Fillmore's career did not end in treason, but it is hardly praiseworthy. Desperate to regain the presidency, in 1856 he ran as the candidate of the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic American Party--better known as the Know-Nothings. His campaign as the candidate of ethnic and religious bigotry ended in abysmal failure; he carried only one state, Maryland, which ironically had been founded in the seventeenth century as a haven for Catholics.
After his defeat as the Know-Nothing presidential candidate, Fillmore devoted his life to charity, local public service, and personal comfort, and until the Civil War he kept out of politics. Following the death of his first wife, he remarried a wealthy widow, and he spent the last eighteen years of his life basking in the glow of being a former president. To his credit, he supported the Union cause at the beginning of the Civil War, raised some money for war relief, and even organized a unit of aging men to serve as a more or less symbolic home guard. But the former president failed to follow most of his Whig contemporaries into the Republican Party. In 1864 he backed the Democratic candidate, George B. McClellan, once again supporting appeasement of the South and slavery. Like McClellan, Fillmore opposed emancipation, the enlistment of black troops, and expanding racial equality. Out of step with his neighbors, his former Whig allies, and the North, he became politically irrelevant. After the Civil War, he engaged in civic enterprises and boosterism for his adopted home of Buffalo, New York, where he died in 1874, forgotten by most of the nation and remembered, if at all, for his odd first name and his failed presidency.
Yet for a short moment, from July 1850 until March 1853, Millard Fillmore sat in the White House, at the center of American politics. His term coincided with one of the great crises of American history, and his leadership, or lack thereof, did little to either solve the nation's problems or reduce its tensions. Indeed, his presidency exacerbated both.
The first son of Nathaniel and Phoebe Fillmore, the future president was born on January 7, 1800, on an isolated farm at the southern end of Cayuga County, New York, west of present-day Syracuse.4 His unusual first name was his mother's maiden name, a common practice among New Englanders, which the Fillmores had been until 1799, when they gave up farming the rocky soil of Vermont in the belief that central New York offered better land and more opportunity. Their faith was misplaced. The soil was poor, the winters were harsh, and they lost the land they purchased because of an inadequate survey and uncertain titles. The Fillmores then rented a farm in the nearby village of Sempronius, on Lake Skaneateles, about twenty-five miles from Auburn, where Fillmore's chief rival in New York politics, William H. Seward, would begin his career. Renting, rather than owning, land was a huge decline in social status for the Fillmores in a community where independence and self-respect were tied to land ownership.
It was in Sempronius that Millard learned to farm and gained a rudimentary education in the local elementary school. Nathaniel Fillmore, hoping for a better future for his son, apprenticed Millard to learn the trade of wool carding and cloth dressing. Over the next four years, Millard worked as an apprentice in a textile mill, where he also did some bookkeeping. At seventeen Millard paid to join a new private library and began reading voraciously. In 1819, with the mill temporarily closed (perhaps from the fallout of the financial panic that year), Millard enrolled in a recently opened local academy, where he was introduced to new fields of knowledge. He also met his future wife Abigail Powers, a teacher in the school. She was two years his senior, the daughter of a deceased Baptist minister and the sister of a local judge. Abigail was well read and as sophisticated as one could become at the time in a tiny town in rural central New York. At about this time Nathaniel Fillmore persuaded a county judge, Walter Wood, to take in Millard as a law clerk. Two months into his legal education the mill reopened.
