Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Millard Fillmore: Biography Of A President

My book for January was Millard Fillmore: Biography Of A President by Robert J. Rayback. It fits into my long term project to read books about all of the presidents.

The author notes that he really started to research and write a book about the Whig Party, but ended up writing a book about Millard Fillmore. Formed in opposition to President Andrew Jackson and his Democratic Party, The Whig Party was a significant political party in the United States roughly between 1834 and 1854. William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachery Taylor and Millard Fillmore were Whig Presidents.

Born in poverty in New York, Fillmore rose through hard work and education to become a successful lawyer and politician. He joined the Whig Party, known for its moderate stance on slavery, and held various state and federal offices, including a New York Congressman. In 1848, he was elected Vice President under Zachary Taylor. As vice president, Fillmore was largely ignored by Taylor; even in dispensing patronage in New York.

Thrust into the presidency upon Taylor's sudden death in 1850, Fillmore faced a deeply divided nation over the issue of slavery. He signed the Compromise of 1850, a series of laws attempting to appease both pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions, but it ultimately created only a temporary ceasefire. As President, Fillmore sent Commodore Perry to Japan, opening the door for trade and modernization.

Fillmore's presidency is often overshadowed by the events leading to the Civil War. He is praised for his efforts to maintain national unity while criticized for his enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, which alienated anti-slavery Northerners. Fillmore was the last president not affiliated with either the Democratic or Republican parties. Fillmore ran for President in 1856 under the short lived American Party and finished third behind Buchanan (Democrat) and Frémont's (Republican).

After his presidency, Fillmore was Buffalo, New York's first citizen. Fillmore remained involved in civic interests in retirement, including as chancellor of the University of Buffalo. [Note to self], if we ever get to Buffalo, I need to look for his statue and his grave.

Although historians generally rank him as a below-average president, the author generally paints Fillmore in a positive light. His legacy remains debated, with some seeing him as a pragmatist and others as a defender of a flawed system. I am fascinated by the period from 1837 to 1861. The period is marked by debates about the banking system, tariffs and slavery for the new territories. In some ways, it remains me of the political rancor of today...

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