American history, biographies, book reviews, Millard Fillmore, presidential biographies, Presidents, Robert Rayback
“Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President” is Robert Rayback’s 1959 biography of the thirteenth U.S. president. At the time of the book’s publication Rayback was a professor of history at Syracuse University.
Time and history have not conspired to generate an abundance of biographies of Millard Fillmore. In fact, for more than sixty years following his departure from the White House this long-neglected and relatively obscure president was viewed primarily through the pronouncements of his political rivals. Not until 1915 was the first true Fillmore biography even published.
Rayback’s contribution to Fillmore scholarship almost never happened either. This book was originally intended not as a full-fledged presidential biography but rather as an analysis of the rise and fall of the Whig political party. 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. The result is a fairly comprehensive, and rather flattering, biography of Fillmore.
Because of its original purpose as a Whig treatise, one of its strengths is the author’s weaving together of narratives involving the Whig party’s birth and death along with the evolution of Fillmore’s political career. Owing to Fillmore’s political birth in New York, much of the book’s first half centers on New York state politics. But where the discussion of New York machine politics in Van Buren’s biographies was generally tedious and tiresome, Rayback’s description of the political battles between Fillmore and his political nemesis, Thurlow Weed, is more often fascinating.
Rayback’s portrayals of Fillmore and Weed also perfectly demonstrates the author’s obvious affinity for his subject. Despite the fact that both gentlemen were engaged in the same high-stakes game of political chess, Fillmore is always the hero…and Weed is always the villain. Fillmore would be pleased at the author’s consistent and passionate defense of his reputation and legacy, but fortunately the favoritism is easy to identify and decrypt. And rather than seeming obtusely fawning, the author’s exoneration of Fillmore often proves provocative and thought-provoking.
Like many biographies of the early and more secluded presidents, Rayback’s book focuses primarily on Fillmore’s politics and public service rather than his personal life. Though his two wives are mentioned (his first died shortly after he left the presidency) they are only perfunctorily described. Based on what is described of Fillmore’s private and family life, however, the more interesting focus may well be on his careers in law and politics.
Overall, “Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President” is a laudable and impressive analysis of an otherwise remote and little-known president. The book felt about twenty-percent too long and the narrative was not always exciting (or straightforward). But the 1840s and 1850s were a fractious and complex time in American history, and Robert Rayback’s biography proves itself a praiseworthy, well-researched and rewarding (if not always interesting) exploration of Fillmore’s life.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars
Anxious to see your thoughts on Finkelman’s book.
I’m only 1/3 of the way in and already I can see why you might wonder… 🙂
Luis Valdes II said:
How about the Robert J. Scarry bio on Fillmore?
You’re the second person to ask in the past month – and I don’t expect to hear many suggestions on the obscure presidents like Millard Fillmore, so maybe this is one I really do need to look into further? I originally passed by this one only because it was in shorter supply and relatively more expensive than the other Fillmore bios. But I’ll give it another look – it really should be on my follow-up list. Thanks-
This one took me longer than I’d planned to get through, but I’m glad I recommitted myself to it a couple weeks ago and finished it! I went ahead and skipped right from Polk to Fillmore. I couldn’t talk myself into being interested in Taylor.
As you mentioned, this book does paint a rather flattering picture of Fillmore. Even accounting for the author’s likely bias, it would appear from this account (which is admittedly the only account of Fillmore’s life and politics that I’ve read) that Fillmore was greatly popular amongst Americans of various political persuasions. How then did he end up nearly forgotten, even in his hometown of Buffalo (which is also my hometown)? Growing up, apart from recognizing his name on streets and hospitals, and perhaps a field trip to his grave or home in East Aurora, neither I nor my classmates learned anything about Fillmore. As Rayback reveals though, he was truly Buffalo’s leading citizen, personally hosting Abraham Lincoln, Prince Arthur of England, and Andrew Johnson at his private home, among others. He also was instrumental in the founding of several major Buffalo institutions that are still around today – namely SUNY Buffalo, The Buffalo Historical Society, and Buffalo General Hospital.
