The American Presidents Series
About the book
Portrait of a Young Man from Nowhere
The president's death caught the nation by surprise. At sixty-five Zachary Taylor had been one of the oldest men elected to the office, but he was strong and hardy. A lifelong soldier, he had led armies and endured combat in snowy Midwest forests, steamy Florida swamps, and, most recently, in ovenlike Southwestern deserts. Taylor had fought the British, the Mexicans, and numerous Indian nations. "Old Rough and Ready," as his troops affectionately called him, was a tough soldier. Who would have imagined that just sixteen months into his term he would die from gastroenteritis—a massive stomachache? There were rumors that Taylor had been poisoned, and in the most literal sense that was probably true. The gastroenteritis may have killed him, but it is just as likely the hero of the Mexican War died from the treatment of his physicians in the age of "heroic medicine." His doctors bled him, put blisters on him, and gave him massive doses of calomel, a mercury compound that is indeed poisonous. Either way, the end result was the death of a popular and tough president on July 9, 1850. For the second time in the nation's history, an "accidental president" would take the oath of office.1
Taylor's presidency and death were weirdly similar to the only other president who had died in office, William Henry Harrison, who had served for just one month in 1841. Popular generals and war heroes, both were well past sixty when they were elected. Both were Whigs—the only candidates of that party ever to have been elected to the presidency. Both were southern-born slave owners, although Harrison had relocated to Ohio as a relatively young man.2 However, the background and stature of the men who replaced each deceased president were completely dissimilar. John Tyler, Harrison's vice president, who became the first accidental president, was a significant figure. His wealthy father had been governor of Virginia. After graduating from the College of William and Mary, Tyler began his long prepresidential career at age twenty-one when he was elected to the state legislature. He later served as a congressman, governor, and U.S. senator, and he was elected president pro tempore of the Senate. When he was offered the vice presidential nomination in 1840, he was nationally prominent.
Millard Fillmore, who became president after Taylor's death, was inexperienced and virtually unknown when he was nominated for vice president at the 1848 Whig convention. He was born in poverty in central New York, poorly schooled as a child, and largely self-educated after that. He achieved a comfortable middle-class status and struggled to fit in with men who were better educated, culturally more sophisticated, and more socially adept than he. Moving to Buffalo, he practiced law and entered politics at age twenty-eight, serving three terms in the state legislature and later four terms in Congress. He was an unsuccessful candidate for governor of New York in 1844, but in 1847 he was elected state comptroller—an important but hardly a major office. A year later, this obscure politician was nominated to run for vice president alongside General Taylor.
Fillmore's presidency would be much like Tyler's. He is remembered as a thoroughly unsuccessful president who catered to the South at the expense of the North and energetically favored slavery over liberty. He alienated the party that nominated him for the vice presidency and, in the end, abandoned his party. The second accidental president, like the first, was a failure. Tyler left office rejected by his party. The same is true for Fillmore, except he also left office vilified in much of his home state and region. The final political ventures of both accidental presidents added no luster to their memory. Tyler's political career ended disgracefully. A man who had taken an oath "to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States"3 turned traitor, accepted a position in the Confederate government, and helped make war on the nation he once led. Fillmore's career did not end in treason, but it is hardly praiseworthy. Desperate to regain the presidency, in 1856 he ran as the candidate of the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic American Party—better known as the Know-Nothings. His campaign as the candidate of ethnic and religious bigotry ended in abysmal failure; he carried only one state, Maryland, which ironically had been founded in the seventeenth century as a haven for Catholics.
After his defeat as the Know-Nothing presidential candidate, Fillmore devoted his life to charity, local public service, and personal comfort, and until the Civil War he kept out of politics. Following the death of his first wife, he remarried a wealthy widow, and he spent the last eighteen years of his life basking in the glow of being a former president. To his credit, he supported the Union cause at the beginning of the Civil War, raised some money for war relief, and even organized a unit of aging men to serve as a more or less symbolic home guard. But the former president failed to follow most of his Whig contemporaries into the Republican Party. In 1864 he backed the Democratic candidate, George B. McClellan, once again supporting appeasement of the South and slavery. Like McClellan, Fillmore opposed emancipation, the enlistment of black troops, and expanding racial equality. Out of step with his neighbors, his former Whig allies, and the North, he became politically irrelevant. After the Civil War, he engaged in civic enterprises and boosterism for his adopted home of Buffalo, New York, where he died in 1874, forgotten by most of the nation and remembered, if at all, for his odd first name and his failed presidency.
