Saturday, September 25, 2010
Millard Fillmore by Robert J. Rayback
By Robert J. Rayback
American Political Library
Millard Fillmore is the poster child of the “obscure presidents.” His fame today lies in his obscurity and his name is a punch line for political wags. However, he held office at a precipitous time in American history and, for better or worse – his actions forestalled what would become the greatest constitutional and moral crisis in our nation’s history.
This book would more aptly be titled “In the Age of Fillmore” for it is not really a biography of the man. In the preface, the author states that his study of Fillmore was born of intellectual curiosity about the rise and fall of the Whig party which elected two presidents. John Tyler replaced William Henry Harrison upon his death and Fillmore succeeded Zachary Taylor upon his death, giving the party a total of four presidents. The book is as much a chronicle of the rise and fall of Whiggery as it is a biography of Millard Fillmore.
Fillmore’s childhood and early life are laid out in little detail. He was born in a log cabin in the Fingers Lake region of upstate New York to parents of limited means. He received very little formal education as his father apprenticed him to learn a trade so he could help support the family. With what limited education he did have, he remarkably landed an opportunity to clerk for a lawyer and study law. He married Abigail Powers (about whom Rayback provides no biographical sketch), moved to Buffalo and established a law practice. Fillmore was a capable trial lawyer and developed a lucrative practice among the city’s business and shipping interests.
What emerges from Fillmore’s early life is an emphasis on creating educational opportunities. He taught school while studying law and was instrumental in creating the first public schools in western New York. In his law practice, he was as much a pedagogue as a counselor, doting over his clerks studying law.
Fillmore’s entry into politics came through the Anti-Mason movement of the 1820s. This movement believed that Freemasonry was a secret society, lusting power to usurp republican principles to benefit a ruling elite. In describing this, Rayback does go into great detail. He tells the story of William Morgan, a Mason that had become disillusioned with Masonry and threatened to publish a book revealing the secrets of the mysterious organization. His murder in Batavia, NY created hysteria of anti-Mason sentiment.
Fillmore was elected to the state legislature as an Anti-Mason which included those who fanatically hated the secret society as well as banking and businesses that saw it as a vehicle to oppose the Jacksonian Democrats who held sway in Washington and in Albany with Martin Van Buren and other seasoned veterans of politics controlling state government.
Fillmore’s chief accomplishment in the New York state legislature was the ending of debtors’ prisons. Fillmore knew that it was silly to imprison a man for being in debt when he was more apt to pay the debt if he was free to earn. He had worked on behalf of his business clients in Buffalo and knew how hard it was to collect debts from a man who could not work.
Anti-Masons joined with the Whig party which developed to oppose Andrew Jackson’s policies. They favored renewing the charter of the Second Bank of the United States and favored high tariffs to promote domestic industry. They also favored federally funded internal improvements such as roads and canals to foster economic development.
Fillmore graduated from the state legislature to the U.S. Congress, elected from a western New York district where Whigs held sway. Fillmore was one of many New York Whigs that were carried to power in 1832 as the New York Democrats were in disarray with infighting. The man who assisted Fillmore in his rise to power was newspaper publisher, Thurlow Weed who owned the Enquirer newspaper which had the largest circulation of any newspaper in New York.
Rayback focuses intently on the relationship between Thurlow Weed, one of the great masters of New York politics, and Fillmore, the yeoman politician and legislator. Although they were allies early on when Weed was one of the men who galvanized the disparate interests of pro-Adams, anti-Mason, anti-Jackson men into a national political party, their relationship grew contentious and it seemed at every turn, Weed outsmarted the congressman, the vice president, and the president that were Millard Fillmore.
Much of the acrimony stemmed from the rivalry between Fillmore and newly elected governor William Seward. Seward was an adamant abolitionist and pushed abolitionist causes within the Whig party. The Whig party leaders – including Fillmore – preferred compromise between abolitionists and slave interests. In the 1840s and early 1850s, this was still possible. It’s this conflict, always beneath the surface, that would ultimately destroy the Whig Party.
