Time for my annual rant on Presidents’ Day. I see no reason for a day to honor all presidents. The great presidents, my personal list includes Washington, Jefferson, Polk, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Truman and Reagan, are deserving of honor, and should not be lumped in with bad, mediocre and justly obscure presidents. One of our worst presidents is also perhaps our most obscure president, Millard Fillmore. Therefore, on a holiday I dislike, I will write about a President who deserves to have something toxic named after him.
Fillmore was born on January 7, 1800, in Moravia, New York, the first of the American presidents to be born after the death of George Washington. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a cloth maker. Not wanting to spend his life making cloth, Fillmore attended the New Hope Academy in New Hope, New York for six months in 1819, and began to study law, that never failing route of social advancement for people who are glib but have no other discernible talent. Admitted to the bar in 1823, he hung out his shingle in East Aurora, New York. In 1826 he married Abigail Powers who he had met at the New Hope Academy. They had two children, Millard Powers Fillmore and Mary Abigail Fillmore. Fillmore prospered as a lawyer and in 1834 he formed a law partnership, Fillmore and Hall, which eventually became one of the most prestigious law firms in western New York.
In 1828 Fillmore took his first step into politics by being elected to the New York state legislature as a member of the anti-Masonic party. The anti-Masonic party came into being to oppose Freemasonry after the disappearance of a William Morgan in 1826 in Batavia, New York. Morgan had left the Freemasons and had made it known that he intended to write a book exposing them. After he disappeared, a public furor erupted, with many people suspecting that Freemasons had murdered Morgan. The anti-Masonic party was the result, with members vowed to oppose the influence of freemasons in society. The party grew in strength as it became a vehicle for protests against social and political ills, and waned in strength as anti-Masonry lost its saliency as a driving issue, with most of the members of the party becoming Whigs, opponents of the Democrat Party established by Andrew Jackson.
In 1832 Fillmore was elected as a Whig to Congress, and served in Congress until 1842. He made an unsuccessful run for governor of New York in 1844. In 1848 he was elected State Comptroller of New York.
Destiny called for Fillmore at the Whig national convention in 1848. Zachary Taylor, “Old Rough and Ready” as he was known to his troops, had been nominated for the presidency. The Whigs had won the presidency in 1840 with a war hero of the War of 1812, William Henry Harrison, and they suspected they could repeat this formula of victory with Taylor, a war hero of the Mexican War. Fillmore was placed on the ticket for balance. Taylor was a slave holder and a Southerner. Fillmore was a New Yorker and assumed to be anti-slavery because he had opposed admission of Texas as a slave state when he was serving in Congress. Ironically, Taylor, a slave holder, believed that the territories taken from Mexico were not suited for slavery, and wanted the states formed from this area to be free states. Fillmore was much more willing to make concessions to the South on this and other points.
Taylor and Fillmore beat Cass and Butler in the fall, by five percentage points and an electoral vote tally of 163-127. Fillmore delivered the state of New York with its 36 votes to the Whigs, which made the diffence between victory and defeat.
The issue that would dominate the presidencies of both Taylor and Fillmore was slavery. The victorious war with Mexico had brought in vast new territories, and the question of whether slavery should be allowed in this new portion of the Union threatened to destroy the Union. Taylor held to his position that slavery was not suited for these new territories and that Congress should grant admission to new states that wished to be admitted as free states. When talk of secession arose Taylor made clear that to preserve the Union he would raise an army, lead it and hang any secessionist that he caught with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico.
Taylor died of gastroenteritis on July 9, 1850. The political atmosphere surrounding the battle over slavery was so intense that rumors quickly sprang up claiming that Taylor had been poisoned.
As President Fillmore was immediately confronted with the crisis over slavery. He embraced the compromise of 1850, which Taylor had rejected, which involved admitting California as a free state, allowing New Mexico to organize as a territory, abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia and passage of a new Fugitive Slave Act to be enforced by Federal marshals. The Fugitive Slave Act was immensely unpopular in the North. Fillmore was accused of betraying the anti-slavery cause, and Northern Whigs coined the phrase, “God save us from Whig Vice-Presidents!”, a reference to the fact that the only other elected Whig president, William Henry Harrison, had died in office and John Tyler of Virginia who succeeded him had been anathema to the Northern Whigs.