Throughout this period Fillmore was legally still apprenticed to the mill, so he was technically required to return to the textile factory. Judge Wood wanted Fillmore to remain, lending him money and promising some paid work if he would stay. Fillmore continued to live at home, taught school, used his earnings to buy his way out of his apprenticeship at the mill, and returned to Judge Wood. However, reading the law and clerking under the autocratic judge soon became unbearable, while the pittance Wood paid him left Fillmore impoverished. About eighteen months after he returned to read the law under Wood, Fillmore accepted a few dollars to represent someone in a case before a justice of the peace. Fillmore needed the extra money, and by successfully negotiating a settlement before the case was heard, he hoped Judge Wood would not find out what he had done. Although admission to the bar was not required to practice law before a justice of the peace, it was clearly inappropriate for a law clerk to freelance in this way without the permission of the lawyer for whom he worked. Wood soon discovered this insubordination and properly reprimanded his clerk. The headstrong young Fillmore stormed off and returned to his father's farm. Shortly after, the entire Fillmore family moved to East Aurora, near Buffalo. Millard taught school again and argued a few more justice of the peace cases. Six feet tall, strikingly handsome, and ambitious for a better life, Millard Fillmore turned twenty-one with few prospects. He and Abigail announced their engagement, but she remained with her mother, teaching school in Cayuga County.
Fillmore, now of legal majority and emancipated from his father, was free to strike out on his own. He moved to Buffalo, where he once again taught school and found an attorney under whom he could read the law. He was meticulously dressed, well spoken, and clearly smart. He was orthodox in his thinking and circumspect in his politics. If he had any ideals, no one knew what they were, but he was generally cautious, conservative, serious, studious, and hardworking. In his first year clerking in Buffalo, Fillmore so impressed members of the local bar that they secured his early admission, allowing him to practice at the age of twenty-three.
Fillmore rejected offers to join existing Buffalo practices and returned to East Aurora, where he was the only attorney in town. His small-town legal work--wills, real estate, debt collection--allowed him to earn a decent living and teach himself how to practice law. It was a curious choice, since he would have learned more quickly if he had stayed on as a junior attorney in Buffalo, where he had read law. But after years of apprenticeships and being under the thumb of older men, the young lawyer must have relished being his own boss, especially in a town where there were no competing attorneys. Late in life, Fillmore would explain that he chose this route because he lacked the self-confidence to practice in Buffalo.
This insecurity reflected his impoverished youth, poor education, and the status decline of his family when they lost their land. He was a poor boy from the sticks. His father was an unsuccessful farmer. He had only a year or two of formal education beyond the rudimentary elementary schools of Cayuga County. He was well read and always striving to appear better read, but his education lacked any intellectual rigor. Throughout his life he was a consumer of books so that he could constantly educate himself. He was always impeccably dressed--perhaps the sign of a pretender trying to convince those around him that he actually belonged in polite society. He was, and always would be, cautious and conservative in his demeanor and style. Even in his personal life he must have been plagued by insecurities. It is true that he was a very handsome young man, but he was in love with a beautiful woman who came from a prominent, well-educated, and comparatively sophisticated family. He was the son of a dirt farmer, a self-educated factory apprentice who had somehow become a lawyer.
In many ways Fillmore's life mirrors that of the other famous frontier president of this period, Abraham Lincoln. Both were from poor farm families, were largely self-educated, and became successful lawyers. But their differences and their ideological developments are more important than their similarities. As a boy Fillmore attended local public schools while working on the farm and found time to gain more education while apprenticed at the mill. His father wanted him to succeed, supported his educational strivings, found him his first law clerkship, and encouraged him all along the way. Fillmore had a loving and apparently emotionally comfortable home with two supportive parents. It was a home he could return to throughout his youth and young adulthood, even after he was admitted to the bar. In contrast, Lincoln's mother died when he was a child, and he had to struggle against a tyrannical father to gain an education. Growing up in rural Kentucky and Indiana, he had virtually no formal schooling, and his father discouraged him from getting any. Lincoln's father thought reading was a waste of time and a sign of laziness. While Fillmore returned home after being admitted to the bar, Lincoln could not wait to leave home at age twenty-one, and once gone he never looked back.
The relationship of both men to politics is also revealing. Lincoln--a "little engine of ambition," as his law partner William Herndon called him--was always engaged in politics. He ran for public office before he married, secured a profession, or had a steady income. He became a lawyer after he was elected to office, and while his legal career made him economically comfortable, politics motivated him. Fillmore's approach to law and politics--and to life itself--was more plodding. He came to politics opportunistically, almost by accident, rather than by design. He might have happily remained a successful lawyer and civic leader in Buffalo. Lincoln hungered for more.
