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Millard Fillmore by Paul Finkelman
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There is a certain fascination in reading about a mediocrity. By this standard, Millard Fillmore is perhaps the most fascinating President in history.

There have been Presidents less "qualified" than Fillmore (Abraham Lincoln, who had served only one term in congress, was one). There have been presidents who have been more lucky in ending up with the job (Lincoln's vice president Andrew Johnson probably qualifies). But Fillmore managed to be lucky, unqualified -- and in the middle of a very hot situation as California's quest for statehood forced the federal government to face the issue of slavery head-on. President Zachary Taylor -- the man elected in 1848 -- had been prepared to tackle the issue, and he had stature as an elected President and a successful general. Fillmore, who succeeded in 1850 when Taylor died in office, had none of that.

Nor did he have any brilliant ideas. The Compromise of 1850 was not his but Henry Clay's, and Fillmore backed it but did not make it his own. Fillmore did little to address the problem of conflict between North and South. Frankly, he did little, period. In the view of this book, it is because he was too much a particularist -- interested in his own people and his own concerns, and with little regard for those (such as slaves) who weren't part of his own circle.

Biographers have a tendency to be sympathetic to their subjects. Paul Finkleman is not at all sympathetic to Fillmore. It is hard to know if this is fair -- we don't really get to know the "inner Fillmore" in this book. All we see is the mediocrity (which was certainly real) and the lust for power (also pretty hard to deny). It may not be a complete picture. But it is a fascinating one. ( )
  waltzmn | Feb 27, 2012 |
Well!!! This turned out to be one of the most interesting presidential biographies I've read so far.

Finkelman vehemently disagrees with [[Robert Rayback]] about Fillmore's philosophy, intentions, and political successes (or not). Simply put, this is a scathing 137-page indictment of a man the author sees as the day's ultimate doughface (Northerner with Southern sympathies) and future Copperhead (Northerner with Confederate sympathies).

I don't know enough about Fillmore or the time period to make a judgment on which author sees Fillmore more clearly, but Finkelman is certainly convincing. First, there is a lengthy and informative summary of the personal, historical and political background leading up to Fillmore's nomination for Vice President. Then comes a vivid dissection of his political ineptness, moral failings (he hated and acted against pretty much everyone who wasn't white, Protestant, and a citizen, as well as abolitionists of all creeds), and collaboration with Daniel Webster to push through the Compromise of 1850 and the beefed up Fugitive Slave Act. Finkelman discusses Fillmore's intense effort to appease extreme Southerners and the dramatic imbalance between what the Northerners and Southerners received in the final Compromise, with the South receiving pretty much everything it wanted and the North receiving nothing it wouldn't have had anyway, including a free California. There is an extended discussion of the damage done to the black community with the suspension of habeas corpus for people claimed as runaways (including kidnapped free blacks and fugitives with free spouses and children) and various court cases in which people of both races were charged with treason for aiding escaped slaves. Meanwhile, cases involving actual treason and threats to national security and international relations (private invasions of Cuba, threats of war by the new state of Texas) were smoothed over with little ado. Finkelman, a specialist in American legal history, race, and constitutional law, clearly sees the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 as Fillmore's chief claim to ignominy, while recognizing the resultant increase in Northern anti-slavery efforts.

Finkelman does give Fillmore credit for several "visionary" ideas (for example, movements towards a transcontinental railroad and towards the opening of Japan to American diplomacy and trade). But the lasting impression is of a man with little pity and few values besides maintenance of business and property rights. What a stinker. ( )
1 vote auntmarge64 | Jun 17, 2011 |
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For Abraham R. Wagner, a True Son of Buffalo
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The President's death caught the nation by surprise.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 080508715X, Hardcover)

The oddly named president whose shortsightedness and stubbornness fractured the nation and sowed the seeds of civil war

In the summer of 1850, America was at a terrible crossroads. Congress was in an uproar over slavery, and it was not clear if a compromise could be found. In the midst of the debate, President Zachary Taylor suddenly took ill and died. 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 politics—as 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 and on the central issues of the age—immigration, religious toleration, and most of all slavery—his myopic vision led to the destruction of his presidency, his party, and ultimately, the Union itself.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:01:41 -0400)

A portrait of the 13th President traces his rise from virtual obscurity after the sudden death of Zachary Taylor, evaluating his roles in promoting Southern agendas, dividing the Whig party and setting the groundwork for the American Civil War.

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