Millard Fillmore (January 7, 1800 – March 8, 1874) was an American statesman who served as the 13th President of the United States from 1850 to 1853. He was the last Whig president, and the last president not to be affiliated with either the Democratic or Republican parties. Fillmore was the only Whig president who did not die in office or get expelled from the party, and Fillmore appointed the only Whig Supreme Court Justice. As Zachary Taylor's vice president, he assumed the presidency after Taylor's death. Fillmore was a lawyer from western New York state, and an early member of the Whig Party. He served in the state legislature (1829–1831), as a U.S. Representative (1833–35, 1837–43), and as New York State Comptroller (1848–49). He was elected vice president of the United States in 1848 as Taylor's running mate, and served from 1849 until Taylor's death in 1850, at the height of the "Crisis of 1850" over slavery.
As an anti-slavery moderate, he opposed abolitionist demands to exclude slavery from all the territory gained in the Mexican War. Instead he supported the Compromise of 1850, which briefly ended the crisis. In foreign policy, Fillmore supported U.S. Navy expeditions to open trade in Japan, opposed French designs on Hawaii, and was embarrassed by Narciso López's filibuster expeditions to Cuba. He sought election to a full term in 1852, but was passed over for the nomination by the Whigs. When the Whig Party broke up in 1854–56, Fillmore refused to join the Republican Party. Unlike many other conservative Whigs, Fillmore did not join the American Party, the political arm of the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic "Know-Nothing" movement. While out of the country, he was nevertheless nominated by the American Party as their candidate for President in 1856. He finished third in the election, surpassed by the Republican Party candidate. During the American Civil War, Fillmore denounced secession and agreed that the Union must be maintained by force if necessary, but was very critical of the war policies of President Abraham Lincoln. After the war, he supported the Reconstruction policies of President Andrew Johnson. Although some have praised Fillmore's restrained foreign policy, he is criticized for having further aggravated tensions between abolitionists and slaveholders. He is placed near the bottom 10 of historical rankings of Presidents of the United States by various scholarly surveys.
Early life and career
Millard Fillmore was born in a log cabin in Moravia, Cayuga County, in the Finger Lakes region of New York State, on January 7, 1800. His parents were Phoebe (Millard) and Nathaniel Fillmore. He was the second of nine children and the eldest son. He later lived in East Aurora, New York in the southtowns region south of Buffalo. Fillmore became a Unitarian in later life. His father apprenticed him to cloth maker Benjamin Hungerford in Sparta, New York, at age fourteen to learn the cloth-making trade. He left after four months, but subsequently took another apprenticeship in the same trade at New Hope, New York. He struggled to obtain an education living on the frontier and attended New Hope Academy for six months in 1819. There he fell in love with his future wife Abigail Powers.
Later that year, Fillmore bought out his cloth-making apprenticeship, and began to study law under Judge Walter Wood of Montville. Upon deciding that Judge Wood was not providing him the training he required, Fillmore bought out his agreement with Wood and moved to Buffalo, where he continued his studies in the law office of Asa Rice and Joseph Clary. He was admitted to the bar in 1823 and began his law practice in East Aurora, New York. In 1825, he built a house there for himself and Abigail. They were married on February 5, 1826. They had two children, Millard Powers Fillmore and Mary Abigail Fillmore.
In 1834, he formed a law partnership, Fillmore and Hall (which became Fillmore, Hall and Haven in 1836), with close friend Nathan K. Hall who would later serve in his cabinet as Postmaster General. It would become one of western New York's most prestigious firms, and exists to this day as Hodgson Russ LLP.
In 1846, he helped found the private University of Buffalo, which today is the public State University of New York at Buffalo, the largest school in the State University of New York system.
In 1828, Fillmore was elected to the New York State Assembly on the Anti-Masonic ticket, serving three one-year terms, from 1829 to 1831. In his final term he chaired a special legislative committee to enact a new bankruptcy law that eliminated debtors' prison. As the measure had support among some Democrats, he maneuvered the law into place by taking a nonpartisan approach and allowing the Democrats to take credit for the bill. This kind of inconspicuousness and avoiding the limelight would later characterize Fillmore's approach to politics on the national stage.
He was a follower and associate of Thurlow Weed, who had been a leading Anti-Mason. When Weed left the Anti-Masons in 1832, Fillmore did too; when Weed became the leading Whig organizer in New York, Fillmore also joined the Whigs. In 1832, he was elected U.S. Representative from New York's 32nd congressional district a "National Republican", serving in the 23rd Congress from 1833 to 1835. He was succeeded in 1834 by "Anti-Jacksonian" Thomas C. Love. Love declined renomination in 1836, and Fillmore was elected as a Whig (having followed his mentor Thurlow Weed into the party). He was re-elected twice, serving from 1837 to 1843, in the 25th, 26th, and 27th Congresses. He declined re-nomination in 1842.
In Congress, he opposed admitting Texas as a slave territory, he advocated internal improvements and a protective tariff, he supported John Quincy Adams by voting to receive anti-slavery petitions, he advocated the prohibition by Congress of the slave trade between the states, and he favored the exclusion of slavery from the District of Columbia. He came in second place in the vote for Speaker of the House in 1841. He served as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee from 1841 to 1843 and was an author of the Tariff of 1842, as well as two other bills that President John Tyler vetoed.
Fillmore was a candidate for vice president at the 1844 Whig National Convention, but lost the nomination to Theodore Frelinghuysen. Later that year, Fillmore was the unsuccessful Whig Party candidate for Governor of New York. In 1847 he won election as the first New York State Comptroller chosen by popular vote, defeating Orville Hungerford 174,756 to 136,027. He held the office from 1848 to 1849, and received credit for revising New York's banking system and making it a model for the future National Banking System.
Vice presidency (1849–1850)
The 1848 Whig National Convention nominated General Zachary Taylor, a slaveholder from Virginia, for President. This upset supporters of Henry Clay and "Conscience Whigs" opposed to slavery in territories gained in the Mexican–American War. A group of Whig pragmatists sought to balance the ticket, and the convention nominated Fillmore for Vice President. Fillmore came from a free state, had moderate anti-slavery views, and could help carry the populous state of New York.
Fillmore was also selected in part to prevent the nomination of the anti-slavery William H. Seward, and prevent Seward from receiving a position in Taylor's cabinet. (In an era where the President, Vice President and cabinet were expected to reflect geographic balance, Fillmore would "represent" New York, meaning another New Yorker – Seward – could not be in the cabinet.)
The Taylor-Fillmore ticket won, taking 1,361,393 votes (47.3%) and 163 electoral votes (16 states carried). Lewis Cass and William Orlando Butler, the Democrats, took 1,223,460 votes (42.5%) and 127 electoral votes (15 states carried). The third-party Free Soil candidates Martin Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams, Sr. took only 291,501 votes (10.1%) and 0 electoral votes.
Soon the nation was roiled by the "Crisis of 1850". Pro-slavery Southerners demanded that all the new territories should be open to slavery. Anti-slavery Northerners demanded complete exclusion. The recently admitted state of Texas claimed a large part of New Mexico, and wanted the U.S. to assume the "national debt" of the former Republic of Texas. California settlers were petitioning for immediate admission as a free state, with no territorial stage. There were also disputes about slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia, about the apprehension of slaves who escaped to the free states, and about the territorial status of Utah, newly settled by the Mormons.
Fillmore presided over the Senate during the months of nerve-wracking debates over these issues. During one debate, enraged Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri stalked toward Senator Henry S. Foote of Mississippi, who brandished a pistol at Benton.
Taylor stunned his fellow Southerners by urging the immediate admission of California and New Mexico as free states. Ironically, it was Fillmore, the Northerner, who supported slavery in at least part of the territory to avoid an open break with the South. He wrote: "God knows that I detest slavery, but it is an existing evil ... and we must endure it and give it such protection as is guaranteed by the Constitution."