Yet for a short moment, from July 1850 until March 1853, Millard Fillmore sat in the White House, at the center of American politics. His term coincided with one of the great crises of American history, and his leadership, or lack thereof, did little to either solve the nation's problems or reduce its tensions. Indeed, his presidency exacerbated both.
The first son of Nathaniel and Phoebe Fillmore, the future president was born on January 7, 1800, on an isolated farm at the southern end of Cayuga County, New York, west of present-day Syracuse.4 His unusual first name was his mother's maiden name, a common practice among New Englanders, which the Fillmores had been until 1799, when they gave up farming the rocky soil of Vermont in the belief that central New York offered better land and more opportunity. Their faith was misplaced. The soil was poor, the winters were harsh, and they lost the land they purchased because of an inadequate survey and uncertain titles. The Fillmores then rented a farm in the nearby village of Sempronius, on Lake Skaneateles, about twenty-five miles from Auburn, where Fillmore's chief rival in New York politics, William H. Seward, would begin his career. Renting, rather than owning, land was a huge decline in social status for the Fillmores in a community where independence and self-respect were tied to land ownership.
It was in Sempronius that Millard learned to farm and gained a rudimentary education in the local elementary school. Nathaniel Fillmore, hoping for a better future for his son, apprenticed Millard to learn the trade of wool carding and cloth dressing. Over the next four years, Millard worked as an apprentice in a textile mill, where he also did some bookkeeping. At seventeen Millard paid to join a new private library and began reading voraciously. In 1819, with the mill temporarily closed (perhaps from the fallout of the financial panic that year), Millard enrolled in a recently opened local academy, where he was introduced to new fields of knowledge. He also met his future wife Abigail Powers, a teacher in the school. She was two years his senior, the daughter of a deceased Baptist minister and the sister of a local judge. Abigail was well read and as sophisticated as one could become at the time in a tiny town in rural central New York. At about this time Nathaniel Fillmore persuaded a county judge, Walter Wood, to take in Millard as a law clerk. Two months into his legal education the mill reopened.
Throughout this period Fillmore was legally still apprenticed to the mill, so he was technically required to return to the textile factory. Judge Wood wanted Fillmore to remain, lending him money and promising some paid work if he would stay. Fillmore continued to live at home, taught school, used his earnings to buy his way out of his apprenticeship at the mill, and returned to Judge Wood. However, reading the law and clerking under the autocratic judge soon became unbearable, while the pittance Wood paid him left Fillmore impoverished. About eighteen months after he returned to read the law under Wood, Fillmore accepted a few dollars to represent someone in a case before a justice of the peace. Fillmore needed the extra money, and by successfully negotiating a settlement before the case was heard, he hoped Judge Wood would not find out what he had done. Although admission to the bar was not required to practice law before a justice of the peace, it was clearly inappropriate for a law clerk to freelance in this way without the permission of the lawyer for whom he worked. Wood soon discovered this insubordination and properly reprimanded his clerk. The headstrong young Fillmore stormed off and returned to his father's farm. Shortly after, the entire Fillmore family moved to East Aurora, near Buffalo. Millard taught school again and argued a few more justice of the peace cases. Six feet tall, strikingly handsome, and ambitious for a better life, Millard Fillmore turned twenty-one with few prospects. He and Abigail announced their engagement, but she remained with her mother, teaching school in Cayuga County.
Fillmore, now of legal majority and emancipated from his father, was free to strike out on his own. He moved to Buffalo, where he once again taught school and found an attorney under whom he could read the law. He was meticulously dressed, well spoken, and clearly smart. He was orthodox in his thinking and circumspect in his politics. If he had any ideals, no one knew what they were, but he was generally cautious, conservative, serious, studious, and hardworking. In his first year clerking in Buffalo, Fillmore so impressed members of the local bar that they secured his early admission, allowing him to practice at the age of twenty-three.
Fillmore rejected offers to join existing Buffalo practices and returned to East Aurora, where he was the only attorney in town. His small-town legal work—wills, real estate, debt collection—allowed him to earn a decent living and teach himself how to practice law. It was a curious choice, since he would have learned more quickly if he had stayed on as a junior attorney in Buffalo, where he had read law. But after years of apprenticeships and being under the thumb of older men, the young lawyer must have relished being his own boss, especially in a town where there were no competing attorneys. Late in life, Fillmore would explain that he chose this route because he lacked the self-confidence to practice in Buffalo.
