Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Millard Fillmore

I’m a big fan of Millard Fillmore. He was a fine man who bears no resemblance to the current caricature of him. If people know his name at all, it's usually because late night tv hosts make fun of him, probably because his name is odd and because the few photos make him look like a stuffed shirt.

In fact, he was raised in grinding poverty in western New York (his father was a tenant farmer). Young Millard apprenticed in a mill, constantly reading to improve his minimal skills. His father's landlord recognized Millard's abilities and arranged for him to be apprenticed to become a lawyer. Millard ultimately became an outstanding lawyer and leading citizen of Buffalo, served at various times in the State legislature and in Congress, always with distinction, and was a leading member of the Whig party in Western New York, where he was uniformly respected and admired for his civic-mindedness.

One of the few who disliked Fillmore was Albany editor and powerbroker Thurlow Weed, who perceived Fillmore to be a threat to Weed's favorite, William Seward. Weed turned out to be more correct than he anticipated. Fillmore was unexpectedly nominated as Vice President on the Whig ticket in 1848, balancing the southern Taylor.

During the campaign, Fillmore's good sense and ability may well have saved Zachary Taylor from defeat. When Taylor accepted the nomination of the South Carolina Democratic Party, Weed called a meeting of New York Whigs to repudiate Taylor and nominate another candidate. With great difficulty, Fillmore persuaded Weed to delay the meeting, giving Taylor the opportunity to issue a letter explaining why he had accepted the nomination, which placated the Whig ranks.

Indeed, in a number of respects Fillmore's background strikes me as similar to Lincoln's. From humble beginnings, he was driven by the desire for self-improvement and ambition (in the best sense of the term). Through hard work he became a lawyer and intermittent legislator and was highly respected by his local community and those who knew him. He became a Whig who believed (and stated, even during the campaign) that slavery was evil and that it should not be extended to the Territories, while affirming that slavery in the southern States was a matter for those States alone.

One author sums him up as follows:

"[Fillmore was] a kind, gentle and generous husband and father; an orthodox Unitarian; a citizen immersed in his community's efforts at self-improvement; and an ardent and effective advocate of the best interests of his constituents."

"With an impeccable reputation, many friends, and virtually no enemies except for jealous rivals within his own party, Fillmore went to the Whig convention of 1848. His nomination for vice-president surprised him as much as it did Thurlow Weed."

"The bare facts of Fillmore's political career in New York only scratch the surface of the intelligence, character, determination, and hard work that it had required."

"Fillmore would have been a better star [than Seward] for Weed's ambitions, but he was in fact much too conscientious for Weed's taste. . . . Fillmore's emergence as vice-president was a tribute to his record and talents, as well as something of a vindication of the American political system."

Elbert Smith, The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore (U. Kansas Press 1988), pp. 45, 46, 47.

It's small discoveries such as this -- the discovery of a truly decent, admirable and in some ways remarkable and important man who has unjustly faded into obscurity except as a caricature -- that can make the study of history such a pleasure.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails