Term in Office: 13th president, 1850-1853
Political Party: Whig
Home State: New York
Millard Fillmore seems to be obscurity personified. So little does the public know about him, so inadequate the state of the scholarship on his life, that he becomes the empty man of the presidential pantheon, the sort of guy you put in the back corner of the Hall of Presidents. Millard Fillmore seems to be such a cipher, such a bland placeholder president, that he has become a small national joke. One recent book The Remarkable Life of Millard Fillmore, is an uproariously false take on his life, a comedic attempt to make Millard Fillmore’s life interesting. Plot points include challenging Andrew Jackson to a duel, escaping the Alamo in women’s clothing, and living a double life as Zorro. And, of course, there is the not funny, not droll, strawman-ridden Mallard Fillmore comic strip by some guy named Bruce Tinsley. Nowadays, Fillmore’s name lights up the internet via the excellent news-and-history-and-science blog, Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub. (The blog’s name comes from an amusing falsehood H.L. Mencken put forth, suggesting that the only accomplishment of Fillmore’s presidency was to put a bath tub in the presidential mansion. Mencken made the whole thing up to make fun of Fillmore’s vacuousness, and later admitted as such. But that didn’t stop this factoid from being re-published in presidential trivia books and even some grade-school textbooks. So, “Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub” becomes a shorthand for its author Ed Darrell’s laudable commitment to distinguish historical truth from historical myth.)
This obscurity has often seeped into the rankings. In Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s 1962 survey, he is 26th out of 31. In a 1996 update, he is at 31 out of 39. And in 2009, C-SPAN’s survey put him at 37 out of 42. I would venture to guess that Fillmore places so very, very low largely because so little is remembered and because he is smack in the middle of the litany of dull, ineffectual pre-Lincoln presidents.
Throughout all this, I feel the need to give Millard Fillmore a fair hearing. I earned my Ph.D. from the University at Buffalo, where Fillmore once served as chancellor. I attended a college in New York’s Southern Tier where the closest sit-down restaurant and grocery store were seven miles down the road in a town called Fillmore, named after the president. I’ve seen his grave, and I’ve visited his home in East Aurora, New York. Me and Millard go way back, and my argument for today is this: Fillmore was an uninspiring and unoriginal, but basically decent president, who nonetheless made some decisions that proved disastrous down the road and inflamed bloody sectional hatred. In particular, he bares a measure of responsibility for the Compromise of 1850, which technically delayed a civil war for almost ten years, but actually made such an outcome far more likely.
To get to the bottom of this, we need to delve a bit into the background. Fillmore, an unsuccessful candidate for New York governor, and a four-term congressman from western New York, supplemented the Whig’s presidential ticket with Zachary Taylor in hopes of winning New York’s all-important electoral votes and securing the favor of Thurlow Weed, the state’s political raja with whom Fillmore worked closely. Fillmore was a hack, and he probably knew it, a vestige of an age where vice-presidents were recklessly chosen to balance a presidential ticket, or provide a sop to one faction or other, rather than their capacity to administer and lead. (This was also compounded by the Whigs’ belief in a president ought to be subordinate to the wishes of Congress, one reason why they tended to nominate uninspiring figures without clear opinions or agendas.) Millard spent a year and a half as vice-president, ignored by Taylor (who deferred all questions involving New York appointments to William Seward, leader of a rival faction.)
Instead, Fillmore did the only thing he was allowed, as vice-president, to do– he presided over the Senate, his tenure coinciding with the contentious debates surrounding the 1850 Compromise. In the end, the compromise passed, a series of measures which admitted California as a free state, ceded parts of Texas to New Mexico Territory, gave New Mexico Territory the option of adopting slavery (although its climate made it unsuitable for the plantation-style agriculture in which slavery thrived in the Americas), and most problematically of all, instituted a harsh Fugitive Slave Act.
Taylor had grave reservations about the compromise, especially the provisions expanding slavery to the southwest, at least in theory. We’ll never know just what he would have done had he lived, but it is likely he would have vetoed at least part of the compromise. Fillmore, a stalwart unionist who wanted to keep the country together, was more amenable to compromise. Far from being passive, he leaned on “Cotton Whigs”, those willing to work with the South to vote for the bill, and encouraged anti-slavery “Conscience Whigs” to abstain. The compromise measures passed, but they were a pyrrhic victory, a major legislative accomplishment that nonetheless doomed Fillmore’s presidency and sundered his own political party.
See, Fillmore’s problem was that he was using an antiquated playbook. There is certainly an understandable logic behind signing a major compromise. Compromises had been part of America’s political fabric from the very beginning. They allowed small states and large states to agree to a Constitution. Jefferson and Hamilton later compromised, agreeing to Hamilton’s ambition financial plan in exchange for putting the capital on the Potomac, away from the fiscal centers of New York and Philadelphia. Compromise allowed the question of Missouri’s entrance to the union to be resolved equitably, creating the state of Maine to counterbalance the new slave state. You have to use history as a guide, and Fillmore likely assumed a hard-won, large-scale compromise would work just as it always had.