This insecurity reflected his impoverished youth, poor education, and the status decline of his family when they lost their land. He was a poor boy from the sticks. His father was an unsuccessful farmer. He had only a year or two of formal education beyond the rudimentary elementary schools of Cayuga County. He was well read and always striving to appear better read, but his education lacked any intellectual rigor. Throughout his life he was a consumer of books so that he could constantly educate himself. He was always impeccably dressed—perhaps the sign of a pretender trying to convince those around him that he actually belonged in polite society. He was, and always would be, cautious and conservative in his demeanor and style. Even in his personal life he must have been plagued by insecurities. It is true that he was a very handsome young man, but he was in love with a beautiful woman who came from a prominent, well-educated, and comparatively sophisticated family. He was the son of a dirt farmer, a self-educated factory apprentice who had somehow become a lawyer.
In many ways Fillmore's life mirrors that of the other famous frontier president of this period, Abraham Lincoln. Both were from poor farm families, were largely self-educated, and became successful lawyers. But their differences and their ideological developments are more important than their similarities. As a boy Fillmore attended local public schools while working on the farm and found time to gain more education while apprenticed at the mill. His father wanted him to succeed, supported his educational strivings, found him his first law clerkship, and encouraged him all along the way. Fillmore had a loving and apparently emotionally comfortable home with two supportive parents. It was a home he could return to throughout his youth and young adulthood, even after he was admitted to the bar. In contrast, Lincoln's mother died when he was a child, and he had to struggle against a tyrannical father to gain an education. Growing up in rural Kentucky and Indiana, he had virtually no formal schooling, and his father discouraged him from getting any. Lincoln's father thought reading was a waste of time and a sign of laziness. While Fillmore returned home after being admitted to the bar, Lincoln could not wait to leave home at age twenty-one, and once gone he never looked back.
The relationship of both men to politics is also revealing. Lincoln—a "little engine of ambition," as his law partner William Herndon called him—was always engaged in politics. He ran for public office before he married, secured a profession, or had a steady income. He became a lawyer after he was elected to office, and while his legal career made him economically comfortable, politics motivated him. Fillmore's approach to law and politics—and to life itself—was more plodding. He came to politics opportunistically, almost by accident, rather than by design. He might have happily remained a successful lawyer and civic leader in Buffalo. Lincoln hungered for more.
Equally intriguing is the contrast in their striving for social success and acceptability. The well-dressed Fillmore was perpetually conscious of his manners and public persona. He was a parvenu who seemed always worried that someone might discover he did not belong in proper society. He changed churches as he became more successful and moved to bigger and better houses. Outward appearances truly mattered to him. Lincoln was a rawboned frontier lawyer and politician. Until he ran for president, he showed little interest in his clothing or his appearance. Ambitious as he was, he did not pretend to be pious and was never a churchgoer. Lincoln was famous for his sense of humor and his ribald jokes. It is impossible to imagine the dour Fillmore telling a joke, much less an off-color one.
Both men were Whigs, and both were devoted to the Union and the Constitution. But Fillmore was drawn to oddball political movements, conspiracy theories, and ethnic hatred. Whether opportunistically or out of conviction, Fillmore launched his political career as an Anti-Mason in the 1820s. When the Anti-Masonic movement ran its course, he became a traditional Whig but easily trafficked with anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant groups. Significantly, Fillmore's rivals in the New York Whig Party, William H. Seward and Thurlow Weed, opposed any bargain with the nativists because it would simultaneously "weaken the party's integrity and alienate immigrants."5 Fillmore was always comfortable with nativists and utterly oblivious to the concerns of immigrants and religious minorities, just as he had no concern for the plight of fugitive slaves or the rights of free blacks. As president, he would push for ratification of a treaty with Switzerland that discriminated against Jewish Americans, and in 1856 he would try to relaunch his career as the presidential candidate of the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party. Lincoln, by contrast, was happy to have the Know-Nothings' support and welcomed them into the Republican Party, but he never supported their anti-immigrant or anti-Catholic goals and never offered them any support. As he told Joshua Speed, "I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people?" As a politician in Illinois, he worked closely with Germans, like Gustav Koerner, and praised them while campaigning.6 Indeed, as president, Lincoln was careful to seek out ethnic generals and advisers, and he famously countermanded General Ulysses S. Grant's ill-considered General Order No. 11, which had banned Jews from his military district.7 Lincoln appeared incapable of judging a man by his faith or ethnicity. Fillmore never had such scruples.