Likewise, Fillmore was relatively successful in his goals during his Presidency. Taking the oath of office at an extremely tumultuous time, he managed to preserve the Union in his two plus years in office primarily by preaching compromise with Southerners. Had Taylor survived to finish his term, who knows what the outcome of the Compromise of 1850 would have been? May the country have faced Civil War 10 years earlier without the right man to lead the Union through it?
Fillmore’s handling of the sectional crisis in the early 1850s probably has played into his relatively unfavorable reputation a century and a half later. Though he morally opposed slavery, he didn’t feel the federal government had the Constitutional authority to end it. From Rayback, it would appear that his primary concern was always to hold the Union together, and a close secondary concern was always to hold the Whig party together. In his efforts to do this, he seemingly refused whenever possible to get put in the middle of heated political or ideological battles. In so doing, he may have appeared sheepish and unwilling to take bold stances or actions, as well as too apologetic to the South, which likely contributed to the view of him as a weak President.
After his Presidency, his strong support of the Union (in the interest of its preservation, as opposed to any particular abolitionist sentiment) led to his being labeled a hypocrite by southern press, where he was previously quite popular as evidenced by his performance in the 1856 Presidential Election. Though he returned to prominence in Buffalo after the war, Republicans in that city turned against him. In the end, even if he was well-intentioned, he was on the wrong side of the slavery debate. Combined with the manner in which he conducted his administration and the events of the war, it may have been impossible for him to end up with a favorable reputation.
My comment has turned into a novel, but all in all, I’m very happy I picked this book up. Through one of the most trying times in the nation’s history, Fillmore was unexpectedly thrust onto center stage, and did everything he could, often selflessly, to serve the Union. I think the circumstances surrounding his time in office, more than the man himself, have left him far less popular in death than he was in life.
I’m curious to read the Finkelman bio now, as well as Team of Rivals to see Goodwin’s treatment of Seward in particular, as he was regularly made the villain in this book as Weed’s main crony.
Al Colburn said:
This may be the best Fillmore biography but, honestly, I thought it was terrible. My copy badly needed proofreading and editing. One chapter was even incorrectly numbered! Lots of text could have been deleted without any loss of meaning. … OK, rant is over.
Looking at Millard, though, I’m struck by the biographer’s task portraying a (not fascinating) life, and am acutely aware how we judge through the lens of our own time.
Contrast Fillmore with the fascinating John Quincy Adams. One could argue Fillmore was a more successful president, but we all like JQA more. Why?
Adams was stubbornly steadfast in his opposition to slavery, even when unpopular and colleagues found him annoying. Today we admire him for that (I know I do).
Fillmore, OTOH, wanted to preserve the union and avoid war, even if it meant continuing slavery. I think, in his day, he would have been considered pragmatic.
It makes me wonder what I would have though in 1850. I hope I would have been like JQA, but who knows? If you knew everything you know today, that a future war would destroy 600,000 lives, and you were president in 1850, what would you have done? It’s a fascinating—and difficult—question to answer.
Your comment leaves me thinking about how we are blessed with the ability to look back in time and ponder how/whether/what we would have done differently (or consider what a POTUS “back then” should have done differently). It often seems difficult to be thoughtfully self-observant in one’s own time (the present is probably no different) so I do wonder what we’ll be thinking about 2016-2020 in a decade or two.
James Salerno said:
I enjoyed this quite a bit but you are right, this really needed proofreading. There is a shocking amount of typos in my edition (2017). Numerous references to the “Folk” administration. Commas instead of periods. Missing words. The TOC goes from chapter 22 to 25 then back to 24 (no 23). Very unprofessional.
Was your edition professionally published? It sounds like it was scanned with OCR and then bound without editing. The 23 was likely misread as a 25 along with the Folk/Polk mix ups. My original 1959 edition has no such issues.
My copy has all the errors you mentioned as well. I find it interesting that there is the barest of the usual “copyright” pages at the beginning and on the very last page of the book is a note that it was “Made in the USA” only a few days after I ordered it in June of 2020.
Was your copy Print on Demand? I frequently see them listed on many of the used book sites. They just take a PDF scan, slap in a binding, and send it away.
