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millard fillmore

11 october 2011

To start with, Millard Fillmore just has a silly name. It screams "ineffectual 19th-century President." It's been adapted into a moniker for a right-wing cartoon duck. In a famous internet joke where you're advised to choose a blues-musician name by mixing an infirmity, a fruit, and a President à la Blind Lemon Jefferson, the punchline is "Asthmatic Kiwi Fillmore."

My old mnemonic rhyme says that "Fillmore's sad slave law stirred up abolition." I've often thought that a tendentious comment in a couple of ways. First of all, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was hardly Fillmore's brainchild, even if he did sign it. And second, abolitionists were pretty stirred up by the very existence of slavery; it's not like the additional injustice of being impressed into its enforcement was what got them going on the subject.

But Paul Finkelman's study for the Times Books American Presidents series finds that the old rhyme pretty much nailed it. True, Fillmore didn't write the Fugitive Slave Law. But he took to it immediately. His administration tried to enforce the law, indeed to enforce it beyond the bounds of reason – at one point, even prosecuting a treason case against a man who simply refused to join a kidnapping posse. Fillmore endured repeated humiliations in the courts. Many of the black men brought before the blatantly unconstitutional Fugitive Slave Law hearings were rescued by anti-slavery vigilantes, and escaped to refuge abroad.

And as the absurdity of Fillmore's support for the law grew, abolition did become a more popular and politically respectable stance. There is nothing like active repression to elicit equal and opposite civil disobedience. Finkelman, a distinguished historian of the legal aspects of slavery, tells a compelling story of a President both constitutionally wrong and politically inept.

Fillmore, as Finkelman puts it, was "the first of three doughface presidents in the 1850s" (125). Like his successors Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, Fillmore was a Northerner firmly in league with Southern slaveholders. (They were called "doughfaces" because extremists could mould them any way they liked. Must . . . resist . . . Mitt Romney . . . reference . . .) All three doughface Presidents were failures, though it must be said that the circumstances of the times were set up to bring failures to the fore.

Fillmore had several admirable qualities. He was intelligent, and an avid reader. He worked his way up from poverty to become an eminent lawyer; though Finkelman draws intriguing contrasts between Fillmore and Abraham Lincoln on this point. Both men strove for independence and influence, but Lincoln was far more secure in his own skin. Fillmore by contrast comes across, in Finkelman's reading, as a parvenu, uncomfortable in high government circles, suspicious, intransigent.

In his clamber up the social ladder, Millard Fillmore changed church memberships several times, always trading up: from Methodist to Episcopalian to Unitarian. (The social pecking order of American Protestantism has changed a bit since.) As befits someone who seemed to see religion as a succession of increasingly exclusive clubs, he held lifelong prejudices against Catholics and Jews. Fillmore would enact those prejudices in numerous ways, political and diplomatic, eventually running for President again as the candidate of the xenophobic "Know-Nothing" party.

Fillmore was as minor a political figure as it's possible for a President to be. The highest offices he'd previously held were chairman of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, and Comptroller of New York State. Indeed, as Robert Rayback showed in Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President (a disagreeably apologetic study published in 1959), Fillmore was one of those New York State politicians, like William Seward, Hamilton Fish, and later Chet Arthur, who saw Washington DC as pretty much a sideshow to Albany. But running the machines of the nation's largest state always put 19th-century New York power brokers in the way of Presidential politics.

Fillmore's Presidency was most unfortunate. (And inadvertent: he became President on the untimely death of Zachary Taylor.) But the politics of the 1850s demanded unfortunate Presidencies, not those of visionary leaders. When a visionary leader was finally elected in 1860, the nation disintegrated.

Finkelman, Paul. Millard Fillmore. New York: Holt, 2011. [The American Presidents]