Fillmore, Millard

Millard FillmoreMillard Fillmore (January 7, 1800-March 8, 1874), the thirteenth president of the United States, worked to preserve the union from the sectional interests that threatened to blow it apart. In doing so he supported policies with which he did not agree, in the spirit of compromise and because he felt that citizens from throughout the country should have a voice. His signing into law of the Fugitive Slave Act and his political alliance with a nativist party, both actions driven by his unionist principles, have tarnished the reputation of a man who was greatly respected in his time and was, in an era of poor federal executive leadership, an effective president.

Millard was born in Milton Township, Onondaga County (now Summerhill, Cayuga County) in the Finger Lakes region of west-central New York State. He was the second of nine children born to Nathaniel Fillmore and Phoebe Millard, settlers from New England. When he was two the family moved to a better farm, ten miles away, near the settlement of New Hope. From early boyhood he worked in support of his father’s vain efforts to farm the clay soil successfully. During the winters he attended a log schoolhouse, where he learned arithmetic, spelling, and some geography. Due to financial need, and hoping that his son might not be a farmer, in 1815 Nathaniel apprenticed him to a New Hope wool carder and cloth dresser for a period of five years. According to this arrangement he worked summer and fall in textile manufacturing, went to school in the winter, and helped his family on the farm in the spring.

Until around 1817, when he purchased a share in a local lending library, Millard’s access to books was restricted to schoolbooks and the almanac, Bible, and hymnal owned by his father. He read ceaselessly in a program of self-education. He bought a dictionary, laid it open at work, and read a definition every time he passed by while servicing the carding machines. In the winter of 1818 he taught school in nearby Scott, New York. This experience, which stretched his academic abilities, taught him that he needed a better formal education himself. The following winter he attended an academy in nearby Kelloggsville. He fell in love with his teacher, Abigail Powers, just two years his senior.

The following year the Fillmores moved a few miles away to Montville. There Nathaniel arranged for his son to begin reading law with Walter Wood, a Cayuga County judge. Encouraged by Wood to continue in this study, Millard took out a $30 loan to purchase the balance of his textile apprenticeship. He paid this off by teaching in the winter of 1820. In 1821 he moved to Aurora in Erie County, 20 miles south of Buffalo, soon to become the western terminus of the Erie Canal. After teaching school for another winter season, in early 1822 he was engaged as a clerk at a Buffalo law office. In 1823 he was admitted to the bar in the Erie County Court of Common Pleas and set up practice in Aurora. With this legal career well established, in 1826 he married Abigail, who had waited for him since he moved west. They had two children, Millard Powers, born in 1828, and Mary Abigail, born in 1832.

In 1827 Fillmore was admitted to the bar in Buffalo as attorney of the Supreme Court. Three years later, he and his family moved to Buffalo. In 1834 he set up a partnership with Nathan Hall. In 1836 Solomon G. Haven joined them in what was already among the most successful and respected law firms in western New York.

Fillmore entered politics in 1828 as a member of the Anti-Masonic Party, working with the National Republicans for the re-nomination of John Quincy Adams. That fall he was elected to the New York State Assembly where served for three years. In 1831 he drafted and secured the passage of a law abolishing imprisonment for debt in New York. In that same session he sponsored a bill abrogating a law requiring witnesses in New York State courts to swear their belief in God and the afterlife. He called it an “absurd law” based upon “the narrow feeling of prejudice and bigotry.” This bill never emerged from committee.

Fillmore had liberal ideas about religion. He had been raised by nominal Methodists, studied under a Quaker judge, and may have attended or visited a short-lived Unitarian society in Kelloggsville. In late 1831 a Unitarian church was organized near the Fillmores’ home in Buffalo. Millard became a charter member. Abigail, who had been brought up Baptist, did not actively participate.

In 1832 Fillmore was elected to the House of Representatives as a National Republican, opposed to the policies of the Andrew Jackson administration. Having lost his Anti-Masonic support by joining the new Whig party, he declined to be nominated in 1834 and worked to integrate his old supporters into the Whig coalition. In 1836 he was returned to Congress as a Whig. He was re-elected in 1838 and 1840, each time with the outspoken support of the abolitionists in his district. In 1841 Fillmore was a candidate for Speaker of the House. When Henry Clay was selected, Fillmore instead became Chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. As chairman he secured passage of the Whig protective tariff and promoted Samuel F. B. Morse’s telegraph. During his six years in Congress as a Whig, Fillmore opposed annexation of Texas as a slave territory, supported John Quincy Adams’s valiant efforts to secure the right to offer anti-slavery petitions in Congress, advocated prohibition by Congress of the slave trade between states, and backed the exclusion of slavery from Washington, D.C.