Clay constructed a compromise bill which included provisions desired by both sides. Fillmore did not comment publicly on the merits of the compromise proposals. A few days before President Taylor's death, Fillmore suggested to the President that if the vote on Clay's bill was tied, he as President of the Senate would cast his tie-breaking vote in favor.
Taylor died suddenly on July 9, 1850, and Fillmore became President. The change in leadership also signaled an abrupt political shift. Taylor, it was thought, would have vetoed the Compromise bill (though some historians now doubt this). When Fillmore took office, the entire cabinet offered their resignations. Fillmore accepted them all and appointed men who, except for Treasury Secretary Thomas Corwin, favored the Compromise of 1850. When the compromise finally came before both Houses of Congress, it was very watered down. As a result, Fillmore urged Congress to pass the original bill. This move only provoked an enormous battle where "forces for and against slavery fought over every word of the bill." To Fillmore's disappointment the bitter battle over the bill crushed public support. Clay, exhausted, left Washington to recuperate, passing leadership to Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. At this critical juncture, President Fillmore announced his support of the Compromise of 1850.
On August 6, 1850, he sent a message to Congress recommending that Texas's debts be paid provided Texas abandoned its claims in New Mexico. This, and his deployment of 750 Federal troops to New Mexico, helped shift a critical number of northern Whigs in Congress away from their insistence upon the Wilmot Proviso, the stipulation that all the Mexican lands must be closed to slavery. Douglas modified Clay's bill accordingly, and then split it into five separate Senate bills. These bills were: admission of California as a free state (which happened on September 9, 1850); settlement of the Texas boundary and debts; creation of New Mexico Territory, which would be open to slavery; the Fugitive Slave Act; and abolition of the slave trade (but not slavery), in the District of Columbia.
Each measure obtained a majority, and, by September 20, President Fillmore had signed them into law. Daniel Webster wrote, "I can now sleep of nights." Only a few extremists on both sides denounced the Compromise. A slave-state convention called to discuss secession drew only a few delegates. Northerners were happy with the admission of California. Nonetheless, the Compromise disrupted the Whig party, which did badly in the fall 1850 elections in the north. Northern Whigs were heard to say "God save us from Whig Vice Presidents."
Fillmore's greatest difficulty was the Fugitive Slave Law: southerners complained bitterly about any slackness, but enforcement was highly offensive to northerners. Fillmore's solution was to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, but also enforce the Neutrality Act of 1818 against filibustering Southerners who were trying to make Cuba a slave state.
Fillmore appointed Brigham Young as the first governor of the Utah Territory in 1850. In gratitude for creating the Utah Territory in 1850 and appointing Young as governor, Young named the territorial capital "Fillmore" and the surrounding county "Millard".
He attempted four times to fill the vacancy caused by Justice John McKinley's death. The Senate took no action on the nomination of New Orleans attorney Edward A. Bradford. George Edmund Badger withdrew his nomination. Senator Judah P. Benjamin declined to serve. The nomination of William C. Micou, another New Orleans lawyer recommended by Benjamin, was not acted on by the Senate. The vacancy was finally filled after Fillmore's term, when President Pierce nominated John Archibald Campbell, who was confirmed by the Senate.
Fillmore also appointed four other federal judges, all to United States district courts. John Glenn was appointed to the United States District Court for the District of Maryland and served from March 19, 1852 to July 8, 1853.
Nathan K. Hall was appointed to the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York and served from August 31, 1852 to March 3, 1874.
Ogden Hoffman, Jr. was appointed to the United States District Court for the Northern District of California and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. He began serving on February 27, 1851. Hoffman was reassigned several times, beginning on January 18, 1854, as the California federal courts were redistricted. He served until July 23, 1866.
