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Who Was Millard Fillmore?
While Millard Fillmore served as president for less than three years, he did have some significant achievements during his short tenure. Being thrust into the presidency after the death of Zachary Taylor in the summer of 1850, Fillmore signed a series of bills that became known as the Compromise of 1850. The legislation resolved long-standing issues over the spread of slavery to the Western states and has been attributed with delaying the start of the Civil War for a decade. Born in New York, Fillmore was opposed to slavery but was able to accept measures that many abolitionists found repulsive in order to calm the fears of the Southern states and preserve the Union.
During Fillmore’s term in office, the nation was expanding westward. New railroads were being built to carry settlers to the West to till the soil and populate the vast new land. California was admitted to the Union as a free state with thousands flocking to the Golden State to seek their fortune in the newly discovered gold fields—the California Gold Rush was on! To open new markets for American goods, trade relations were set up with the island nation of Japan, which had been in self-imposed isolation for over 200 years.
Millard Fillmore was an example of a self-made man. Born into a family of modest means and many children, he had few opportunities for formal education. This didn’t stop him. Young Millard Fillmore learned to read by studying the family Bible and borrowing books from the local library, reading them on his breaks as an apprentice cloth maker. By the time he entered the White House, his personal library contained over 4,000 volumes, and apparently, he had read all of them.
Early Life and Career
Millard Fillmore was born on January 7, 1800, on a farm in the Finger Lakes area of New York State. His parents, Nathaniel and Phoebe, had moved into the region the previous year in search of better opportunities but found themselves still struggling for years to come. Severe poverty remained a threat to his family throughout Fillmore’s formative years, and it is the reason why he received little formal schooling. Years later, he wrote of his childhood school as “an old deserted log house, which had been furnished with a few benches without backs, and a board for writing upon. In this school I learned my alphabet, at the age of six or seven…I learned to plow, to hoe, to chop, to log and clear land, to mow, to reap.”
As Nathaniel became more successful in their community, he decided his son should learn a trade, but Millard gave up on two apprenticeships, eventually discovering in himself a deep love for learning and reading. While working at a mill in town, he enrolled at a recently opened academy. His father encouraged his academic inclination and found him a position as a law clerk for the local judge. Fillmore began to read law, but the judge refused to pay him for his office work, and Fillmore renounced his clerkship prematurely.
The fate of the Fillmore family changed when they moved to East Aurora, near Buffalo. Here they bought a farm and finally found the prosperity that eluded them for years. Fillmore began teaching at the local school. At the age of 22, he moved to Buffalo and resumed his study of law. A year later, he was admitted to the New York bar and returned to his family with the goal of establishing the only law practice in town. In 1826, Millard started his own family by marrying one of his teachers, Abigail Powers. The couple had two children. Fillmore was a sharp-dressed, handsome man, with a good nature and high intelligence, and he was committed to making sure his family never experienced the poverty he had known.
First Steps in Politics
Inspired by his father’s service as a justice of the peace and the active involvement of his other family members in administration, Millard Fillmore became interested in politics in his late 20s. He saw politics as a good way to escape his impoverished roots and contribute to the good of his community. His first step was to join the newly founded Anti-Masonic Party, and he was elected as a delegate to the New York convention that endorsed presidential nominee John Quincy Adams in the 1828 election. Already a well-known and respectable citizen of East Aurora, Millard Fillmore was soon offered a chance for office. He was elected to the New York State Assembly, serving three one-year terms in Albany. Although he found himself in the minority among Democrats, he successfully pushed for various legislative changes.
In 1831, Fillmore returned to his legal practice. Due to his success as a lawyer, he gradually rose to prominence in his new community and became involved in various local initiatives, including the foundation of the Buffalo High School Association. He was widely known as a leading citizen of the town and a year later, he made an impressive comeback to politics when he won an election to the House of Representatives. During this period, Fillmore and other members of the Anti-Masonic Party realized that the scope of their mission of fighting Masonry was too narrow to be able to establish them as an important party. To gain prominence on the national scene, they founded the Whig Party. Focusing on economic growth and federally funded administrative projects such as the construction of roads and bridges, they expanded their platform and became a major force in American politics. Fillmore was a fervent supporter and advocate for the Whig Party.