In 1851 Fillmore demonstrated just how far he was willing to go to appease the South. In 1851 a Maryland man combed Pennsylvania retrieving run-away slaves under the Fugitive Slave Act. One of the run-aways killed him. Fillmore supported bringing treason charges against 40 persons, black and white, supposedly involved in the killing. A Supreme Court justice ruled that resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act was not treason. Fillmore attempted to have the Fugitive Slave Act enforced in his native New York. A band of armed abolitionists rescued the fugitive slave, and attempts to prosecute any of the abolitionists in New York proved futile.
By his support of the Fugitive Slave Act, Fillmore inadvertently greatly increased both abolition sentiment in the North and general anti-slavery feeling. Like abortion today in regard to public attitudes, a great many Northerners were uncomfortable with slavery, but willing to tolerate it as long as their noses weren’t rubbed in it, and they didn’t have to think about it. With slave catchers roaming their streets and protected by Federal law, Northerners found it much less easy to ignore slavery as merely “the peculiar institution” of the South. Fillmore also succeeded in destroying the Whig party, with Northern Whigs ending up mainly in the Republican party when it was founded in 1854. One should not overlook the difficulties faced by Fillmore in attempting to govern a divided country, but it is difficult to imagine a course of action more likely to build up sectional tensions long term than the one he adopted.
Other than the Compromise of 1850 and the fallout from it, there is little to note about the Fillmore administration. He initiated the White House Library and authorized Commodore Perry’s mission to open Japan to foreign trade.
Fillmore in 1852 was denied nomination for the Presidency. The Whigs nominated yet another Mexican War general, Winfield Scott, “Old Fuss and Feathers” as his soldiers called him, who went down in defeat to Democrat Franklin Pierce of New York, who had also served in the Mexican War as a general.
Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan who succeeded him, would continue a policy of appeasing th South on the issue of slavery, which led to ever mounting fury in the North and the rise of the Republican party.
Fillmore suffered two terrible blows after he left the White House. In 1853 his beloved wife died, followed the next year by his daughter who had acted as hostess in the White House due to Mrs. Fillmore’s frail health. Deciding to go abroad to distract himself from his grief, in 1855 while in England he declined an honorary Doctor of Civil Law degree from Oxford. He explained that he had neither the literary nor scientific attainment to justify him receiving the degree. Noting that the degree was in Latin, he stated that he lacked the benefit of a classical education and that “no man should accept a degree he cannot read”.
The mid nineteenth century saw a rising tide of anti-Catholicism in the US, which found its political outlet in the aptly named Know-Nothing Party which was anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic. Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson and Jefferson F. Davis were just a few of the Protestant politicians who denounced the Know-Nothings and their attempt to reap political benefit from religious bigotry. Not so Millard Fillmore.
I doubt if Millard Fillmore was personally bigoted against Catholics. His daughter early in her life was educated at the Buffalo Academy for Young Ladies, run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. He contributed for the purchase of bells for Saint Joseph’s Cathedral in Buffalo, along with other Catholic churches in that city. That makes his acceptance of the presidential nomination of the Know-Nothing Party in 1856 worse in my eyes, because there is no other way to view it than as a cynical political manuever by a man eager to get back into the White House and willing to make a deal with a party whose main principle was religious intolerance. Here is the Know-Nothing platform for 1856.
The third plank called for the banning of naturalized Americans from holding political office:
3. Americans must rule America, and to this end native-born citizens should be selected for all State, Federal, and municipal offices of government employment, in preference to all others.
The fifth plank was aimed squarely at Catholics, as it was an article of faith of the Know-Nothings that Catholics owed secular, as well as religious, allegiance to the Pope.
5. No person should be selected for political station (whether of native or foreign birth), who recognizes any allegiance or obligation of any description to any foreign prince, potentate or power, or who refuses to recognize the Federal and State Constitution (each within its sphere) as paramount to all other laws, as rules of political action.
During the campaign Fillmore attempted to distance himself from these and other controversial planks in the Know-Nothing platform, lending credence to the idea that he was cynically using the Know-Nothings as a vehicle for an attempted return to power. In the fall Buchanan the Democrat won with 45% of the vote, Fremont, the first Republican candidate for President, got 33% and Fillmore got 21%, a very good showing for a third party candidate and a tribute to the power of the Know-Nothings.
His defeat in 1856 brought to a close Fillmore’s political career. Throughout the Civil War Fillmore opposed Lincoln, railing against him as a tyrant. He commanded a home guard unit in up state New York known as the Union Continentals, consisting of men over 45. He supported Andrew Johnson after Johnson succeeded Lincoln. He died on March 8, 1874. His last words were “the nourishment is palatable” referring to soup he was eating, a life ending phrase as forgettable as his presidency has become to almost all Americans.