James McHall Jones was appointed to the United States District Court for the Southern District of California and served from December 26, 1850 to December 15, 1851.
In foreign affairs, Fillmore was particularly active in the Asia and the Pacific, especially with regard to Japan, which at this time still prohibited nearly all foreign contact. American merchants and shipowners wanted Japan "opened up" for trade, so that American ships could call there for food and water on voyages to Asia and could put in there in emergencies without being punished. They were also concerned that American sailors cast away on the Japanese coast were imprisoned as criminals.
American merchants saw in the British opening of China to trade an example of the "benefits of new trade markets." Fillmore and Secretary of State Daniel Webster dispatched Commodore Matthew C. Perry to open Japan to relations with the outside world. Though Perry did not reach Japan until after the end of Fillmore's term, Fillmore ordered the Perry Expedition, and its success is to his credit.
Fillmore was also a staunch opponent of European meddling in Hawaii. France under Napoleon III attempted to annex Hawaii, but backed down after Fillmore issued a strongly worded message suggesting that "the United States would not stand for any such action."
Though President Taylor had signed the Clayton–Bulwer Treaty preventing Britain and the U.S. from acquiring new possessions in the Americas, Great Britain and the United States were still attempting to gain ground in the region. The situation became tense enough that Fillmore ordered several warships to guard American merchants in an attempt to prevent British interference.
Fillmore had difficulties regarding Cuba. Many southerners wanted to expand slave territory in the U.S., but the Missouri Compromise and other laws prevented that. Cuba was a colony of Spain where slavery was practiced. Therefore, some of these southerners tried to get Cuba annexed to the U.S. as a slave state. Venezuelan adventurer Narciso López recruited Americans for three "filibustering" expeditions to Cuba, in the hope of overthrowing Spanish rule there. His first attempt in 1849 was suppressed by U.S. officials by orders of President Taylor. López tried again a year later; he reached Cuba but was chased away by Spanish troops and disbanded his force in Key West. López and several of his followers were indicted for breach of the Neutrality Act, but were quickly acquitted by friendly Southern juries.
Many southerners felt Fillmore should have supported the invasion, while some northern Democrats were upset at his apology to Spain. France and Britain dispatched warships to the region in response. Fillmore sent a stern warning saying that under certain conditions control of Cuba "might be almost essential to our [America's] safety." López tried a third time in 1851. This time most of his force was captured by the Spanish. He and many of his American followers were executed, provoking outrage among American sympathizers and causing further embarrassment for Fillmore.
Another issue that came up during Fillmore's presidency was the arrival of Lajos Kossuth, the exiled leader of a failed Hungarian revolution. Kossuth wanted the U.S. to recognize Hungary's independence. Many Americans were sympathetic to the Hungarian rebels, especially recent German immigrants, who were now coming to the U.S. in large numbers and had become a major political force. This would require the U.S. to abandon its policy of nonintervention in European affairs. Fillmore ultimately refused to change American policy, and remained neutral.
Election of 1852 and completion of term
As the election of 1852 approached, Fillmore had been long undecided whether to run for a full term as President. In early 1852, he decided he would. The Whigs held their National Convention in June that year. Fillmore was then unpopular with northern Whigs for signing and enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act. He led narrowly on the early ballots, but was short of a majority and could gain no votes. On the 52nd ballot, Daniel Webster's delegates switched to General Winfield Scott, winning him the nomination on the 53rd ballot.
Abigail Fillmore caught a cold at the outdoor inaugural ceremonies for Franklin Pierce. She developed pneumonia and died just 26 days after leaving the White House, on March 30, 1853, at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., the shortest post-Presidential life of any former first lady. Then, on July 26, 1854, Fillmore's daughter Mary died suddenly of cholera. Later that year, Fillmore went abroad. While touring Europe in 1855, Fillmore was offered an honorary Doctor of Civil Law (D.C.L.) degree by the University of Oxford. Fillmore turned down the honor, explaining that he had neither the "literary nor scientific attainment" to justify the degree. He is also quoted as having explained that he "lacked the benefit of a classical education" and could not, therefore, understand the Latin text of the diploma, adding that he believed "no man should accept a degree he cannot read." Another possibility is that Fillmore refused the degree in order to escape the heckling and taunting to which Oxford students typically subjected the recipients of such honors. In fact, Fillmore had been awarded an honorary LL.D. from Geneva College in 1850; he accepted, even though its text was in Latin.