American Political Biography (http://www.apbpress.com/) has quality reprints of many of the definitive Presidential biographies. Those are frequently found on the secondary market as well.
Fillmore is nearly forgotten today and, like many of his fellow chief executives during this period as the country lurched towards its doom, is usually ranked at the bottom of any chief executive analysis.
I have to chuckle a bit, even the title of Robert Rayback’s book kind of shows the esteem he gets from history. Among such titles as “Reagan; The Role of a Lifetime,” “Barack Obama; the Bridge,” “Eisenhower; Crusade” there is “Millard Fillmore; Biography of a President.” Just leaps of the shelf doesn’t it?
The book was very interesting in dealing how Fillmore became a leading citizen of Buffalo New York, where he was a major mover in many civic improvements as the Erie Canal, the steamboat and Great Lakes commerce made the city a growing metropolis. Hardly anyone remembers the “Anti-Masonic Party” these days, but this little group became the first organized US political party, as we know it today. Found that part interesting.
Fillmore became a Whig and was a powerful man in New York politics, where was constantly at odds with Thurlow Weed and William Seward, the two other power brokers in the Whig organization. (An interesting note about biographies of Fillmore, is that most of the secondary sources and bio on him were done years after the fact in associations with those two men, so the historical record became rather slanted)
Named as a Northern anti-slavery balance to Zachary Taylor’s southern slave holder, he fought hard for the Compromise of 1850 after Taylor’s death. I seemed to recall in history learning how Fillmore’s support of the Fugitive Slave Law, as part of the Compromise put the nail in his political coffin, and subsequently the Whig Party. Not quite true, Fillmore chose not to run and was still sought as a candidate by a good many in the party in 1852 and 1856.
Fillmore hated the Fugitive Slave Law, but felt bound by the Constitution to have Federal Marshals and officials enforce it. People forget that this was about the only “pro slavery” win in the Compromise. Slaves were no longer bought and sold in DC itself; it was outlawed in the new state of California and settling the boundary of Texas, reduced that slave state’s geographic area.
Almost never talked about were the foreign policy successes. Ties with Hawaii were strengthened, the billowing sails of the Clipper ships filled the skies, Japan was opened to US trade and the first attempts at a crossing of Central America, by rail or canal were started.
Abigail Fillmore as First Lady, was the one who established the White House Library. Kind of funny that previous occupants who were total bookworms, like Jefferson and Madison had never thought to do so. She had a tragic end as she caught a cold while sitting in the slush and sleet at Franklin Pierce’s inauguration and was dead a few days later.
In trying to get an overall picture of Fillmore, I kept seeing a parallel to Jimmy Carter, a fundamentally decent man, who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fillmore was of strong character, and did not take political revenge on Weed and Seward, who had severely hamstrung him as vice president, when he had the chance. Also, like Carter, he had a much more successful career as a “post president.” He helped to found the University of Buffalo, was active in establishing libraries and was even an early supporter of the “Humane Society.”
Sadly Fillmore, as a man of his time was involved in the virulently anti-Catholic Know Nothing movement, which sprung up as waves of Irish and German immigrants poured into the country. He looked at it as a political move only and later in his life, moderated his views. He was even the presidential candidate of that party in 1856. By that time a lot of rhetoric and cooled down and both parties realized that outright hatred and bigotry would just drive Catholic voters to their opponents.
And fittingly enough, the day I finished this bio of Fillmore (August 4, 2020), the University of Buffalo voted to remove his name from campus buildings, along with two others! Because of his execution of the Fugitive Slave Law, ignoring all of the anti-slavery good he did. Yeah remove the name of the founder of your university! Really smart move! Idiots!!!!!!!!
James Blaine learned the hard way in 1884:
I have wondered when schools like George Washington, George Mason, James Madison, Washington and Lee would start feeling pressure to change their names.
Living near each of those I’ve already heard rumblings about all but JMU. The most serious seems to be Washington and Lee (which would become…Washington(?)…and later…”and”?) Since the “unmasking” of nearby Liberty University president Falwell Jr., though, the discussion of renaming these colleges & universities seems to have died down as people have elsewhere to direct their attention 🙂