American history, biographies, book reviews, Millard Fillmore, Paul Finkelman, presidential biographies, Presidents, Robert Rayback
Thirteen apparently wasn’t Millard Fillmore’s magic number. And the presidency clearly wasn’t the job for which he was best suited. So when he became the nation’s thirteenth chief executive (following Zachary Taylor’s death) he must have swallowed hard and wondered what exactly he had gotten himself into.
He hadn’t expected to serve as president, of course. He was nominated as the Whig Party vice presidential nominee partly in an attempt to bring geographic balance to the ticket. In those days, serving as vice president was basically an honorific office – and form of political purgatory. Seldom did it require a sophisticated skill set or broad base of political support.
But Fillmore, who seemed to make a fairly effective local and state politician, was not designed for this type of national office. And given the political and social challenges of the United States, the 1850s was clearly not the right time to test his mettle. The experiment didn’t end disastrously, but he did not meaningfully improve America’s trajectory. Depending on your perspective, he either exacerbated already high tensions or he merely delayed the inevitable Civil War by making false choices.
In any event, history has judged him harshly and he consistently ranks as one of the worst half-dozen or so presidents. He seems more like someone who would have made a fine mayor of Albany or Buffalo – or the successful president of a small-town bank. But as a national leader at a very heated time he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
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* Robert Rayback attempted to rescue Fillmore’s legacy and reputation through his 1959 biography “Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President.” This is undoubtedly the definitive biography of Fillmore and is an invaluable source of information on his life of local, state and national public service. The more interesting aspects of the book are fascinating (Fillmore’s political battles with Thurlow Weed and William Seward, in particular) but there are large sections which are quite dull. On balance it is a steady and useful examination an obscure former president, though clearly too supportive of Fillmore’s service as president. (Full review here)
* Paul Finkelman’s 2011 biography “Millard Fillmore” is a brief but spirited rebuttal to Rayback’s work. Finkelman finds Fillmore far less deserving of praise than Rayback. And where some see Fillmore’s actions in support of the Compromise of 1850 (including the Fugitive Slave Act) as calibrated to seek a middle ground to delay the Union’s fracture, Finkelman sees a presidential pretender, possibly unfit for even the role of dog-catcher, who abandons whatever moral standards he may have once embodied and negligently pours fuel on a smoldering fire. Unfortunately, Finkelman’s prosecutorial style is so fiery and furious (and one-sided) it puts the reader on perpetual guard and undermines the potency of author’s thesis. (Full review here)
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Best Biography of Millard Fillmore: “Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President” by Robert Rayback
Most Passionate Condemnation of Fillmore: “Millard Fillmore” by Paul Finkelman
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Steve expressed the opinion that Zachary Taylor was boring and I disagreed, but I completely agree with the his perspective of Fillmore, “the presidency clearly wasn’t the job for which he (Fillmore) was best suited.” I chose the Raybeck biography, which I admittedly went into with minimal Fillmore knowledge. I thoroughly enjoyed the biography which was well written and maintained my attention, even with an incredibly dull subject. As noted in the above review I also believe Fillmore was a phenomenal local politician, president…not so much.
A side note, after Tippecanoe died in office, I am amazed the vice presidency remained “an honorific office.” You would think after experiencing the consequence of not putting much thought into the role (Tyler), the electors would hold the position in slightly more esteem.
I agree with your evaluation of Finkelman’s book; the author was so against Fillmore that I gave up on the book about halfway through.
Of all the presidents, I think Fillmore is the one most in need of a new biography (though Monroe might be the most deserving).
Well, I managed to make it all the way through…but I can’t say I came away from that biography better for the experience.
Separately, I continue to believe that three of the presidents who most deserve a fresh, full-scale and penetrating biography are Van Buren, Fillmore and Monroe. For various reasons this hasn’t happened, but if I had a magic wand…
In any of your reading about Fillmore, did it ever show him to have a sense of humor? What was his personality like? Is there a biography that fleshes this out?
I’ve been following your list faithfully and it hasn’t steered me wrong yet. My local library only had “The Remarkable Millard Fillmore” which I didn’t realize it a humor book. I read it while chuckling at the absurdness of it, but felt I got the gist (with the help of researching the real events). Perhaps an addition for a very “different” take on the 13th president!
Thanks for leaving a comment – and the humorous side note! I’ll admit I haven’t come across the book you’re referring to, andthe staff at the Millard Fillmore house near Buffalo, NY failed to turn me on to it when I visited a couple years ago 🙂 but if I decide to re-engage with POTUS 13 I’ll be on the look out for this title!