Fillmore’s term in the U.S. House of Representatives was overall successful, and he showed support for various legislative measures and built close relationships with prominent senators. However, he lost the nomination for a second term in 1834. As his wife disliked living in Washington, D.C., they decided to return to Buffalo.
A Prominent National Politician
In 1836, Fillmore was elected to Congress as a Whig member and thus returned to political life. Two years later, he won another term in the House. During this period, Fillmore became known as an opponent of slavery, but one who was wary of the anti-slavery movement as he saw no reason for this to become such a sensitive political issue. In 1840, he was elected for a fourth term in the House. His influence within the Whig Party had grown significantly and he was actively involved in the discussions regarding the Whigs’ presidential nominee for the 1840 election. Soon after the Whig William Henry Harrison became president in 1840, Fillmore was appointed the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. In this position, he pushed through protective tariff bills and authored the tariff bill finally approved in 1842.
At the end of his term, exhausted by the intensity of his political life in Washington, he refused a new Whig nomination and returned to his family and law practice in Buffalo. His departure was unexpected as he had already become a powerful and popular figure within the party. From his home in Buffalo, Fillmore remained an influential politician and many urged him to run for vice president in the 1844 election, alongside Henry Clay. The possibility of becoming vice president intrigued Fillmore. However, various political schemes set in motion by influential Whig members led to Fillmore’s defeat. He also lost the race for governor of New York, which he saw as a crushing defeat. He returned to his lucrative law practice, remaining active in political circles, particularly with criticism of President James K. Polk’s war with Mexico. Fillmore considered the Mexican-American war as part of a plot by Southerners to open up new territories for slavery.
After this double disappointment, Fillmore kept busy by becoming involved in the founding of the University of Buffalo. He was appointed the university’s first chancellor, a position he kept until his death. In 1847, Fillmore was successful in winning the Whig nomination for the newly opened office of comptroller of the State of New York State. Due to his work as the Ways and Means Committee chairman, he was the most suitable candidate and won the office by a large number of votes. Fillmore took office as comptroller in Albany on January 1848, after leaving his law firm once again. He proved a very efficient and competent comptroller and received recognition for his achievements.
God knows that I detest slavery, but it is an existing evil, for which we are not responsible, and we must endure it, till we can get rid of it without destroying the last hope of free government in the world.
— Millard Fillmore
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Election of 1848
The Whig Party had great hopes of taking the White House in the 1848 election, but the two main favorites were Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. Gradually, however, half of the party’s support went towards General Zachary Taylor, who had risen to fame during the Mexican-American War. When Taylor won the nomination as the presidential nominee, Clay’s supporters were angered and frustrated. Since many assumed that Fillmore was a strong Clay partisan, he was nominated for the vice-presidential slot in an attempt by the party leaders to settle the conflict between Clay’s supporters and the rest of the party.
Fillmore’s support for Clay was an exaggeration, but there were powerful reasons behind the party’s decision as he had proven immensely popular in New York State and had an excellent background. Fillmore was chosen to balance the ticket, as Taylor was a slaveholder from Virginia and Fillmore an anti-slavery New Yorker. The hope was the Taylor-Fillmore ticket would keep the party’s two main factions, the Southern planters and the Northern industrialists, together. The two men had never met face to face, so Fillmore sent Taylor a letter of introduction, stating, “Although I have never had the pleasure of a personal acquaintance...nor can I flatter myself that you have ever heard of me before the late convention, yet as I feel acquainted with you from a general knowledge of your widely extended reputation…”
During the campaign, Fillmore remained at his comptroller’s office in Albany, as direct campaigning was not the norm. While Northerners assumed that Fillmore was an opponent of slavery due to coming from a free state, Southerners believed he was an abolitionist. To settle the issue, Fillmore wrote a public letter in which he argued that slavery was indeed awful, but that the federal government should not be involved in this discussion.
The Taylor-Fillmore ticket won by a narrow margin, with the New York electoral votes generated by Fillmore’s popularity a key element of their victory.