Fillmore voluntarily left Congress in 1843 discouraged after having several pieces of legislation vetoed by the obstinate erstwhile Whig, John Tyler. It was Fillmore’s years out of politics where he perhaps made his greatest contribution to American enterprise and American governance.
The 1840s were some of the most miserable economic times our country has ever known. The destabilization of the banking system by the closure of the Second Bank of the United States and the subsequent Specie Circular that destabilized the individual state banks created a cash starved nation where hard currency was scarce and commerce meager.
While other states struggled with their finances, Fillmore, as Comptroller for the state of New York, set out to establish a banking system that relied on sound currency and extended wise credit. Weed would rally Albany legislators to Fillmore’s cause and New York emerged from the crisis as the financial center of the United States.
Fillmore was an able man, gifted not with a particularly strong intellect, but an uncanny attention to detail. He held many beliefs, but none of them strongly. His strongest belief was in compromise to maintain harmony. He appealed to northern men of commerce for his pro-business stance and he appealed to southerners for his lack of position on slavery. In 1848, when Whigs passed over presumptive nominee, Henry Clay, for darkhorse General Zachary Taylor, Fillmore was nominated to the ticket to bring ideological balance and geographic balance to the ticket.
He was also placed there to block Seward’s nomination. Seward’s views on slavery would have driven southerners from the party. Weed led the effort on Seward’s behalf as well as the Conscience Whigs who opposed the spread of slavery to new American states. This caused the split between Fillmore and Weed, a rift that would never quite heal.
Upon his election, Fillmore found whatever influence he might have with the president and the administration usurped by Weed. As vice president, it should have been his role to handle cabinet appointments as well as patronage for New Yorkers. Instead, Taylor looked to Weed and Weed held more sway with Taylor’s entire cabinet than did the vice president.
That Fillmore tolerated this with nary a fight is demonstrative of the man’s character. As the constant compromiser, he did not have the skills or the will for a power struggle. Instead, he sulked and struggled through his 15 months as vice president as the newly minted Senator Seward advised the president.
Fate intervened to put Fillmore in position to seize control of the machinery of government and New York politics when President Taylor died of gastroenteritis. It came at a precipitous moment in American history as Texas prepared for war with neighboring New Mexico over territory boundaries. Upon his death, Taylor had opposed expansion of slavery into the new southern states. He was also prepared to send federal troops to New Mexico to stave off the Texan invaders. His death prevented this action as Fillmore stepped in and put a temporary stand-off to a halt with a promise to reexamine the issue of borders, Texas debt, and slavery in the new states.
A compromise was well on its way through Congress and to the president’s desk when Taylor died and Fillmore’s pronouncement wrecked it. Texas and the surrounding territories, awaiting approval of their statehood waited anxiously as Congress went back to work to cobble together a compromise that would appease the south’s demand of each state’s right to declare itself on the issue of slavery.
The result was the Compromise of 1850, drafted and guided through Congress by Illinois Democrat, Stephen A. Douglas. The bill allowed New Mexico to become a territory with Texas ceding its territorial claim. In exchange, Texas got the area around El Paso within its borders. Southerners got a new, stronger fugitive slave law and the promise of the rights to determine their laws on slavery through popular sovereignty. Each interest got some of what they wanted.
This law helped the nation stave off civil war for 10 years. Yet, the president was absent in the development of the policy. Ever eager to adopt compromise in the face of a fight, Fillmore eagerly signed the bill into law.
Fillmore’s greatest achievement as president was the establishment of secure trade routes in the south Pacific, opening up markets in southeast Asia. He took steps to assure that Hawaii remained an independent international port. He also took the first tentative steps toward establishing a canal across the isthmus of Panama. Here, Fillmore demonstrated a grasp of larger issues than he did in domestic policies where averting the next crisis was usually the extent of his vision.