Equally intriguing is the contrast in their striving for social success and acceptability. The well-dressed Fillmore was perpetually conscious of his manners and public persona. He was a parvenu who seemed always worried that someone might discover he did not belong in proper society. He changed churches as he became more successful and moved to bigger and better houses. Outward appearances truly mattered to him. Lincoln was a rawboned frontier lawyer and politician. Until he ran for president, he showed little interest in his clothing or his appearance. Ambitious as he was, he did not pretend to be pious and was never a churchgoer. Lincoln was famous for his sense of humor and his ribald jokes. It is impossible to imagine the dour Fillmore telling a joke, much less an off-color one.
Both men were Whigs, and both were devoted to the Union and the Constitution. But Fillmore was drawn to oddball political movements, conspiracy theories, and ethnic hatred. Whether opportunistically or out of conviction, Fillmore launched his political career as an Anti-Mason in the 1820s. When the Anti-Masonic movement ran its course, he became a traditional Whig but easily trafficked with anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant groups. Significantly, Fillmore's rivals in the New York Whig Party, William H. Seward and Thurlow Weed, opposed any bargain with the nativists because it would simultaneously "weaken the party's integrity and alienate immigrants."5 Fillmore was always comfortable with nativists and utterly oblivious to the concerns of immigrants and religious minorities, just as he had no concern for the plight of fugitive slaves or the rights of free blacks. As president, he would push for ratification of a treaty with Switzerland that discriminated against Jewish Americans, and in 1856 he would try to relaunch his career as the presidential candidate of the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party. Lincoln, by contrast, was happy to have the Know-Nothings' support and welcomed them into the Republican Party, but he never supported their anti-immigrant or anti-Catholic goals and never offered them any support. As he told Joshua Speed, "I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be* How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people*" As a politician in Illinois, he worked closely with Germans, like Gustav Koerner, and praised them while campaigning.6 Indeed, as president, Lincoln was careful to seek out ethnic generals and advisers, and he famously countermanded General Ulysses S. Grant's ill-considered General Order No. 11, which had banned Jews from his military district.7 Lincoln appeared incapable of judging a man by his faith or ethnicity. Fillmore never had such scruples.
The most important contrast between the two concerns how work and servitude as young men affected their views as adults. By age eighteen, Lincoln was ready to strike out on his own, to earn his own living and continue on his lifelong course of reading and self-education. Under the law, he could not leave home until he turned twenty-one without his father's permission, which Thomas Lincoln would not grant. Lincoln always saw these last years of his legal "childhood" as a kind of indentured servitude that mirrored the bondage of black slaves, which he saw on his famous rafting trip down the Mississippi. At twenty-one the emancipated Lincoln permanently left his father's house. Lincoln's profound antipathy to slavery--he would famously write, "if slavery is not wrong then nothing is wrong"8--stemmed in part from his own experience in a kind of temporary bondage from which there was no escape until he came of age. In sharp contrast, Fillmore strongly supported the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which was designed to prevent slaves from gaining their own liberty, even when, through their own ingenuity, they managed the arduous task of escaping to the North.
Slavery would be the central issue in the political lives of both men, but their responses were dramatically different. In the end, Fillmore was prepared to give the South whatever it wanted to protect slavery, at whatever cost. Lincoln, who never compromised on stopping the spread of slavery before his presidency and never compromised on ending slavery after 1863, was always willing to negotiate with the South, but he never backed away from his core principles. Lincoln never deviated from his "oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free."9 Fillmore had no such wish.