Unfortunately, Fillmore was dead wrong, and the compromise only exacerbated the feelings of distrust between slavery’s defenders in the South and its critics in New England. The Fugitive Slave Law was the killing arrow. It ordered federal marshals to seek out escaped slaves anywhere in the nation, and imposed a harsh $1,000 penalty on anyone who abetted or aided a slave in flight. To New Englanders, this seemed like a law that demanded one violate one’s own conscience, and the North could no longer be considered a safe haven for refugee slaves. Even more to the point, many in New England had seen very few slaves, or very few blacks for that matter; slavery was an abstraction, and unpleasant abstractions are easily forgotten or avoided. The Fugitive Slave Act, though rarely enforced to the letter of law, made the “peculiar institution” much, much less of an abstraction, and much more of a reality. It reminded the Yankee conscience that it was complicit in the “peculiar institution.” The North would not forget this law, nor the party that pushed for its passage. Indeed, Vermont and Wisconsin, ironically borrowing tactics first used in the South, attempted to nullify the law, and declare it unconstitutional. In Syracuse and Pittsburgh apprehended slaves attracted mobs who beset the hapless federal marshals, and set the former slaves at liberty.
Fillmore’s problem was a failure to understand the consequences of his laws, and a lack of imagination to pursue, and work for, alternatives. His want of vision, his inability to realize that his was truly a crisis presidency, was so profound that it may have dealt the killing blow to his own political party. In 1852, the Whigs barely considered nominating Fillmore for a full term in his own right, although the president telegraphed signals that he was willing to accept if chosen. Instead, the Whigs once again nominated a military hero, Winfield Scott. Scott was vain and pompous, but he was also the keenest and most brilliant military mind the country had yet produced. The general was a great candidate, but his bid was futile. The Whigs, distrusted by the South and reviled in the North for a compromise that only increased distrust and suspicion, won only four states in the election, losing to an unknown alcoholic, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire. Within two years of Fillmore leaving office, the Whig Party would no longer exist.
There were a few other loose ends to the Fillmore administration that I need to address here. One of the only accomplishments that presidential trivia buffs remember about the man is that he commissioned Admiral Perry’s “Great White Fleet” to Japan. Perry, in a maritime display that was one part shock-and-awe and one part tacit threat, opened reluctant Japan to American trade, continuing the forays into the Pacific begun by John Tyler. Other presidents from his era spent their energies angering and invading Meso-America and the Caribbean; Fillmore took the time to cross an entire ocean to needle Japan. And while seen as a doughface, do-nothing president, Fillmore twice took decisive military action to check Southern intransigence, once to keep Texas from illegally invading and annexing New Mexico, and once again to reinforce South Carolina forts during rumblings of secession. We credit Andrew Jackson for putting down a secessionist threat, and we disavow James Buchanan for his squeamishness in doing the same. But we forget Fillmore’s strength and decisiveness in emergency situations.
This is a presidential ranking that punishes malice and evil. Fillmore demonstrated neither, and given some of the other presidents we have yet to exhume in this series, I cannot justify putting him in the bottom 10. There are worse things in politics than to be a dull, doughy, dutiful time-server. He wanted laudable ends– a country whose separate parts could work together in amity– but was unable to figure out a way to do it beyond the antiquated and flawed system of compromises that merely kicked the interconnected problems of slavery and expansion down the road, a road that led with mounting likelihood toward civil war. Ultimately, Millard Fillmore saw the question of slavery as a political matter, and not a moral matter, and as long as slavery remained constitutional, he would continue to enforce unpopular measures such as the Fugitive Slave Act. Fillmore’s political solution, in the form of the 1850 compromise, left the moral questions slavery raised unanswered, as Northern abolitionists and Southern firebrands addressed it with increasingly biblical intensity.
As for Fillmore’s post-presidential career, which included a run for president on the repugnant white Protestant nationalist American Party, or Know-Nothing Party, the less that is said, the better. It doesn’t reflect his ranking, since I am only looking at his presidency. But let’s just say it shows how Fillmore wasn’t very adept at perceiving his country beyond the immediate future, and his association with those nativist jackasses, those antebellum Sheriff Arpaios, does not help his historical reputation.
Incidentally, I had a very difficult time choosing who was #29 and who was #30 on this list. Both contenders were vice-presidents elevated to the presidency by the death of their predecessor. Both had funny names. Both lived in upstate New York. Both made a feeble attempt to be re-nominated and were rebuffed by their parties. Maybe you’ve figured out who is immediately below Millard in the ranking, but if you haven’t yet, stay tuned…