The most important contrast between the two concerns how work and servitude as young men affected their views as adults. By age eighteen, Lincoln was ready to strike out on his own, to earn his own living and continue on his lifelong course of reading and self-education. Under the law, he could not leave home until he turned twenty-one without his father's permission, which Thomas Lincoln would not grant. Lincoln always saw these last years of his legal "childhood" as a kind of indentured servitude that mirrored the bondage of black slaves, which he saw on his famous rafting trip down the Mississippi. At twenty-one the emancipated Lincoln permanently left his father's house. Lincoln's profound antipathy to slavery—he would famously write, "if slavery is not wrong then nothing is wrong"8—stemmed in part from his own experience in a kind of temporary bondage from which there was no escape until he came of age. In sharp contrast, Fillmore strongly supported the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which was designed to prevent slaves from gaining their own liberty, even when, through their own ingenuity, they managed the arduous task of escaping to the North.
Slavery would be the central issue in the political lives of both men, but their responses were dramatically different. In the end, Fillmore was prepared to give the South whatever it wanted to protect slavery, at whatever cost. Lincoln, who never compromised on stopping the spread of slavery before his presidency and never compromised on ending slavery after 1863, was always willing to negotiate with the South, but he never backed away from his core principles. Lincoln never deviated from his "oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free."9 Fillmore had no such wish.
As a young lawyer in East Aurora, Fillmore built a respectable practice, purchased and read all the law books he could find (to overcome his lack of a full legal apprenticeship), and, most important, reunited with Abigail. He had left Cayuga County on foot with few prospects, but he returned by carriage, an impeccably dressed, tall, handsome young lawyer, who appeared to be on the cusp of a successful career. In February 1826 Abigail and Millard were married by an Episcopal priest, a social step up from his moderate Methodist background and the Baptist tradition of Abigail's late father. For Fillmore, a young man on the make, his new social status required a more elite church. The newlyweds returned to East Aurora, where Abigail continued to teach for two years. This made her the only first lady before the twentieth century to have worked outside the home after her marriage.10 Her employment after marriage also suggests that while Fillmore was rising in his profession, he was hardly economically secure at this time.
Shortly after his marriage, Fillmore took in his first law clerk, Nathan K. Hall. This signaled not only his emerging economic success—he could afford to hire someone to work in his office—but also his professional accomplishment. Fillmore now felt secure enough as a lawyer to train others for the profession. Bringing in Hall also indicated that Fillmore had enough work to need the assistance of an apprentice. By 1831 Hall would become his law partner and would remain Fillmore's confidant and ally for the rest of their lives.
In 1824 Fillmore had supported John Quincy Adams in the presidential election, but otherwise he was far too busy with his legal career to be involved with politics. This changed with the emergence of the Anti-Masonic Party in 1827, an odd and short-lived political movement that was mostly part of a larger scheme to help defeat Andrew Jackson, who had lost to Adams in 1824 but was running against him in 1828. The movement was initially centered in western New York and was particularly strong in rural Erie County, where Fillmore lived. The party developed in response to the disappearance of William Morgan, a local stonemason who was said to have been murdered by members of the Masonic Order because he was going to reveal the organization's secrets. The reaction to Morgan's disappearance fueled resentment of this secret order, and this played into the hands of supporters of John Quincy Adams and opponents of the emerging Democratic Party in New York State (many of whose leaders were Masons) and their hero Andrew Jackson (who was also a Mason). As passions grew, Fillmore was drawn to the movement against this alleged giant Masonic conspiracy.
