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