#13. Fillmore, Millard

Linda Lou Burton posting from Little Rock, Arkansas –Millard Fillmore (January 7, 1800 – March 8, 1874) was the 13th president of the United States, from 1850 to 1853. I’m going to say right up front that I would invite Millard Fillmore to my party, and if you wouldn’t, then you’re a snob. Like all the folks who’ve picked on this man: His name is dull. He is dull. Historians rate his presidency as “obscure.” This guy needs a Plus-Minus chart, and I’m going to make one for him. Read on, and take notes. Let’s start with his NAME. That came from his parents, don’t blame Millard for an inelegant name. He was the first son of the eight children born to Nathaniel and Phoebe Millard Fillmore, and of course Phoebe gave him her maiden name; that’s what people did, and still do, even if it sounds dull. And Nathaniel and Phoebe were POOR; they were tenant farmers in upstate New York, where the ground is not great for farming. So they moved to Vermont; not better; and they moved again. Log cabin poverty, that was Millard’s early life. Hard work and severe poverty. Nathaniel taught school occasionally and was chosen to serve in local offices; he wanted Millard to learn a trade so apprenticed him to a cloth maker; Millard was fourteen at the time. That didn’t work out; Millard felt he wasn’t learning any skills; his father then sent him to a nearby mill to work. What do you do when you’re stuck in a rut? Some people complain. Millard bought a share in a circulating library and read all the books he could find. And he enrolled in a new academy there in town, and fell in love with his teacher. No inappropriate scandal there; the teacher was Abigail Powers (1798-1853), who eventually became First Lady of the United States, the most scholarly woman to attain that position. She installed the first library in the White House. And Millard became President.

You’ve got to hear this story.

Let’s pick up in Millard’s nineteenth year. The family moved again, and Nathaniel persuaded his landlord, Judge Walter Wood, to allow Millard to clerk for him. Millard read law there, and taught school for a bit, earning enough money to buy out his apprenticeship in 18 months. And the family moved again, settling near Buffalo, New York. Things began to improve, at last. Nathaniel’s farm became prosperous; Millard taught school and continued the study of law. In 1823 he was admitted to the New York bar and established a practice in East Aurora. He and Abigail, after a long courtship, married February 5, 1826 – he was 26, she was 28. They had two children, Millard Powers and Mary Abigail (continuing the naming trend). And Millard’s career took off. I’m giving him PLUS marks so far for trying to please his father, while moving ahead with his own goals. And for marrying a smart woman.

Government Positions

  • Member of New York State Assembly, 1828-31
  • Member of US House of Representatives, 1833-35
  • Member of US House of Representatives, 1837-45
  • Comptroller of New York, 1847
  • Vice President, 1849-1850 (under Taylor)
  • 13th US President, 1850-1853

Millard got interested in politics. He was a delegate to the New York convention that endorsed President John Quincy Adams for reelection. He was elected to the New York State Assembly and served in Albany for three one-year terms. He promoted legislation to provide court witnesses the option of taking a non-religious oath, and for abolishing imprisonment for debt. He moved his successful law practice to Buffalo, which was growing rapidly, and helped draft the city charter. He helped found the Buffalo High School Association, joined the lyceum, attended the Unitarian church. He was active in the New York Militia and attained the rank of major.

As a Congressman he supported building infrastructure, voting in favor of navigation improvements on the Hudson River and constructing a bridge across the Potomac River. He fought for government funds being used to develop the country. He was not in favor of slavery at this time of fierce debate over the issue, but he did not believe it should be a political issue. He grew tired of the political wangling and returned to Buffalo and his law practice in 1843. By that time he was at the height of his popularity and deemed “able in debate, wise in council, and inflexible in his political sentiments.”

So far, good. And then he founded a university. At least, he was involved in the founding of the University of Buffalo in 1846, and became its first chancellor. As to politics, he opposed the annexation of Texas, and spoke against the Mexican-American War; he believed it would extend slavery’s realm. He also spoke out in anger when President Polk vetoed a river and harbors bill that would have benefitted Buffalo, and wrote: “May God save the country for it is evident the people will not.”

It’s hard to imagine, with today’s “campaign fervor” which puts office seekers under relentless second-by-second scrutiny, that in the mid-19th century any candidate wanting high office should not appear to seek it. So when all the back-stage fiddle-faddle finally settled on a Taylor/Fillmore ticket in 1848, Millard remained quiet. Except for a widely published letter he sent to an Alabamian stating that “slavery was an evil, but one that the federal government had no authority over.”