On March 5, 1849, Millard Fillmore was sworn in as vice president. However, from the beginning of his term, he found himself surrounded by political enemies. Although President Taylor had promised him influence in the administration, he wasn’t able to exert it due to various machinations put into motion by his political enemies.
Fillmore was unable to appoint his supporters for important federal jobs. As everything was settled behind his back, his political influence diminished precipitously from the very beginning of his term, even though many assumed he had more power than he declared and resented him for not acting upon it. Ultimately, Fillmore found solace in getting involved in the administration of the Smithsonian Institution, an activity which rekindled his lifelong appreciation and interest in education.
As vice president of the United States, Millard Fillmore had an important role presiding overheated historic debates regarding slavery in the newly acquired territories of California and New Mexico. His main duty, however, was to preside over the Senate to maintain a semblance of order.
While working on correspondence late Tuesday evening, July 9, 1850, a messenger knocked at his door. The excited man informed the vice president that President Taylor had taken ill a few days before and died. Fillmore found himself faced with the responsibility of taking over all his presidential duties. The cabinet members presented formal resignations as was customary, all expecting to remain in their posts. The normally careful and plodding Fillmore surprised everyone with an impulsive act accepting all their resignations. Previously marginalized by the cabinet, the new president took the opportunity to dismiss all of them. New nominations were sent to appoint Whig leaders who supported compromise on the issue of slavery. One of the key appointments was Daniel Webster as secretary of state, who would also become Fillmore’s closest advisor.
While the nation was grieving Taylor’s death, the political crisis prompted by the issue of slavery was still in full swing. As tensions increased between the federal government and Texan leaders who wanted to impose their rule over New Mexico, Fillmore urged Congress to pass the Compromise bill developed by Taylor and thus defuse the tensions that threatened to dissolve the Union. Fillmore happily signed the bills that acknowledged California as a free state and set a border between Texas and the New Mexico territory. Most importantly, Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law, which he hoped would settle the debate regarding slavery. The collective group of five legislative actions, signed by Fillmore, became known as the Compromise of 1850. The resolutions “were not in all respects what I could have desired,” he later recalled, “but they were the best that could be obtained after a protracted discussion that shook the Republic to its very foundation.”
Part of the measures that made up the compromise legislation was the Fugitive Slave Law, which granted federal authority to catch and return runaway slaves. This law, which has been deemed one of the most oppressive laws in the history of America, angered Northern abolitionists, making them more militant. The underground railroad sprang up to help runaway slaves escape to freedom in the North. Mobs attacked and harassed federal marshals to free runaway slaves in their custody. The anti-slavery author Harriet Beecher Stowe penned the best-selling novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book became a rallying point, aroused hatred for slavery throughout the North, and is said to have “helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War.” Though the intent of the laws making up the Compromise of 1850 was intentioned to heal the sectional differences over slavery, it may have exacerbated the differences and pushed the nation closer to civil war.
Commander Perry’s Visit to Japan
President Fillmore recognized the importance of expanding trade to the growing nation, hoping that by developing it the Union would be more secure. Fillmore dispatched Commodore Matthew Perry to Japan to open trade with a country that had been in a period of isolation for over two hundred years. Commander Perry arrived in Japan in 1853 with four ships and presented the Japanese emperor with a note from the president, which read, “Great and good friend…I send you this letter…to bear to you my greeting and good wishes, and to promote friendship and commerce between [our] two countries…we wish that our people may be permitted to trade with your people.” Perry was able to sign a treaty of peace and commerce with the Japanese that opened a fruitful trading relationship between the two countries.
Soon, the election of 1852 became a major preoccupation in the country, yet Fillmore was hesitant to seek office for a full term. Through his approval of the Fugitive Slave Act, he had angered the Northerners of the Whig Party. Southerners, however, saw him as a viable candidate able to fight for the preservation of the party. Eventually, the nomination went to someone else, although many considered later that Fillmore would have been a better choice. The Whigs lost the election and Fillmore remains in history as the last Whig president.
