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Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President (1959)

by Robert J. Rayback

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Okay, I'm a little bit stunned. I thought when I got this book that I would be a tad bit bored because I had never pictured President Millard Fillmore as particularly interesting (maybe it’s the name) but that was my pre-conceived impression even after I had read a brief biography. Read on and see all that this man did in his lifetime and then tell me he was boring.

During the recession times of the Tyler Administration, Fillmore (a self-taught lawyer) was runner-up for Speaker of the House and became chairman of Ways and Means Committee. At this time he put forth some unusual ideas, i.e. If incomes fell 25% due to government policies, government salaries should be reduced by 25%; he also took responsibility for a law which when enacted caused hardship for settlers and fought to represent their rights for fairer treatment by landlords. (Interesting to say the least.)

He became a national expert on public economy and banking needs. "What businessmen needed, declared a businessman, was a national bankruptcy act to free them of the shackles of past poor judgment." It was also "claimed that old debts dampened their enthusiasm for new ventures and delayed recovery." (Does this sound familiar?) Fillmore shrewdly devised a way to pass a new tariff bill, kill President Tyler politically while smashing the Compromise Tariff of 1833 which was in part the cause of the economic woes of the time.

At the same time, the North/South issues were escalating and Fillmore's actions showed how the North felt they were oppressed by the Southern legislators and Southern President who were causing manufacturing and commerce difficulties.

After his Washington experience, he was appointed to the Comptrollership of New York state and during that time he worked to have the Erie canal and canal basin enlarged, revised the banking code (which was adopted nationally 16 years later) and established a more stable currency based on NY state and Federal bonds.

He was sent back to Washington as the Vice President under Zachary Taylor. His political enemies from NY did everything in their power to make him completely useless as a politician while VP but he maintained himself as a man of principle notifying President Taylor that he would vote against him in the Senate on the Compromise of 1850 if the vote came to a tie and his vote was taken. Fortunately, Taylor never had the chance to veto the bill because of his sudden death, and Fillmore work to pass the legislation to calm the political firestorm of the time. Fillmore's belief was that the compromise bills were an "equality of dissatisfaction" which give the nation time to calm down. He took a great deal of criticism for his part in the Compromise but said "The man who can look upon a crisis without being willing to offer himself upon the altar of his country is not fit for public trust." His first 10 weeks in office passed the needed legislation which calm the storm clouds and reduced the threats of secession and disunion.

During the remainder of his administration, he worked to maintain the equilibrium of the situation surrounding the Compromise of 1850. Though he had the power as President to crush his enemies who had belittled him when he was VP, he was not a vengeful man, and felt that it was more important as President to be a statesman rather than a politician. Because of his policies the South was unable to take any action and prosperity and industrial development increased.

Millard Fillmore was recognized by both the North and South for holding the union together by honoring the rights of both sections even though they were contrary to his personal beliefs. Unfortunately, all the work that he did to balance the issues during his administration were undone by the Kansas Nebraska Act of 1853 after he left office. Upon retirement, he returned alone to his home in Buffalo (his wife died 3 weeks after he left office) , where he was the Chancellor of the University of Buffalo and the President of the Historical Society and started the second chapter of the SPCA. In 1856 he ran again for President as a member of the Know Nothing Party but was defeated.

I had a hard time putting this book down once I got into the political career of this self-taught, intelligent, and dedicated statesman. To say the least, IMHO, it was fascinating. What sadden me most about this book was that I got it as an Interlibrary loan from a library that still has the little cards in the back to show when it was checked out, and this book had been sitting on the shelf for the last 37 years. It had not been read since 1973. How sad that such a well-written book, should sit unread for so long. I highly recommend this book for those looking to learn something about the obscure Presidents of our nation. ( )
25 vote cyderry | Mar 11, 2010 |
This biography is great in the sense that it examines the nuts and bolts of party politics. Fillmore makes it to the top the hard way—building a party, placating inner-party opponents, finding the right man for the job—until he finally reached his level of his incompetence—the Presidency.

Of course he was in a nearly impossible position. The country needed a visionary leader, which was the last person the parties would willingly nominate for the position. (Zachery Taylor was an accident, nominated by a dying Whig Party because, like Jackson and Harrison, he was a war hero.)

Fillmore was equivalent to a Blue Dog Democrat today—always ready to compromise even to his own disadvantage. He struggled to isolate the radicals of both sides and encouraged the Union sympathizers of the North and the South to hold fast. Unfortunately, while he despised the hotheads of the North, he appeased those of the South. The more he gave in to the South, the more it alarmed the North, which stepped up its rhetoric, causing the South to feel less secure and hence demanding more. At least this is the Southern historians' position. I've yet to decide but it has made me far more sensitive to differences of opinion and inevitable author bias.

You expect an author to have sympathy for their subject, especially one as misunderstood as Fillmore, but by the end of the book I wanted to know more about the author, where he was coming from. He displays surprising little interest in the human cost of slavery. It's just a legal wrangle to him and to Fillmore. I apologize if I'm misunderstanding Dr. Rayback, but he seems to share in that pie-in-the-sky fantasy of early Americans from George Washington to James Buchanan that if left alone slavery would die off on its own.

One consistent trait of Fillmore's is that he made bad decisions throughout his career. (Like when he let Thurlow Weed and William Seward off the mat after he had them down.) Inexplicably, Fillmore decided against running for president in his own right, when he at least had a chance of winning and an opportunity to prove his policies right. Instead he presided over the dissolution of the Whig Party. Four years later he tried to rally the old Whigs one last time as the candidate of the "Know-Nothing" Party (anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic nativists), and although he polled a respectable 21%, it was clear that the middle ground was eroding away.

Fillmore was a steady man, a dependable man, a careful man, a man without the imagination needed to be President during an extraordinary time.
2 vote wcpweaver | Sep 24, 2009 |
3487. Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President, by Robert J. Rayback (read Sept 19, 2001) In my effort to read a bio of each president, I noted this is the only one of Fillmore I know, and so I got it thru inter-library loan. This book is not well-written and Fillmore is viewed quite favorably, tho from the viewpoint of today I could not help but feel the author might have been more deprecatory of the attitude of Fillmore to slavery. Nor did I
appreciate the author's seeming indifference to the Know Nothings and their hate rampant in 1852-1853. But there is good in the book, at least when dealing with the interesting politics of the 1850s. Now the only dead president I have read no book on is Hoover, tho I have not read complete biographies of Polk (only two volumes--the third and final volume was never written, so how can I read it?), Teddy Roosevelt (waiting for Edmund Morris to finish his bio so superlatively started in The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt--read with great appreciation June 16, 1979), and FDR (will Geoffrey Ward ever write more in the account he began so spectacularly in Before the Trumpet [read 15 Oct 1993] and A First-Class Temperament [read Sept 12, 1995]?) ( )
1 vote Schmerguls | Nov 22, 2007 |
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