In many ways, Fillmore's attraction to Anti-Masonry is consistent with his later associations with the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic North American Party in the 1840s and the Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s and his deep hostility to abolitionists during the same period. Fillmore saw conspiracies, or at least dangers to the body politic and the American Union, as he envisioned it, from outsiders—Catholics, immigrants, abolitionists who questioned the status quo, or fugitive slaves who rejected the conditions of their birth. Fear of a secret society like the Masons fit into this worldview and dovetailed with Fillmore's conservative, rural, Protestant background. However, in other ways Fillmore's interests and goals were unlike those of the core of the Anti-Masonic Party. Most Anti-Masons were egalitarian, objecting to the exclusiveness of a secret society, but Fillmore was always striving to be included among the better classes. Many Anti-Masons, including William H. Seward in New York and Thaddeus Stevens in Pennsylvania, would later emerge as staunch opponents of slavery. The moralistic, reformist element of Anti-Masonry would reemerge as "the antislavery 'Conscience' wing" of the Whig Party.11 These Conscience Whigs would eventually become the core of the Republican Party. But Fillmore was not moralistic in this way. He would never be outraged by slavery and would never lift a finger in opposition to its spread. His affiliation with the Anti-Masons was not, in the end, about moral reform. Rather, it appears that for Fillmore the Anti-Masonic movement was a comfortable vehicle to move into politics.12
Drawn into the Anti-Masonic movement and deeply opposed to the Jacksonian Democrats in Albany and Washington, Fillmore became a natural leader in East Aurora. In quick order he was chosen as a delegate to Erie County's National Republican Convention (the National Republicans were the forerunners of the Whigs), which endorsed John Quincy Adams for another term as president, and then in July 1828 he was a delegate at two separate Anti-Masonic conventions. The young lawyer discovered that he liked the political negotiations, and in September he was nominated for the state assembly on a coalition ticket of National Republicans and Anti-Masons. In November he was swept into office.
Fillmore served three successive terms in the New York Assembly, learning how legislatures operated and how politics worked. In his final term, he sponsored legislation to abolish imprisonment for debt in New York. Success depended on persuading the Democratic majority to support the bill. Such a bill was consistent with the Jacksonian goal of rationalizing criminal law. Almost everyone believed that imprisonment for debt made no logical sense since someone in jail could hardly earn money to pay his creditors. The practice was a holdover from an earlier period in England when debtors were almost always men of the upper classes who were believed to be concealing assets to avoid their debts. This was surely not the case in Jacksonian America, when debt was common and insolvents were often casualties of economic downturns like the Panic of 1819 (and later the Panic of 1837). But in this highly partisan age, the Democrats in Albany were unlikely to support a bill sponsored by an Anti-Mason. Shrewdly, Fillmore effectively withdrew as the sponsor of the bill, allowing the Democrats to take credit for an important package of reforms. The new laws ended imprisonment for debt, allowed for the discharge of debts through personal bankruptcy, and criminalized fraudulent bankruptcy. These new laws would help unleash the expanding New York economy while protecting creditors and debtors alike. It was a crowning achievement to Fillmore's three terms in the legislature, showing that he could negotiate across the aisle and be a true reformer. The new laws also reflected Fillmore's growing interest in finance and economic policy and his strong support for business interests. The abolition of imprisonment for debt and the new bankruptcy laws were helpful to all New Yorkers, but these laws were especially helpful to entrepreneurs and businessmen, part of the core constituency that had supported John Quincy Adams.
In 1830 Fillmore moved to Buffalo, and when his one-year term in the state legislature was up in 1831 he declined to run again, since he no longer lived in the East Aurora district that he had represented. Instead, he settled into a comfortable role as an increasingly prominent lawyer and a civic booster. He served on civic and corporate boards, was an officer in the local lyceum, and joined the Unitarian Church, which was the denomination of choice for well-off, educated Protestants, particularly those with a New England background who were more interested in moral and civic virtue than faith, piety, or theology. At the terminus of the Erie Canal, Buffalo had a promising future, and Fillmore would live through most of it. When he arrived in the city, it had just over eight thousand residents. By 1860 Fillmore's adopted hometown would be the tenth-largest city in the nation with more than eighty thousand inhabitants.
In 1832 Fillmore was back in politics, winning a seat in Congress with a party affiliation that is uncertain. He was nominally still an Anti-Mason, but the party was dying and Fillmore no longer needed this fringe party for his political success. During this term in the House of Representatives, he became a solid supporter of the Whig Party and a protˇgˇ of Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, who sponsored Fillmore when he was sworn in as a member of the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court. This was not much of an accomplishment—any lawyer with enough years of practice could be admitted to the Supreme Court Bar if sponsored by an existing member. But to have Webster sponsor him was an honor. Admission to the Supreme Court Bar would also make him seem even more important when he returned to Buffalo and thus enhance his law practice. Doubtless, the still unsophisticated and insecure young congressman from the western edge of New York State was delighted and flattered that the great Webster would share meals with him and help him learn the ropes in Washington. Webster, on the other hand, understood that extending his patronage to young congressmen like Fillmore would gain him support for his own lifelong quest for the presidency. This connection would continue until Webster's death in 1852.
