How Well Do You Know Our 13th President, Millard Fillmore?
An Introduction to Our Last Whig President
The name is memorable only because it is so odd. The man himself is far from memorable. Ask twenty friends how much they know about our 13th president and they may not even know whether he was before or after the Civil War.
In the event that you go to a party and someone asks who Millard Fillmore was, here’s a short list of things you can mention. It won’t make you the life of the party, but it will give folks the impression that you’re a true history buff.
- He grew up poor, attended one room school houses. One of his teachers was a redhead named Abigail Powers whom he fell in love with and later married.
- He was from upstate New York from a backwoods family in the Finger Lakes region. Though he became a lawyer and eventually served in Congress, he remained socially awkward, ever conscious of his inadequacies.
- His name was put forward to be the vice presidential candidate to run with General Zachary Taylor for the Whig Party in the 1848 election. Taylor was the first president who had zero political experience and had never held office. He had been in the army since 1813. He went directly from being a hero in the Mexican War to becoming President.
- Fillmore never met Taylor in his life until the eve of Taylor’s inauguration.
- When Fillmore went to Washington D.C. to serve as Vice President, his wife stayed home in Upstate New York.
- The major political firestorm of that time had to do with the issue of what to do about slavery as the country expanded. The South wanted slavery everywhere, and the North wanted it nowhere. Addressing this issue was becoming increasingly heated.
- Fillmore and Taylor did not see eye to eye on this issue. Taylor lived on a plantation in the South and owned 150 slaves but he was opposed to the spread of slavery. Fillmore lived in the North, but didn’t care. Ironically, when Taylor ran for the presidency, no one asked his views on the expansion of slavery. They assumed he was for it. He actually didn’t like it. Strangely enough, as for Fillmore, no one asked his views on this topic either.
- In the summer of 1850, 16 months after Taylor took office, he suddenly and unexpectedly died of a stomach ailment or stomach flu. Fillmore then became the last president who was not a Democrat or Republican.
- The cabinet resigned when Fillmore became president. Then he fired them.
- Fillmore appointed Daniel Webster to be his Secretary of State. Webster was a great orator and had been a great spokesman for the North, but in the spring of 1850 he sided with Henry Clay and the South on this controversial issue. His name was now mud amongst the North’s anti-slavery constituents.
- Fillmore’s vacillation on issues showed him to be a weak leader.
- His handling of the Fugitive Slave Act was a fiasco. It was pointed out to him that there was a 1793 law on the books called The Fugitive Slave Act that wasn’t being adequately enforced. He was persuaded to do something about it, so he appointed judges throughout the North who could hear cases in which any Northerner who harbored or helped a runaway slave could be sent to jail. Taxes had to be used to pay for the judges.
The previous president to die in office, William Henry Harrison, also happened to be a Whig. He had run for the presidency under the slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too.” The Whigs made a song of the slogan called “Tip & Ty.” Harrison died 31 days after his inauguration, some believe from giving such a long inaugural address in the elements on a cold winter’s day.
Much of the information for this blog post comes from the book Millard Fillmore by Paul Finkelman. When I finished, the impression I got was the Fillmore has probably been forgotten for two reasons: his weakness as a leader and, more importantly, his having stood on the wrong side of history.
The slavery issue was one of the most important issues of the century, and he simply didn’t grasp that. As a result, his legacy is that he left no real legacy.