Millard Fillmore was sworn in as vice president on March 5, 1849, in the Senate Chamber. After taking the oath from Chief Justice Roger Taney he swore in the senators beginning their terms. And then, he was largely ignored by Zachary Taylor. Until that day in July 1850 when he was called from his chair while presiding over the Senate to join the vigil outside Taylor’s bedroom at the White House. On July 9 he received official notice of Taylor’s death; after acknowledging the letter and spending a sleepless night, the next day, in a joint session of Congress, he took the oath of office. Now he was President of the United States.

Taylor’s cabinet resigned, as is customary; Millard accept their resignations. Not a good start? He set up his own cabinet; knocking a few heads along the way. When I read about Millard Fillmore’s presidency, one critique is that he didn’t force an agenda in line with his beliefs. Example: his signing of the Fugitive Slave Bill. Fillmore generally signed bills as they reached his desk, but he held the Fugitive Slave Bill for two days until he received a favorable opinion as to its constitutionality from the new Attorney General, John Crittenden. “It is not my job to make the law,” he observed, “but to enforce it.” Basic Civics 101.

Millard was unpopular with northern Whigs for signing and enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act but had considerable support from the South; nevertheless, he wasn’t selected for the 1852 ticket, and Franklin Pierce became President # 14.

Need Work

Millard was out of a job, with no independent wealth, no landed estate, and no pension. He and Abigail planned a tour of the South after leaving the White House, but she caught cold at Franklin Pierce’s inauguration on March 4, 1853, developed pneumonia, and died March 30.

A word about Abigail Powers before I tell you what Millard did next. Abigail was the youngest of seven children; she grew up in Moravia, New York, not far from the Fillmore farm. Her father died shortly after she was born, but left behind a large library; her mother used the books to educate her children beyond the usual frontier level. Abigail came to love literature, but also became proficient in math, government, history, philosophy, and geography. She became a teacher, and was asked to open a private school; in 1819 she took a post at a new academy where her oldest pupil was 19-year-0ld Millard Filmore. Their love of learning is one thing that drew them together and to marriage in 1826. She continued teaching until their son was born.

Abigail learned the ways of society as the wife of a Congressman, but much of her time, as always, she spent reading. An injured ankle that never properly healed rendered her unable to stand for long periods of time, so on becoming First Lady in 1850 at age 52, she entrusted many routine social duties to her daughter Abby. She was appalled to learn that there was no library in the White House, so with a special appropriation from Congress of $2,000, she spent her time selecting books and building a library. Shakespeare, history and geography books, and her piano graced the library; she taught herself to play. She invited writers such as William Thackeray, Charles Dickens, and Washington Irving to meet with her; she invited performance artists such as Jenny Lind to come; she created a White House literary salon. She was reportedly a witty and erudite conversationalist, the most intellectual of the early first ladies.

She offered Millard advice and counsel on political matters; reportedly he never made any important decision without first consulting her. It is said she advised him not to sign the Fugitive Slave Bill; she predicted what would happen if he did, and she was right. Abigail left behind a legacy of women and work.

Moving On

Millard Fillmore returned to Buffalo for Abigail’s burial, but his grieving was not yet done. The very next year his daughter Abby died of cholera. So Millard spent over a year abroad, visiting Europe and the Middle East. Queen Victoria called him handsome; he had an audience with Pope Pius IX; he was offered an honorary Doctor of Civil Law degree by the University of Oxford. He declined, explaining he had neither the “literary nor scientific attainment” to justify the degree. And while he was away, the Know Nothing Party put him on the 1856 ticket. James Buchanan won with 174 electoral votes; the Fillmore/Donelson third-party ticket came in third.

Millard had not sought to be on the ticket in the first place; but felt that his political career had truly ended with that; and he wasn’t really interested in continuing the practice of law. So he got married again; this time to a wealthy widow, Caroline McIntosh (1813-1881), where, as the story ends, they lived happily ever after, devoting themselves to entertaining and philanthropy, “generously supporting every conceivable cause,” such as the Buffalo General Hospital, which Millard helped found.

Millard Fillmore died March 8, 1874, at the age of 74. He may not have been the most exuberant or dashing of presidents, but he didn’t violate his principles, and he did some good things in his lifetime.

Way more pluses than minuses.