Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore

by Paul Finkelman

Congress was in an uproar over slavery, and it was not clear if a compromise could be found.

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 politicsas 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, on the central issues of the ageimmigration, religious toleration, and most of all slaveryhis myopic vision led to the destruction of his presidency, his party, and ultimately, the Union itself.

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Fillmores law degree soon led him into politics, where he beganspeaking of conspiracy theoriesas a member of the Anti-Masonic Party. Although in principle he opposed slavery, Fillmore viewed the institution as an inevitable part of the American system, and, unlike his predecessor, actively pushed for the Compromise of 1850, which he then signed into law. Fillmores unrelentingly harsh enforcement of this act not only turned the Northern Whigs against him but also excited anti-slavery opposition in general, thereby moving America even closer to civil war.

Millard Fillmore by Paul Finkelman was published in 2011 and is part of The American Presidents series. Never before had I read a biography of anyone where the author was so clearly and forcefully antagonistic toward his or her subject. From the books outset Finkelman makes clear his utter disdain for this former president. The intrepid reader who is able to circumnavigate the authors stream of venom and ignore the books repetitious passages will likely find something of value. Overall, Finkelmans analysis of Millard Fillmore is disappointing but never dull. Anyone seeking to read a biography of every president, with an emphasis on brevity, will probably find this book entirely acceptable. For a more serious scholar, this book is likely to be one of many must reads on Fillmore given its nuggets of wisdom.

He, along with the renowned Whigs Daniel Webster and Henry Clay supported the Compromise of 1850, and once the pieces of this legislation were in place, Fillmore worked hard to enforce the law. One of the laws was the Fugitive Slave Act, and it was an essential piece of the compromise, although abhorrent to most northerners, and to our 21st Century sensibilities. Finkelman attacks the Compromise as giving everything away to the south, and is harshly critical of Fillmore for enforcing the law once it was on the books. And Finkelman sees Fillmore as the mastermind behind it all--every waking minute trying to find a way to catch slaves, and stomp on the rights of northerners. All I could imagine was that Finkelman got the contract to write this book, and took bits and pieces from his other scholarly work, dumbed them down, and placed them into one manuscript.

There is no doubt that Finkelman is a scholar of Fillmore's era. I get the sense that he wants to spend the little time this book allows hammering home Fillmore's failings, which leaves little room to provide a solid argument grounded in persuasive evidence. Finkelman writes: "Fillmore must have had some gratification that the Fugitive Slave Act was so quickly and successfully enforced in his home state..." (106.) This is presented with no evidence and serves only to make Fillmore appear as a villain. After a relatively lengthy discussion of his refusal to stand up to land hungry Texans, Finkelman suggests that the president is a weak man lacking in fortitude. Taylor and his cabinet had never considered Fillmore to be part of the inner circle, as was the case for virtually every vice president until the middle of the twentieth century" (73).

If you know nothing else about Fillmore, know that he was not a nice person.

In this short biography, he presents Fillmore as a thoroughly unsuccessful president one who compromised liberty for the sake of politics, and whose political career ended ignominiously as the nominee of a political party built around bigotry. Yet while Fillmore quickly established himself as a Whig leader and enjoyed a successful career as a congressman, Finkelman argues that he was still a relatively obscure figure when internal party machinations made him the Whig Party vice presidential nominee in 1848. Finkelman is less than impressed with Fillmores leadership during this period, arguing that he caved far too readily to southern demands, resulting in a settlement that undermined the Whig Party and, ultimately, the nation. Though Finkelmans book lacks the degree of detail that Raybacks possesses, it offers a far more convincing assessment of Fillmores failings and a better understanding of the role he played in the nations descent into civil war.