Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Millard Fillmore Says "Ouch!"

Apparently in order to take a silly swipe at President Bush, Millard Fillmore's Bathtub gratuitously bashes its own eponym:

"Millard Fillmore is widely considered to be one of the worst, or most inactive, presidents in U.S. history. He was an accidental president, taking office on the death of Zachary Taylor. Trying to avoid controversy and confrontation he let fester many of the problems that would lead to the Civil War. He was a one-term president — his own party refused to nominate him for election on his own, in 1852. After the Whig Party crashed and burned, Fillmore accepted the nomination of the American Party, more commonly known as the Know-Nothing Party, in 1856. 'Millard Fillmore' is shorthand for 'failed presidency' in most lexicons."

I suppose one's view of President Fillmore may depend on what you think of the Compromise of 1850, but the claims that he was "inactive" or that he presided over a "failed presidency" are ludicrous. Shortly after becoming president, he vigorously endorsed the proposed Compromise, and his advocacy probably contributed to its successful passage. The Whigs failed to renominate him largely because he was unwilling to employ patronage to reward Whig bosses. No doubt, the Whigs later came to rue their foolish decision.

While his later acceptance of the American ("Know-Nothing") Party nomination in 1856 was not his finest hour, there were several mitigating factors. First, it's worth remembering that the Whig Party was dead and buried as a national party by 1856, and many former Whigs who found the Republicans unacceptable turned to the American Party as to the only other viable alternative to the Democrats. Second, the Americans nominated Fillmore in absentia and without his knowledge (he was in Europe, I believe). Bored and depressed from the deaths of his wife in 1853 and daughter in 1854, Fillmore accepted the nomination upon his return but did not, to the best of my knowledge, make any statements endorsing its nativist rhetoric.

I have previously posted a brief appreciation of Fillmore and his presidency


  1. Great stuff! There's no doubt that Fillmore's different views from Taylor's made a difference in the Compromise of 1850. Did that do the nation much good?

    Jefferson and Madison had feared the looming civil war since 1787. They had thought the lid would boil off the pot well before 1861, but wiser leaders might have paid attention to the warning signs, and worked to resolve some of the differences instead of simply purchasing a relative peace.

    I'm sure I'm too rough on Fillmore on some counts. I'm not rough enough on others, though, so it it rather evens itself out. But you might persuade me Fillmore was something other than a place-filler. In any case, I'm sure your post will earn a spot in the January 7th memorial blog post at the Bathtub.

    Thanks again!

  2. Ed,

    Thanks for your kind words. I enjoy your blog and read it regularly. I may have some more to say in the future about the degree to which Fillmore's posture may have made passage of the Compromise possible -- and whether its passage was a good thing or not.

  3. Anonymous3:15 PM

    After reading Holt's "American Whig Party" I came away with some interest in Fillmore and his place in history. The relationship of Fillmore to Seward/Weed in NY state politics is of interest. My impression is that Taylor did much to help along the end of the Whig party, and Fillmore initially was trying to reverse some of the effects of Taylor's actions. After working with Clay and Webster on the compromises, he seems to have harbored stronger ambitions, or at least saw the threat to the Whig party and wanted to forestall it. The history of the 52 Whig convention seems interestings, and Holt seems to place blame on Webster, who Holt felt could never get the nomination, but ulitmately prevented Fillmore from getting it, even though Fillmore would probably be better, from the standpoint of the future of Whig policy, than Scott.

  4. anonymous,

    My apologies for not responding earlier. I agree with what you say. Your discussion of Weed, Seward, Webster and the '52 Convention leads me to say that my post does simplify the reasons that Fillmore did not win renomination -- but it was not simply because he was a "loser."

    The publisher of Holt's book, by the way, ought to be taken out and shot. I nearly went blind trying to read the miniscule print.


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