Sunday, April 06, 2008

"History has scarcely recognized the magnitude of his achivements"

In a recent post, I castigated a "professional historian" who, under the cloak of anonymity, made an ass of himself by characterizing Millard Fillmore as one of the very worst presidents, down there with James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce.

Now, it turns out, Doris Kearns Goodwin joins the ignoramus club. I listened the other day to a podcast of a lecture she gave at the Pritzker Military Library. At the beginning of her talk (at about 4:40 if you want to wince yourself) she explained that, after living with the "large figures" like Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, there was "no way" she was going to go back to write about "Millard Fillmore or Franklin Piece," rather than Abraham Lincoln.

Just in case more evidence is needed to demonstrate the alleged historian's utter ignorance, here is David M. Potter on Fillmore's firm and masterful handling of the Crisis of 1850; all emphases are added.

First, Fillmore moved decisively and effectively to pressure wavering Whigs to support the Compromise:
Before [Stephen Douglas] swung into action, Millard Fillmore has already moved decisively to the support of the Compromise. Immediately upon taking office, Fillmore accepted the resignation of his predecessor's entire cabinet -- he was the only vice-presidential successor who had ever done this. By bringing [Daniel] Webster in as secretary of state, he threw his support behind the Compromise, and the weight of the administration soon made itself felt among the Whigs.

Then Fillmore used both firmness and restrain to impel resolution of the impending conflict between Texas and New Mexico:
On August 6 [,1850, Fillmore] delivered a long message concerning the Texas-New Mexico boundary, which demonstrated how wholly needless the boundary crisis had been. Fillmore made it as clear as Taylor ever could have that the United States would use force if necessary to prevent any unilateral action by Texas against New Mexico, but he also implicitly promised that he would refrain from any unilateral action himself and that he would insist upon "some act of Congress to which the consent of the state of Texas may be necessary . . . or some appropriate mode of legal adjudication." Going beyond this pledge not to force the issue of the boundary, Fillmore also eloquently omitted all mention of statehood for New Mexico . . ..

Summing up, Professor Potter gives Fillmore the highest marks:
Thus, Fillmore settled a very inflamed crisis -- in some ways more explosive than the one on which Clay had been working -- and settled it with such adroitness and seeming ease that history has scarcely recognized the magnitude of his achievements.


  1. I have always regarded Fillmore as a highly talented president (probably via Potter), but I liked Taylor's decisiveness and didn't like the Compromise (I'm a Conscience Whig, after all). But you're winning me over. I'm also now convinced that politically, slaveholders were cornered, just as they believed; thus the key both to preserving the Union and ending slavery was for the North to remain unified. I've reread Webster's 7th of March Speech in that light, and I have new respect for the man.

  2. CW,

    Aw, shucks.

    I would really appreciate your thoughts on the issues raised in my post Was the Compromise of 1850 a Good Thing or A Bad Thing? Would the south have backed down even if offered a tougher deal? And would the Union have survived if civil war had broken out (probably along the Texas-New Mexico border) in 1850 or 1851?

    Come to think of it, poor Millard has never had a great biographer. Rayback is, frankly, so-so. Make it your next big project! I'm confident Millard would be in fine hands.


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