When Fillmore returned to the U.S., the Whig Party had broken up over slavery issues and especially the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854. Most former northern Whigs, including Fillmore's old mentor Weed, joined the new Republican Party. Fillmore instead followed conservative and southern Whigs by accepting the nomination of the American Party, the political organ of the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing movement. Fillmore was not himself anti-Catholic – his daughter Mary had attended a girls' Catholic boarding school for a year and he contributed to the construction of St. Joseph Cathedral in Buffalo – but at this time, the American Party was the only alternative for non-Democrats who were not militantly anti-slavery.
Historian Allan Nevins says Fillmore was not a Know-Nothing or a nativist. He was out of the country when the nomination came and had not been consulted about running. Furthermore, "By no spoken or written word had he indicated a subscription to American tenets." He sought national unity and felt the American Party was the "only hope of forming a truly national party, which shall ignore this constant and distracting agitation of slavery."
The American Party chose Fillmore as its presidential nominee for the election of 1856. He thus sought a nonconsecutive second term as president (a feat accomplished only once, by Grover Cleveland). His running mate was Andrew Jackson Donelson, nephew of former president Andrew Jackson. James Buchanan and John C. Breckinridge were the Democratic candidates, and won 1,836,072 votes (45.3%) and 174 electoral votes (19 states carried). John C. Fremont and William L. Dayton were the Republican candidates and won 1,342,345 votes (33.1%) and 114 electoral votes (11 states carried). Fillmore and Donelson finished third, winning 873,053 votes (21.6%) and carrying the state of Maryland and its 8 electoral votes. This was one of the best showings ever by a third-party presidential candidate.
Fillmore was one of the founders of the University at Buffalo. The school was chartered by an act of the New York State Legislature on May 11, 1846, and at first was only a medical school. Fillmore was the first Chancellor, a position he held as Vice President and as President. After leaving politics, Fillmore returned to Buffalo and continued to serve as chancellor of the school.
On February 10, 1858, Fillmore married Caroline McIntosh, a wealthy widow. Their combined wealth allowed them to purchase a big house in Buffalo, New York. They were noted for lavish hospitality in their home, until Mrs. Fillmore's health began to decline in the 1860s.
In the election of 1860, Fillmore supported Constitutional Union Party candidate John Bell. He denounced secession, and, once the American Civil War began, supported the Union war effort, but also became a constant critic of the war policies of President Abraham Lincoln, such as the Emancipation Proclamation.
Fillmore helped found the Buffalo Historical Society (now the Buffalo History Museum) in 1862 and served as its first president. He commanded the Union Continentals, a corps of home guards of males over the age of 45 from the upstate New York area. The Continentals trained to defend the Buffalo area in the event of a Confederate attack, as happened in the St. Albans Raid, and was planned for Johnson's Island. They performed military drill and ceremonial functions at parades, funerals, and other events. The Union Continentals guarded Lincoln's funeral train in Buffalo. They continued operations after the war, and Fillmore remained active with them almost until his death.
In the 1864 presidential election Fillmore supported Democratic candidate George B. McClellan for the presidency, believing that the Democratic Party's plan for immediate cessation of fighting and allowing the seceded states to return with slavery intact was the best possibility for restoring the Union.
Fillmore also maintained a correspondence with Franklin Pierce, in which they agreed with each other that Lincoln had overstepped his authority and encouraged each other to find ways to thwart Lincoln's war policy.