In 1842 Fillmore did not stand for re-election to Congress. Instead he pursued the Whig nomination for Vice President in 1844. However, he reluctantly acceded to the request of Thurlow Weed, the Whig boss of New York, that he make way for abolitionist William H. Seward and accept the party’s nomination for governor instead. Defeated in the election by the Democratic candidate, he found himself part of a moderate minority faction within his own party. In spite of this handicap, in 1847 Fillmore was elected State Comptroller. He pushed the limits of the new powers added to this position, in order to bolster his reputation as a Whig leader. When General Zachary Taylor, the slave-owning hero of the Mexican War, was nominated for president by the Whigs in 1848, Whig leaders balanced the ticket by selecting Fillmore for vice president. The Taylor-Fillmore ticket won a narrow victory

The Mexican War had brought about a crisis that the new administration was called upon to resolve. A number of the southern states threatened to secede if new regions were not made available for the extension of slavery. Henry Clay proposed a compromise “omnibus bill” which contained items that were meant to attract slaveholders and anti-slavery advocates: admission of California as a free state, resolution of Texas border disputes, granting Territorial status to New Mexico and Utah without a free or slave designation, abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia, and a Fugitive Slave Law, placing Federal officers at the disposal of slaveholders. The bill remained stalled in Congress for many months.

In 1850 Taylor suddenly died and Fillmore succeeded to the presidency. Declining to identify with one section against another, he determined “to look upon this whole country, from the farthest coast of Maine to the utmost limit of Texas, as but one country.” Accordingly, in spite of his reservations, he campaigned for the passage of the omnibus bill. Failing at this, he endorsed Senator Stephen A. Douglas’s plan to split the omnibus into five separate bills. This strategy broke the deadlock and all the bills were passed.

Fillmore delayed signing the Fugitive Slave Act for three days, until September 18, 1850, while he pondered its implications. He knew it would be greeted with protest by abolitionists and other northerners who resented being made the South’s slave catchers. Further, he expected that the new law would destroy his political career. He had sworn an oath, however, to defend and preserve the Union. Accordingly he signed it. Charles Sumner, who would soon campaign for the repeal of the Act in the Senate, said, “Better for [Fillmore] had he never been born; better for his memory and the good name of his children, had he never been President.” Some in the South were also dissatisfied with the combined effects of the acts. The governor of South Carolina made public threats of secession. Fillmore immediately gave the United States Army orders to reinforce Federal positions in South Carolina and other southern states. This prompt action stopped any talk of secession.

Fillmore never doubted he had taken the right action. His definitive statement on the subject was: “God knows that I detest slavery, but it is an existing evil, for which we are not responsible, and we must endure it, and give it such protection as is guaranteed by the Constitution, till we can get rid of it without destroying the last hope of free government in the world.”

The balance of Fillmore’s term was marked by effective scandal-free administration of the government, and by a number of foreign policy successes. Among these were the commissioning of Admiral Perry’s successful mission to Japan, a proclamation declaring that the United States had no interest in annexing Cuba, and a letter to the French government stating American interest in protecting the Hawaiian Islands against foreign intervention.

Fillmore, who had mixed feelings about running for reelection, did not campaign vigorously for renomination and sent mixed messages to his supporters. With some of the more conservative Whig delegates committed to his secretary of state, Daniel Webster, Fillmore narrowly lost at the party convention to Seward’s protegé, General Winfield Scott. Not entirely unhappy to have retired from the presidency, Fillmore looked forward to returning to Buffalo where “I should be no more harassed with the cares of state,” he wrote, “but spend my time in cheerful amusements with my family.” While the Fillmores were still in Washington, however, just a few days after the inauguration of President Franklin Pierce, Abigail died of pneumonia. Their daughter, Mary Abigail, died of cholera just over a year later.