As a young lawyer in East Aurora, Fillmore built a respectable practice, purchased and read all the law books he could find (to overcome his lack of a full legal apprenticeship), and, most important, reunited with Abigail. He had left Cayuga County on foot with few prospects, but he returned by carriage, an impeccably dressed, tall, handsome young lawyer, who appeared to be on the cusp of a successful career. In February 1826 Abigail and Millard were married by an Episcopal priest, a social step up from his moderate Methodist background and the Baptist tradition of Abigail's late father. For Fillmore, a young man on the make, his new social status required a more elite church. The newlyweds returned to East Aurora, where Abigail continued to teach for two years. This made her the only first lady before the twentieth century to have worked outside the home after her marriage.10 Her employment after marriage also suggests that while Fillmore was rising in his profession, he was hardly economically secure at this time.
Shortly after his marriage, Fillmore took in his first law clerk, Nathan K. Hall. This signaled not only his emerging economic success--he could afford to hire someone to work in his office--but also his professional accomplishment. Fillmore now felt secure enough as a lawyer to train others for the profession. Bringing in Hall also indicated that Fillmore had enough work to need the assistance of an apprentice. By 1831 Hall would become his law partner and would remain Fillmore's confidant and ally for the rest of their lives.
In 1824 Fillmore had supported John Quincy Adams in the presidential election, but otherwise he was far too busy with his legal career to be involved with politics. This changed with the emergence of the Anti-Masonic Party in 1827, an odd and short-lived political movement that was mostly part of a larger scheme to help defeat Andrew Jackson, who had lost to Adams in 1824 but was running against him in 1828. The movement was initially centered in western New York and was particularly strong in rural Erie County, where Fillmore lived. The party developed in response to the disappearance of William Morgan, a local stonemason who was said to have been murdered by members of the Masonic Order because he was going to reveal the organization's secrets. The reaction to Morgan's disappearance fueled resentment of this secret order, and this played into the hands of supporters of John Quincy Adams and opponents of the emerging Democratic Party in New York State (many of whose leaders were Masons) and their hero Andrew Jackson (who was also a Mason). As passions grew, Fillmore was drawn to the movement against this alleged giant Masonic conspiracy.
In many ways, Fillmore's attraction to Anti-Masonry is consistent with his later associations with the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic North American Party in the 1840s and the Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s and his deep hostility to abolitionists during the same period. Fillmore saw conspiracies, or at least dangers to the body politic and the American Union, as he envisioned it, from outsiders--Catholics, immigrants, abolitionists who questioned the status quo, or fugitive slaves who rejected the conditions of their birth. Fear of a secret society like the Masons fit into this worldview and dovetailed with Fillmore's conservative, rural, Protestant background. However, in other ways Fillmore's interests and goals were unlike those of the core of the Anti-Masonic Party. Most Anti-Masons were egalitarian, objecting to the exclusiveness of a secret society, but Fillmore was always striving to be included among the better classes. Many Anti-Masons, including William H. Seward in New York and Thaddeus Stevens in Pennsylvania, would later emerge as staunch opponents of slavery. The moralistic, reformist element of Anti-Masonry would reemerge as "the antislavery 'Conscience' wing" of the Whig Party.11 These Conscience Whigs would eventually become the core of the Republican Party. But Fillmore was not moralistic in this way. He would never be outraged by slavery and would never lift a finger in opposition to its spread. His affiliation with the Anti-Masons was not, in the end, about moral reform. Rather, it appears that for Fillmore the Anti-Masonic movement was a comfortable vehicle to move into politics.12
Drawn into the Anti-Masonic movement and deeply opposed to the Jacksonian Democrats in Albany and Washington, Fillmore became a natural leader in East Aurora. In quick order he was chosen as a delegate to Erie County's National Republican Convention (the National Republicans were the forerunners of the Whigs), which endorsed John Quincy Adams for another term as president, and then in July 1828 he was a delegate at two separate Anti-Masonic conventions. The young lawyer discovered that he liked the political negotiations, and in September he was nominated for the state assembly on a coalition ticket of National Republicans and Anti-Masons. In November he was swept into office.