Despite this connection to Webster, Fillmore did not seek reelection in 1834. After his term he withdrew from the Anti-Masons but refused a Whig nomination, correctly believing that if he ran as a Whig and the Anti-Masons also ran a candidate, it would only ensure a victory for a Jacksonian Democrat. He might have accepted the nomination of both parties, but this did not happen. Fillmore also may have been deeply ambivalent about returning to Washington, while leaving his wife and baby daughter back in Buffalo. Instead, he went back to law practice and local political maneuvering. Fillmore was thoroughly engaged in Whig politics, rivaling William H. Seward for leadership in the state party. In 1836 Seward lost as the Whig candidate for governor but came back to win the office in 1838 and again in 1840. Meanwhile, Fillmore, now running as a Whig, was elected to Congress in 1836, 1838, and 1840. In his last term, he was the runner-up to be Speaker of the House and ended up as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
As chair of Ways and Means, Fillmore was able to prevent a reduction of the existing tariff rates, which was set to take place. This was a key part of the Whig program, and on economic policy Fillmore was a thoroughly orthodox Whig. Fillmore argued it was necessary to keep the tariff at the existing rate to prevent the national government from a severe financial crisis. This was true, but the final tariff bill that Fillmore guided through Congress was hugely protective, with rates averaging 30 percent and some rates as high as 50 percent. The tariff on imported bar iron increased to 85 percent. The higher tariff raised Fillmore's stature with other Whigs and also benefited Fillmore's business and manufacturing constituents in Buffalo, which had grown to nearly twenty thousand people by 1840. In the wake of this legislative success and his new prestige among other Whigs in Congress, Fillmore chose not to run for another term. He was tired of Washington life and believed he could do more for the Whig Party and his own career back home in New York. Thus, in the summer of 1842 he announced he would not run for reelection in what was clearly a safe seat.
By this time Fillmore was involved in an ongoing struggle with Seward and Thurlow Weed for control of the New York Whig Party. Their differences were political, ideological, and ultimately personal. As governor from 1839 to 1843, Seward had been deeply sympathetic to the abolitionists, who wanted New York to take a more aggressive stand against slavery. Seward had supported repeal of a 1799 law that allowed visiting southerners to bring their slaves into the state for up to nine months. The 1841 repeal of the Nine Months Law was an important victory for the antislavery wing of the Whig Party. Seward's role in the repeal put New York in the forefront of free states no longer willing to cooperate with slavery except when absolutely required to do so by the United States Constitution. After 1841 if a master brought a slave to New York, the slave would be instantly free. (In 1852, while Fillmore was president, a New York court freed eight Virginia slaves who had been locked up in a hotel room for the night as their owners changed ships to head south; in 1860 the highest court in New York upheld this result in Lemmon v. The People.)13
Similarly, Governor Seward refused to arrest three black New York merchant seamen indicted in Virginia for helping a slave to escape on their ship. Seward simply told the Virginians that New York did not recognize property in human beings; thus the three sailors could not be extradited for theft because they had not stolen anything. When successive Virginia governors complained, Seward brilliantly threw states' rights arguments in their faces, asserting that they surely agreed the states had a right to decide for themselves what their local laws would be. The New York-Virginia controversy complicated relations between the two states for nearly four years, but eventually the Virginians accepted Seward's states' rights arguments and dropped the matter.
These two issues solidified Seward as a staunch opponent of slavery and a friend of the abolitionists.14 In this way he was dramatically different from his rival in Buffalo. Fillmore conventionally disliked slavery, as almost all northerners did, but he saw no reason to politicize the issue. Nor did he ever show any sympathy for slaves. Fillmore believed that the repeal of the Nine Months Law unnecessarily exacerbated sectional tensions. He was willing to tolerate southerners bringing slaves into the state in order to ensure sectional harmony (and promote business with the South), just as he would have extradited the black sailors to Virginia for helping a slave escape. These views would be reflected throughout his career. Fillmore, who was as conservative in his politics as he was in his lifestyle, wanted nothing to do with the abolitionists and wanted the Whig Party to avoid any controversy over slavery.
