Millard Fillmore’s Forgotten Legacy

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From supporting the 1850 Compromise to sending Matthew Perry to Japan, Millard Fillmore used his three years as President well as a steward for the people.

America’s thirteenth president and second “accidental” president, Millard Fillmore, is often subjected to scorn and criticism. Serving only three years and unable to secure nomination in his own right, some have argued that he was a weak chief executive with few credits to his name. President Fillmore, however, holds a legacy of achievements affecting Americans positively. Further, he was one of the first self-made men to reach the highest office, coming out of dire poverty as a child.

Fillmore’s Early Years

Born in a log cabin in Cayuga County, New York, Millard Fillmore was one of nine children. In the absence of formal education, he taught himself to read and eventually apprenticed himself as a cloth maker. With the help of a local judge who saw promise in the young man, he paid off his indenture and studied law.

Rising in New York politics and government, Fillmore represented New York in the Congress for four terms. During the Tyler administration, he was instrumental in breaking a tariff impasse by shepherding a new tariff through the House Ways and Means Committee, which he chaired.

By the time the Whig Party nominated him as Vice President in 1848 to run with General Zachary Taylor, Fillmore’s resume included the New York State Assembly, a failed run for the governorship, and his years in the National Congress.

Millard Fillmore as President

Fillmore became President upon the untimely death of Zachary Taylor on July 9, 1850. At the time, he set a precedent by refusing to deliver an inaugural address. The most pressing issue before the Congress was the Compromise of 1850 or “Mr. Clay’s Compromise,” which Fillmore supported but Zachary Taylor opposed. A friend and admirer of Clay, Fillmore would sign the five separate bills passed by the Congress that summer through the efforts of Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas.

The 1850 Compromise, according to Fillmore, represented the “final settlement” regarding territorial disputes regarding the expansion of slavery. Everyone involved fervently hoped that the legislation would avert a civil war. Fillmore himself opposed and hated slavery, but believed that the Constitution protected it.

1850 was also the year that President Fillmore negotiated the release of Hungarian freedom fighter Louis Kossuth, who had taken refuge in Turkey. Fillmore sent the USS Mississippi to bring Kossuth, his family, and numerous other veterans of the 1848 European revolutions to the United States.

During Fillmore’s presidency, a movement to invade Cuba revolved around Narciso Lopez, an ambitious Spaniard who capitalized on Spain’s inept governance of the island. The movement was viewed favorably by Southern leaders like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, who was approached about leading the invasion force made up mostly of Southern volunteers. Cuba had always been an inviting acquisition for the Southern slavery advocates.

Fillmore, however, rejected these efforts and sent federal officials to Southern ports to turn back would be invaders. Fillmore’s decision was prudent and in keeping with his moderate Whig views. Japan, however, was another matter.

Although the Treaty of Kanagawa “opening Japan” is associated with President Franklin Pierce, it was Fillmore who sent Commodore Matthew Perry to Japan, arriving just weeks ahead of an Imperial Russian delegation. President Fillmore’s message to the Japanese rulers was polite but firm: “We wish that our People may be permitted to trade with your People, but we shall not authorize them to break any law of your Empire.”

Fillmore’s Attempt to Win a Second Term

When the Whig Party met in 1852 it took them 53 ballots to finally nominate a presidential candidate, General Winfield Scott, “old fuss n’ feathers.” Fillmore, Daniel Webster, and Scott had been the front runners and at one point Fillmore almost clinched the nomination during negotiations with Webster supporters.

The protracted fight to nominate Fillmore is a testament to his strength and leadership. Millard Fillmore should be historically rehabilitated as a President whose achievements were noteworthy.

Sources:

  1. William A DeGregorio, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents From George Washington to George W. Bush (Gramercy Books, 2001).
  2. Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, and Peter W. Kunhardt, The American President (New York: Riverhead Books, Penguin-Putnam, Inc., 1999).
  3. Stephen B. Oates, The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm, 1820-1861 (HarperCollins, 1997).
  4. Page Smith, The Nation Comes of Age: A People’s History of the Ante-Bellum Years Vol. 4, (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981).