Fillmore's reputation as a Lincoln critic caused a crowd to gather outside his house after Lincoln's assassination. Spattering his house with ink, they demanded to know why Fillmore hadn't draped his house in black bunting as a sign of mourning for Lincoln. Fillmore asked for understanding, explaining that he was at the bedside of his ill wife, and did not know of Lincoln's death. His explanation satisfied the crowd, which soon departed.
He died at 11:10 pm on March 8, 1874, of the aftereffects of a stroke. His last words were alleged to be, upon being fed some soup, "the nourishment is palatable." On January 7 each year, a ceremony is held at his grave site in the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo.
Some northern Whigs remained irreconcilable, refusing to forgive Fillmore for having signed the Fugitive Slave Act. They helped deprive him of the Presidential nomination in 1852. Within a few years it was apparent that although the Compromise had been intended to settle the slavery controversy, it served rather as an uneasy sectional truce. Robert J. Rayback argues that the appearance of a truce, at first, seemed very real as the country entered a period of prosperity that included the South. Although Fillmore, in retirement, continued to feel that conciliation with the South was necessary and considered that the Republican Party was at least partly responsible for the subsequent disunion, he was an outspoken critic of secession and was also critical of President James Buchanan for not immediately taking military action when South Carolina seceded.
Benson Lee Grayson suggests that the Fillmore administration's ability to avoid potential problems is too often overlooked. Fillmore's constant attention to Mexico avoided a resumption of the hostilities that had only broken off in 1848 and laid the groundwork for the Gadsden Treaty during Pierce's administration. Meanwhile, the Fillmore administration resolved a serious dispute with Portugal left over from the Taylor administration, smoothed over a disagreement with Peru, and then peacefully resolved other disputes with Britain, France, and Spain over Cuba. At the height of this crisis, the Royal Navy had fired on an American ship while at the same time 160 Americans were being held captive in Spain. Fillmore and his State Department were able to resolve these crises without the United States going to war or losing face.
Because the Whig party was so deeply divided, and the two leading national figures in the Whig party (Fillmore and his own Secretary of State, Daniel Webster) refused to combine to secure the nomination, Winfield Scott received it. Because both the north and the south refused to unite behind Scott, he won only four of 31 states, and lost the election to Franklin Pierce. After Scott's defeat, the Whigs' decline continued, until the party broke up over the Kansas–Nebraska Act, and the Know Nothings appeared.
In the history of the U.S. Presidency, Fillmore inaugurated a new era. All previous Presidents had substantial personal fortunes, acquired either by inheritance, marriage, or (in Martin van Buren's case) by work as an attorney. Fillmore was the first of a long line of late nineteenth century chief executives, mostly lawyers, who acquired only modest wealth during their lives, were "distinctly middle class", and who spent most of their careers in public service.
A popular story claims, incorrectly, that Fillmore installed the White House's first bathtub.
While Fillmore's letters and papers are dispersed among multiple institutions. The largest surviving collection is in the Research Library at the Buffalo History Museum.
Places named after Fillmore
- Fillmore, New York
- Fillmore County, Minnesota
- Fillmore County, Nebraska
- Millard County, Utah and its county seat, Fillmore, Utah
- Millard Fillmore Elementary School, Moravia, New York
- Fillmore Elementary School, Davenport, Iowa
- Millard Fillmore Gates Circle Hospital, Buffalo, New York
- Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, Williamsville, New York
- Millard Fillmore Academic Center at the University at Buffalo's Ellicott Complex
- Fillmore Glen State Park, New York
- Fillmore Park in Alexandria, Minnesota
- Fillmore Street and the surrounding neighborhood in San Francisco after which, in turn, the Fillmore Auditoriums were named, both East and West.
Streets in many United States cities were also named for Fillmore.
Plaques to Fillmore
- List of Presidents of the United States, sortable by previous experience
- U.S. Presidents on U.S. postage stamps
- Mallard Fillmore, a fictive, politically conservative journalist duck