Fillmore confided to friends that he did not wish to be re-elected to the presidency and refused to make any effort to campaign for the job. The Whigs were a fractured party and Fillmore, as the presumptive leader of the party, made no effort to bring the sectional factions together around a cohesive platform. Daniel Webster, Fillmore’s Secretary of State was a leading contender along with “Old Fuss and Feathers” General Winfield Scott. However, Fillmore had people loyal to him as well. As the Whigs gathered to pick a nominee in 1852, they balloted for days with none of the three men able to secure a majority.
Once again, we see Fillmore’s inability to act decisively to stave off a crisis. Had he declared himself a candidate, Webster would have released his delegates. Had he removed himself from balloting, his delegates would have gone to Webster. Neither side wanted Scott. Finally, after 53 ballots, enough Webster and Fillmore men bolted to hand the nomination to Scott.
The death of the Whig Party was sealed at this convention. As Democrats clearly put themselves on the issue of popular sovereignty and states rights on the issue of slavery, the Whigs endorsed the Compromise of 1850 which was becoming increasingly ineffective at soothing sectional tensions. Scott was viewed as an anti-slavery Whig or “Conscience Whig,” he made no passionate pleas on behalf of the cause. Abolitionists deserted the party. Failure to take a principled position on the most pressing issue of the day fractured a major political party beyond repair.
Fillmore retired to Buffalo in 1853 and found that he was going to have to secure a means of income. His presidential salary was gone and he had no law practice to return to. The Whig party was in shambles, so he had no political base. He established a private law practice and picked up where he left off years before, representing Buffalo’s business elite.
He was not done with politics however. The rise of American nativism as an issue opened the door for him to make his first and only run for the presidency. The Silver Greys or “Know Nothings” gravitated to each other through their strong distrust and dislike of immigrants and Catholics. Anti-immigrant fever ran high in this area as the country rapidly industrialized and the demand for labor – particularly cheap labor – attracted immigrants from Europe who brought with them their culture and religion.
The Know Nothing movement morphed into the American Party and it developed a national following, electing officials in California, Illinois, Ohio, New York and throughout New England. It seemed as if a new political party had formed.
However, the American Party did not have a position on slavery. Perhaps this is why Fillmore gravitated toward the party. He was selected as the party’s nominee in 1856. However, the former conscience Whigs did not join the American Party and instead joined the nascent Republican Party who was decidedly anti-slavery. Fillmore managed to carry Maryland in 1856, but no other state.
There is nothing in Fillmore’s background that indicates that he was particularly anti-immigrant, so it is remarkable that he joined the Know Nothings. He did not demonstrate any particular passion for returning to the presidency. Rayback provides the reader with no particular details as to Fillmore’s thinking on the issue, so the reader is left to wonder.
That was the end of Fillmore’s life in politics. He returned to Buffalo and for the remainder of his days as its leading citizen in commerce, in volunteering, and in business. He spoke out on national issues, but seldom took strong stands. When Civil War broke out, he declared the time had passed to fix blame for the war and to do everything possible to bring the nation back together. He supported the war effort and did all he could to aid in the recruitment of a union army in New York.
But he, like many Americans, tired of Civil War and by 1864, he wanted to negotiate with the Confederates for peace. He endorsed George McClellan for president, but never became a Democrat.
Fillmore was not as lackluster as those who would follow him. He certainly was more effective than either Franklin Pierce or James Buchanan. But the man lacked any core convictions or guiding principles other than the avoidance of conflict. Politically, the Compromise of 1850 was a landmark moment in our nation’s history, yet it did not bare his imprimatur. His failure to actively run or withdraw from the election of 1852 contributed to the destruction of his party. His presidency is lackluster, but he did no harm. That puts him above several American presidents.
It may be that Rayback had no primary resources upon which he could base a more compelling narrative of Fillmore’s life. Fillmore was not a keeper of a journal and he did not keep a great deal of correspondence. That is the case with many of our early presidents. But missing from Rayback’s biography is any indication of what kind of man Fillmore was. What kind of husband was he to his two wives, father to his two children? As presidential biographies go, this one was as dry as Vodka without vermouth.