In truth, Fillmore was a good man who was President during a pivotal time in charge of a political party that was having an existential crisis. Favorite parts of the book: - The history of the Anti-Masonic and American (Know Nothing) Parties. I'd always read about how the Slavery issue tore the Whig party apart but before this book, I'd never really understood why. The Whig Party was a Frankenstein made of two distinct parts that tolerated but never liked each other: Northerners and Southerners. He appeased both sides but ultimately came across as pro-Slavery in his policies. No, Fillmore appeased the South because those politicians were bat shit cray-cray and kept talking about leaving the Union. Ultimately, Fillmore was a boring guy and that's just the way he liked it.
Rayback has managed an excellent biography of a surprisingly interesting man. After reading Bauer's Taylor biography (which only barely touched on Fillmore or his relationship to the administration) I wasn't necessarily expecting much from Rayback, given this is a modern reprint of a 1949 book that doesn't seem to have been firmly replaced by any more recent biographies. From his beginnings in the Anti-Masonic party to his leadership of the Whig party, the most interesting story told in this biography is of the New York state politics, first against Martin Van Buren's democratic regency and then with the unscrupulous and self-interested Thurlow Weed, who began as a Fillmore friend but would ultimately be an enemy of his administration, painted as a man searching for political power through the creation of a sectional party, finally accomplished by Weed's invasion of the Republican Party in the 1856 election. I think the most telling part of this book, and the greatest defense of Fillmore, was his support as a national candidate in the two elections following his presidency. This lasting esteem, even if not on a national scale, point to a man who was not quite the failure that history has remembered him as, even if the compromise of 1850 would prove to be a short-lived panacea.
In his Preface, Rayback writes that his original intention was not to do a biography of Fillmore, but rather to explain the creation, short life, and fairly quick demise of the Whig Party in the mid-1800s. And a good portion of the book reads exactly as that: Fillmore is a character more or less in the background, periodically coming into spotlight, but usually only as it relates to Whig politics. Every now and then, Rayback gives a single paragraph to Fillmore's personality or private life. Fortunately, once into Fillmore's time as Vice-President, the narrative moves a bit quicker, although still heavily laden with New York Whig politics. Rayback has a thoughtful chapter on Fillmore's foreign policy, mainly concerning the opening of trade in the Far East and also U.S. relations with Latin American countries. As with other parts of the book, Rayback focuses here more on party politics than he does on Fillmore. As he did with the 1848 election, Rayback zooms by 1852 and before we know it, Fillmore is leaving the Executive Mansion. We know almost nothing of Fillmore's personal feelings upon leaving the presidency. Rayback concludes with a detailed chapter of Fillmore's philanthropic and civic duties over the last two decades of his life. Unfortunately, Rayback does not provide an overall evaluation of Fillmore as president in particular or his life in general.
While conducting his research, Rayback found Fillmore surprisingly interesting and concluded that a thorough examination of his life might provide unique insight into the evolution of his political party. Because of its original purpose as a Whig treatise, one of its strengths is the authors weaving together of narratives involving the Whig partys birth and death along with the evolution of Fillmores political career. Like many biographies of the early and more secluded presidents, Raybacks book focuses primarily on Fillmores politics and public service rather than his personal life. But the 1840s and 1850s were a fractious and complex time in American history, and Robert Raybacks biography proves itself a praiseworthy, well-researched and rewarding (if not always interesting) exploration of Fillmores life.
If Fillmore himself does not interest you, this book is also a great history of the Whig party.
Recently in this age when human rights issues have come to the fore Millard Fillmore our 13th president is getting quite a beating for his signing of the Fugitive Slave Law. He also had the dubious distinction in being the only presidential nominee of the American aka Know Nothing party in 1856. First with Anti-Masons and then with the newly created anti-Jacksonian party the Whigs Fillmore got into politics. For the 15 months or so that he was Vice President Fillmore had to silently suffer as his rivals in New York State's Whig Party William Seward the newly elected Senator and state chair Thurlow Weed got Taylor's ear in policy and patronage. The union was threatened with dissolution over slavery and how it would be dealt with in the new territories gained in the Mexican War. Henry Clay in the Senate was trying to work out a compromise which included a strict Fugitive Slave Act. The courts right up to the Supreme Court had vacillated over the issue. Fillmore had already indicated he would sign all the compromise bills which also included California as a free state the New Mexico territory to be determined, abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia. It was the concession to the south and Fillmore who detested slavery but wanted to save the country signed all the bills that made up the Compromise of 1850. Fillmore carried only one state, Maryland in the election. Millard Fillmore was not a great president, but he's miles from the worst we ever had in that office.
As a futile attempt to make Millard Fillmore seem like an underrated President, and, even more preposterously, an interesting person, this book is rather dull. Fillmore reportedly "hesitated" about signing this part of the Compromise.
Both Tyler and Fillmore were elected Vice Presidents for the Whig party under two older war hero Generals; both elections featured vague promises and unclear politics to try to catch as many Whig votes across the country as possible. Fillmores New York origin naturally meant that his compromises look much worse historically, as he embraced the Fugitive Slave act much more heartily than any other President. Heres how he scores up on my presidential ratings rubric: Born into Fillmore scores well here, as his father was a farmer who got duped by the land giveaways for veterans scheme in New York (those that fought in the Revolutionary War had opportunities to be compensated with farm land; in this case not particularly fertile or easy to sell farm land). Drawn into politics by the Anti-Mason saga, he ended up becoming part of the Anti-Mason party following Jackson/Adams election (Fillmore supported loser eventual Adams). Once elected to the national Congress, Fillmore focused on creating a new national party because anti-masons were not succeeding at the national level. As the Head of Ways and Means Committee, Fillmores biggest victory was the Tariff of 1842 that placed President Tyler in a no-win situation and contributed to his fall from grace in the Whig party. There he started newspapers to help the Whig party, including one in German for immigrants and was repayed by John Collier when Collier recommended him for Vice President to the New York assembly. As President, Fillmores focus was more on preserving the union than being anti-slavery, which turned off many in his party. Per Rayback, Fillmore never intended to run for reelection; he had decided early on to not seek reelection but ended up being roped into it got elected because he was talked out of formally withdrawing and made vague statement about accepting will of people who then nominated him. I dont buy it as Fillmore would run for president again a few years later, and his shrewdness in the Governor/V.P hustle with Collier earlier shows he valued the appearance of not wanting to appear he was seeking office but doing it for the will of the people. Fillmore ended up defeated as nominee by Winfield Scott for reelection, which was considered by Rayback to be death the of Whig party; Scott lost 27 states to 4 but Pierce only got 56% of vote. Southern Whigs supported Fillmore but New Englanders preferred Webster and everybody else wanted Scott. Fillmores last attempted act as president was to address the slave issue. 0/5 First Lady Abigail Powers was two years older than Fillmore, and the daughter of a reverend. Fillmore was concerned about political parties becoming entirely sectional and decided to throw in with the No-Nothing party which allowed him the best option for success after Whigs were no longer effective. Fillmore then traveled the country for several months and Europe for a year to allow others to law groundwork for his nomination. 2/5 Book itself In the preface, the author discusses how he originally set out to write a history of the Whig party, which ascended with Fillmore (as he switched from Anti-Mason to Whig) and died with his loss for reelection.
One in which the traditional view of Fillmore as a "weak and pompous president" is challenged and a more fully explored Whig party is presented. Rayback asserts that Fillmore's was truly a statesman and the popular view held is manipulated by his enemies, Thurlow Weed and William Seward.