The last months of his term passed quickly, with no major events. On March 4, 1853, Fillmore left the White House. During the inaugural ceremony of this Democratic successor Franklin Pierce, Fillmore’s wife developed pneumonia. By the end of the month, she was dead. The next year he suffered another loss when his daughter died of cholera.
Saddened by the loss of his wife, Fillmore left Washington with the thought of returning to his private life in Buffalo. Lacking independent wealth or a pension, he started to consider ways to earn his living. A year after his departure from Washington, Fillmore returned to politics by engaging in the discussions regarding slavery that still dominated public life. He launched a national tour to unite the Whigs and encourage them to fight for the Union. Privately, Fillmore hoped that this would bring him support to run for the presidential office. During the tour, he made numerous public appearances and initiated contact with various influential politicians.
Fillmore’s decision to return to politics coincided, however, with the slow dissolution of the Whig Party as many of its leaders united under a new designation, calling themselves the Republicans. As Fillmore was not interested in joining the new political party, he found a place for himself in a new growing nativist organization, the American Party or the Know-Nothings. As a large number of immigrants arrived in the United States, nativism grew as a reaction against the new arrivals.
By 1854, all the nativist movements united in the American Party. Many friends and allies of Fillmore had joined the party and added new causes to the party’s agenda, besides nativism. Encouraged by the party’s success, Fillmore joined them after writing a public letter about how immigrants were negatively interfering with important political issues. Since the prospect of a new office was dim, Fillmore traveled, spending a year in Europe and the Middle East, meeting with influential personalities like Queen Victoria and Pope Pius IX.
The Failed Campaign of 1856
While he was in Europe, his political allies in the American Party secured him the presidential nomination. Andrew Jackson’s nephew, Andrew Jackson Donelson, was chosen as Fillmore’s running mate. In June 1856, Fillmore returned to the U.S. and was welcomed with a huge reception in New York City, where he spoke about his strong commitment to the preservation of the Union.
Since most of the experienced and influential Whigs had joined the Republican Party, and the Know-Nothings lacked concrete political experience, Fillmore lost the election to Republican James Buchanan, finishing third. He maintained, however, his conviction that the American Party was the only one that cared about true national unity by avoiding the controversies surrounding slavery.
The defeat in the 1856 presidential election caused Fillmore to think that his political career would stop there. His personal life took a more positive turn when in February 1858, he married the wealthy heiress Caroline McIntosh. By combining their wealth, they secured a very comfortable existence, moving into a new, larger house in Buffalo. Together with his wife, Fillmore dedicated himself to philanthropic projects, supporting various causes and institutions, and helping in the foundation of the Buffalo General Hospital, the Buffalo Fine Arts Gallery, and other cultural and educational projects.
In February 1874, Fillmore suffered a stroke, although he had been in good health overall. He died after a second stroke on March 8 and was buried with honors. With such a short time in office, Fillmore is regarded as one of the more forgettable presidents and many historians still debate if his policies hastened or delayed the onset of the Civil War. However, he was known for dignity, intelligence, and selflessness that made him a worthy, though contentious, holder of the title of President of The United States of America.
- Millard Fillmore: Life Before the Presidency. American President: Miller Center of Public Affairs. Accessed September 5, 2019.
- Millard Fillmore: Impact and Legacy. October 4, 2016. Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia. Accessed September 5, 2019.
- White House biography. Accessed September 5, 2019.
- Life Portrait of Millard Fillmore. June 11, 1999. American Presidents: Life Portraits. Accessed September 7, 2019.
- Finkelman, Paul. Millard Fillmore. Times Books. Henry Hold and Company. 2011.
- Hamilton, Neil A. Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary. 3rd edition. Checkmark Books. 2010.
- Johnson, Allen and Dumas Malone (editors). Dictionary of American Biography. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1931.
- Matz, Roger, Bill Harris, and Thomas J. Craughwell. The Presidents Fact Book: The Achievements Campaigns, Events, Triumphs, Tragedies, and Legacies of Every President from George Washington to Barack Obama. Black Dog 7 Leventhal Publishers, Inc. 2009.
© 2019 Doug West