Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 153

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 153


This is the grave of Millard Fillmore.

Please, try not to get too excited by this post. I recognize what hero worship looks like and I know the average LGM reader loves Millard Fillmore for obvious reasons.

Born in 1800, Fillmore was the last Whig president, which was a pretty pathetic list from a party cursed with really bad luck, since Henry Clay never won and the guys who did win had a small problem with dying and then giving power to schumcks. Like Fillmore. He was born poor and did work his way up into political prominence from poverty. He was interested in the law and was admitted to the New York bar in 1823. Although his parents were poor, his larger family had political ambitions and success and that helped young Millard along. His first foray into politics was in the Anti-Mason Party, which said a lot about questionable politics through his life. He was a big supporter of John Quincy Adams in the 1828 election, hating Andrew Jackson, the Mason (of all the reason to hate Jackson, this is the worst). In this campaign, he met Thurlow Weed, and they would become close, with Weed, soon to become a major Whig player pushing Fillmore’s career, although he later turned against him to support William Seward as New York’s leading Whig. Fillmore served in the New York state assembly for a few years beginning in 1829 and to his credit, led the way to both get rid of religious oaths before testifying in a court and eliminating debtor prisons.

In 1832, Fillmore won a race to serve in Congress while still an Anti-Mason, but embraced the emerging Whig Party, originally united only in its hatred of Jackson. In Washington, he became a protege of Daniel Webster. He became a Webster Whig, a believer in internal improvements and corporate development. Fillmore became one of the rising stars of New York politics, but soon clashed with another rising star–William Seward. The big difference was slavery. Seward abhorred it. Fillmore did not personally like slavery. But he did not believe the government should play a role in restricting it. He was more than happy to compromise with the Slave Power and this would define his presidency. Fillmore left Congress in 1842, sick of living in Washington. There was some talk of Fillmore being the Whig VP candidate in 1844, but Thurlow Weed killed it because he felt Fillmore would be better as governor. He refused to run for that position. But as a leading New York moderate Whig and someone no one really despised, he remained a leading candidate for VP in an era that nearly required winning New York’s electoral votes to win the general election. Thus, in 1848, he became Zachary Taylor’s VP candidate.

During his time as Vice-President, Fillmore watched over the Senate as it dealt with the consequences of the United States engaging in an unjust war that stole half of Mexico to extend slavery. He didn’t have any meaningful authority, like every other VP. But then, in July 1850, Taylor dropped dead and this mediocrity became president. That didn’t make him too different than most 19th century presidents. But he was not good in a period that needed a strong leader. Fillmore simply got pushed around on the deal that led to the Compromise of 1850. He was just not the leader that Henry Clay or Stephen Douglas were. He approved of the Fugitive Slave Act, which is just hard to defend, even given the complexities of the time. What’s notable about this is that even though Zachary Taylor was himself a slaveholder, he opposed much of what would end up in the Compromise of 1850, including the Fugitive Slave Act, while having pushed for policies southern nationalists hated, such as California entering the nation as a free state. Meanwhile, Fillmore just caved to southern interests. For this alone, he is frequently rated as a Bottom 10 president. Of course, the current president is much worse, at the Pierce/Buchanan/Andrew Johnson level, but we can see Fillmore as a sort of George W. Bush of the time: weak, conservative, and pushed around by smarter and better politicians.

Fillmore wanted to run for election on his own in 1852, but no one really took him seriously. Daniel Webster wanted the job too and Fillmore was reluctant to run against his mentor, no matter how old he was. Webster dropped dead before the election anyway and in any case Winfield Scott had won the nomination and would fall to Franklin Pierce. Fillmore returned home to Buffalo but was not done with politics. With the Kansas-Nebraska Act destroying the nation’s fragile balance in 1854, throwing the Missouri Compromise in the toilet and moving the nation to Civil War, Fillmore saw the Whig Party collapse around him. Still unwilling to take slavery seriously, he felt he could not be a Republican and would not become a Democrat. But there was another option: the Know-Nothings. Fillmore had no problem embracing this racist, anti-immigrant movement. Fillmore started writing anti-immigrant screeds and became a standard bearer for this challenger to the Republicans as the second party to replace the Whigs (neither was a third party and reject anyone who tells you they were successful third parties to justify third parties today). He prepared to run for president in 1856 under the Know-Nothing banner in a way that only existed in the 19th century: he went to Europe so he would seem above the fray. Even met Queen Victoria and Pope Pius IX, though he feared that kissing the pope’s hand would destroy him with his anti-Catholic base back home. But they worked it out and the pope didn’t make him.

Fillmore returned to the U.S. in 1856 to quite a bit of acclaim in New York, but after Kansas-Nebraska, the energy was with the Republicans. Of course, James Buchanan won the election. Fillmore’s ticket won 22 percent of the vote, which sounds pretty good except the Republicans trounced them with 33 percent and immediately became the second party going forward. Fillmore actually voted for Stephen A. Douglas over Lincoln in 1860, which is just so incredibly loathsome considering where he began. Perhaps even worse, he was a big supporter of George McClellan over Lincoln in 1864, hoping that the states that had committed treason in defense of slavery could return with slavery. Because what could have gone wrong under that scenario? He then supported Andrew Johnson’s presidency and policies toward the South, although to be fair, so did his old rival William Seward, who stood by Johnson until the end. By this time, Fillmore was pretty out of fashion among the Buffalo people who once revered him. Fillmore died in 1871, largely unloved and unwanted, old and in the way.

All this said, nothing Fillmore did makes him deserving of having his name borrowed for the worst comic strip in the history of the genre.

Millard Fillmore is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo, New York.

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