American history, biographies, book reviews, Millard Fillmore, Paul Finkelman, presidential biographies, Presidents
“Millard Fillmore” by Paul Finkelman was published in 2011 and is part of The American Presidents series. Finkelman is a professor of law at Albany Law School, a legal historian and prolific author. He has written dozens of books and newspaper articles on topics ranging from Thomas Jefferson to civil rights to baseball.
This being my third experience with books from The American Presidents series, I thought I knew what to expect: a short, punchy and potent analysis of a former president. But before I even finished the first chapter I was simply astonished. Never before had I read a biography of anyone where the author was so clearly and forcefully antagonistic toward his or her subject.
From the book’s outset Finkelman makes clear his utter disdain for this former president. His prose drips incessantly with vitriol and contempt. And while Fillmore was undoubtedly on the wrong side of history on a number of issues (not unlike many people of his day) this book shows little effort to objectively evaluate his legacy. At best, it reads like a scolding op-ed essay; at worst, it is a tabloid-like impeachment of a presidency – and of a man.
Most biographers tend to sympathize with their subjects; a few are unfailingly neutral. But Finkelman’s assessment of Fillmore is breathtakingly one-sided and unbalanced. Rather than making even a token effort to view the world from Fillmore’s perspective, the author fires away like a prosecutor going in for the kill. While much of his criticism is undeniably fair, the author’s credibility is strained when he is unable to find anything positive to say about this “son of a dirt farmer” who “somehow became a lawyer.”
After several chapters of this entertaining but wearisome rant I realized this is not a biography at all – it is the caricature of a warped, two-dimensional cartoon villain. And while Finkelman appropriately slams Fillmore for his support of the Fugitive Slave Act, he also criticizes him for (among many other decidedly ordinary things) trying to dress well…and joining a church!
The author can’t even quite bring himself to congratulate Fillmore for the one obvious moment in his early years as a legislator deserving of real praise: sponsoring a bill to abolish imprisonment for debtors. So it should be no surprise when Finkelman belittles Fillmore’s admission to the bar of the Supreme Court because, apparently, anyone with enough years of experience as a lawyer and the right sponsorship could have attained such a goal.
The book suffers other flaws as well. It occasionally appears hastily written and only slightly edited, as if there was a great hurry to publish a biography of Fillmore one-hundred-fifty years after the fact. In addition, some of the book is repetitious, as though the reader might miss a point if it isn’t repeated several times. Without this duplication the book would be quite a bit lighter.
Unfortunately, Finkelman seems unable to move past his grudge against the Founding Fathers and anyone else who ever tolerated slavery. His disgust is understandable, but misplaced. While Fillmore does deserve to be judged against an absolute standard of morality, he also deserves to be considered within the context of his time – but no such balance is evident. And on the basis of Finkelman’s standard, nearly every president from Washington through Buchanan should be sentenced to a celestial gulag, their legacies forever stripped of whatever good they may have performed.
The intrepid reader who is able to circumnavigate the author’s stream of venom and ignore the book’s repetitious passages will likely find something of value. Much of Finkelman’s analysis is thought-provoking and many of his points are appropriately provocative. His summary of the Compromise of 1850 and the background leading to its passage is excellent. And despite its numerous distractions, this text serves as an interesting rebuttal to Rayback’s much more generous treatment of Fillmore.
Overall, Finkelman’s analysis of Millard Fillmore is disappointing but never dull. Anyone seeking to read a biography of every president, with an emphasis on brevity, will probably find this book entirely acceptable. For a more serious scholar, this book is likely to be one of many “must reads” on Fillmore given its nuggets of wisdom. But for a reader unfamiliar with Fillmore hoping to gain deep insight into his life and presidency in a single, comprehensive biography…this is not the right place to look.
Overall rating: 2½ stars
Kim Strohmeier said:
I recently completed reading all the American Presidents series that are currently published. As someone who has read presidential biographies for many years, what I found was that I generally enjoyed the books on the lesser known presidents. I mean, what more can you say about Lincoln or FDR in 150 pages that hasn’t already been well covered. I remember that the author that wrote about John Adams, knowing that, focused on his political philosophies, and it was one of the most dense books I have ever read!
I didn’t remember the antagonism to Fillmore, but I do remember that the one about Andrew Johnson was also that way. The author seemed to have an absolute hatred of Johnson. This hatred focused toward his alleged racism, and from her standpoint, everything he did was tied to this racism. I had to wonder why an author would spend so much time writing about someone they so intensely dislike!!!
The other one I specifically remember, on the “whitewashing” side, was the bio of Warren Harding. The author made him out to be one of the most important statesmen of the century! It was almost laughable. It was written by John Dean, of Watergate fame, which I thought was kind of ironic.
I hope you read these two; I’d be interested in getting your take on them.
All in all though, these Schlesinger-edited short biographies are a nice way for someone who does have the time or the inclination to spend on a standard 500-800 page biography.
I’m not surprised to hear that Johnson had a tough ride in his American Presidents book – it’s hard to escape being rated the very worst of the worst by almost any accounting. But I don’t think I have either the Johnson or the Harding books you referred to. I’ll have to see if I can do something about that… So far I have been impressed by the impact of these short A/P series books. Even though it’s hard to be terribly scholarly and deep in such a short space, they have exceeded my expectations overall.
I knew you would feel this way. I cannot stand Finkelman’s writing- he dislikes all historical figures not involved in abolition or civil rights. He has the thickest 20th century lenses out there.
Heather R said:
Wow! It’s acceptable to write a book about a controversial subject or someone who you don’t agree with but it will be a hard sell if all you do is spit venom. There is usually something that you can find to be positive, or at the very least neutral, about.
Just finished this one. Stumbled upon it at a used book store, and after reading this, I feel like I should read another book about this president. Finkelman was a disappointment. He was way too one-sided, to the point where it was just too much. Your review was spot on! Love the site!
You’re only the second person I know of who read a Fillmore bio “for fun”…! I liked the Rayback bio more, but even it wasn’t exactly captivating.
Finkelman specializes in venom.
So happy to have found your blog as I work my way through the presidents (on #14 now). I recommend “The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore” by Elbert B. Smith for an entirely different view of Fillmore. It was hard to believe this was the same person. Smith is an excellent writer and goes into much more detail, leading this reader to suppose that he got closer to the truth. I agree with everything you said about Finkelman’s book being repetitive and poorly edited – in some places it reads like a student essay that has to reach a certain page count.
Funny, but I had originally intended to read that as part of a “kill two birds with one stone” strategy…but then the book – which I had ordered – was never delivered. And then I never went back and got it, read it or reviewed it. I’ll have to add go back and add it to my follow-up list (which is something I should have done already anyway).
After reading your reviews of the Rayback and Finkelman bios, I settled for a children’s biography: “Millard Fillmore” by Ted Gottfried! It’s part of the “Presidents and Their Times” series. At a little under 100 pages, with large type and lots of illustrations, it’s not the same as an adult bio, but I felt as though it gave me a pretty good sense of Fillmore. That said, I came away from it really disliking the man and am glad I didn’t spend any more time with him.
As penance for reading a children’s bio of Fillmore, I’m planning to tackle the Wallner books about Pierce…
That last sentence is probably the funniest thing I’ve read all week – thanks! 🙂
Michael Buchholz said:
I could not even finish this book. The author’s hate was so strong, I found that I could not trust his research or conclusions. The author left me no room to form my own impression of this president. He was the wrong person to write this biography and I feel cheated.