With the Whig Party divided and in disarray, its more radical leaders founded the new Republican Party, devoted to the anti-slavery interests of the North. This sectional polarization greatly troubled Fillmore. He was approached by the American Party (the “Know Nothings”) to consider running for president on its ticket in 1856. They nominated him in absentia while he was on a prolonged European grand tour. Although he did not share the nativist, anti-Catholic sentiments of the Know Nothings, he felt strongly that the country needed a national party devoted to preserving the Union and promoting national interests ahead of regional ones. He campaigned vigorously on what was essentially the old Whig platform, ignoring or even contradicting the American Party’s nativist program. “I have no hostility to foreigners,” he told one audience. “Having witnessed their deplorable condition in the old country, God forbid I should add to their sufferings by refusing them an asylum in this.” Moreover, several of his speeches included this statement: “In my opinion, Church and State should be separate, not only in form but in fact—religion and politics should not be mingled.” In November he suffered an ignominious defeat, finishing third with only 21 percent of the vote and only eight votes in the electoral college (from Maryland). This was the end of his political career.

During his presidency and afterwards Fillmore was befriended by Dorothea Dix, the crusader for better treatment of the mentally ill. He promoted her social legislation and she supported him in his presidency, his political career, and in his bereavements.

Fillmore’s civic life was busy and productive during the ensuing years. In 1858 he married a wealthy widow, Caroline C. McIntosh. The couple entertained in connection with Millard’s law practice and with his work as a founder and president of the Buffalo Historical Society, the Buffalo General Hospital, and the Buffalo Club. Fillmore was also a founder of the University of Buffalo and its Medical College. During the Civil War he was Chairman of the Buffalo Committee of Public Defense. When he died he was regarded as Buffalo’s leading citizen.

Fillmore’s association with First Unitarian Church of Buffalo lasted for 35 years. He took John Quincy Adams to church with him there in 1843 and President-elect Abraham Lincoln in 1861. A letter written in 1849, turning down an invitation to speak at a Unitarian meeting in Boston, saying, “I sympathize with those who inhance liberal Christianity. But yet I am not a member of the Unitarian church,” remains puzzling. He had contributed much money to the Unitarian church, including a registered payment in 1848.

Numerous abolitionists in the congregation greatly disagreed with Fillmore’s acts as President. He understood this and did not complain. Although George W. Hosmer, minister of the church, 1836-67, disagreed publicly with Fillmore’s positions, particularly on the Fugitive Slave Law, the two men enjoyed a close relationship. Upon Fillmore’s death, Hosmer said, “He dreaded war; by any and every means he would save his country from such calamity as war would bring. When Congress by a large majority passed the Fugitive Slave Bill, then for the sake of peace he thought it best to sign it. Now all can see, and some saw it then, it was only postponing the horror. But I know Mr. Fillmore was honest, unspotted by corruption, and never thought of the nation’s capitol as a place to make money or satisfy selfish ambition. No goods of the nation clung to him; his hands were clean. Integrity and economy kept him safe. A letter he wrote to me, when he suddenly found himself at the head of the Government, reveals the strong earnestness with which he took up his great duty. In serious words he said how deep he felt his dependence on God, and with all his heart sought his guidance.”

Millard Fillmore’s papers are at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society and at the State University of New York at Oswego. Millard Fillmore Papers, vols.1 and 2 (1907), edited by Frank H. Severence, includes documentation of Fillmore’s church activity as well as ample material on his political career in New York and Washington. The archives of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo contain documentation of Fillmore’s church membership and congregational participation. The portrait of Fillmore was also furnished by the Church. His correspondence with Dorothea Dix is in Charles M. Snyder, The Lady and the President: The Letters of Dorothea Dix and Millard Fillmore (1975). For detailed source information see John E. Crawford, Millard Fillmore: A Bibliography (2002). Two useful, and well-referenced, biographies are Robert J. Rayback, Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President (1959) and Robert J. Scarry, Millard Fillmore (2001). Two excellent studies of the late antebellum are Elbert B. Smith, The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore (1988) and Holman Hamilton, Prolog to Conflict: The Crisis and Compromise of 1850 (1964). There is an entry by Tyler Anbinder in American National Biography (1999).

Article by Walter Herz
Posted April 15, 2008