Fillmore also disagreed with Seward on issues involving Catholics and immigrants. Since the state required that all children attend schools, the growing Catholic population in New York wanted state support for parochial schools. Fillmore was unalterably opposed to any government support for religious schools, couching his argument on traditional notions of separation of church and state. Such an argument may resonate well in the modern world, but Fillmore's notion of "separation" of church and state is deeply inconsistent with modern notions of the concept. At the time all children in New York's public schools participated in daily Bible readings and prayers, always using a Protestant translation of the Bible and reciting Protestant prayers. Thus, while claiming to favor "separation," what Fillmore actually favored was Protestant orthodoxy in public education. Seward, by contrast, was sympathetic to the claims of immigrants and Catholics that the New York public schools discriminated against them by forcing their children to read the Protestant Bible.15
In 1844 Fillmore sought the Whig nomination for vice president. He believed he could add to the ticket in a variety of ways. The new tariff would be an issue in the campaign. Whigs loved the tariff while most Democrats hated it. Fillmore could be an articulate defender of the tariff because he had helped guide it through Congress, and as a New Yorker he could help carry the nation's largest state as well as neighboring Pennsylvania, where manufacturing interests supported the tariff.
Fillmore believed he could also help balance the ticket on three interrelated issues: westward expansion, slavery, and the character and reputation of Henry Clay, who ultimately won the Whig nomination by acclamation at the party's convention. Clay had been a major figure in American politics for decades and was revered by many Whigs for his role in drafting the Missouri Compromise and guiding it through Congress in 1820. He was a slaveholder but managed to project an image of being moderately opposed to slavery. He was a longtime member of the American Colonization Society (ACS), which advocated sending all free blacks to Africa. Over its history, the ACS also facilitated freedom for about six thousand slaves, whose masters voluntarily manumitted them on condition that the ACS would take them to Liberia. This hardly dented the slave population, which would reach 3.9 million by the eve of the Civil War.
Abolitionists and almost all northern black activists hated the ACS. They considered it racist and hostile to the interests of slaves and free blacks. Conversely, extreme pro-slavery men considered the ACS to be a stalking horse of abolition, but this was absurdly wrong: most of the ACS leaders were slaveholders. Many conservatives in the South saw it as a way of ridding the nation of free blacks, while northern conservatives naively saw it as a vehicle for peaceably ending slavery. Many northern Whigs assumed that their antislavery neighbors would support Clay because he was more moderate on slavery than his Democratic opponent, the vigorously pro-slavery James K. Polk of Tennessee. Fillmore, from the antislavery heart of New York, thought he could help attract these voters, even though Fillmore himself had never taken any strong stand on slavery.
In addition to slaveholding, Clay's "character" was an issue for some Whigs. He seemed too smooth and slippery as a politician and, in other ways, unsavory to the evangelical Protestants who formed the bulk of the northern wing of the party. As the historian Michael Holt has noted, even before he gained the nomination, "Democrats were flaying Clay as a drunkard, gambler, profligate, and blasphemer."16 Clay had also fought in at least one duel, which struck many Whigs, especially in the North, as barbaric and uncivilized. Democrats, even in the North, were careful not to remind northern Whigs that Clay was a slaveholder, because Polk was one as well. The northern Democrats could count on the explicitly antislavery Liberty Party to do that and possibly siphon off antislavery Whig votes.
The issue of slavery was directly tied to the question of expansion and Texas annexation. The Democrats were committed to the annexation of Texas as well as to a confrontation with Great Britain over the northwestern boundary of the United States. Under the slogan Fifty-Four Forty or Fight, Polk campaigned on the promise of forcing Britain to cede virtually all of present-day British Columbia to the United States. Whigs believed Polk's aggressive stance would lead to a war with Britain or Mexico, or both.
Almost all Whigs believed that annexation of Texas was unconstitutional. They also opposed annexation because the assumption of the debt of the Texas Republic would vastly increase the national debt. Most important, the Whigs understood (correctly, as it would turn out) that annexation would lead to a war with Mexico. Concerns over slavery led to Whig opposition from both sections of the country as well. In the South, Whigs argued that annexation would harm slavery because a large migration to Texas would raise the price of slaves and lower the price of land in the rest of the South. Most northern Whigs saw Texas annexation as a plot to spread slavery and to bring a new slave state into the Union. If Texas came into the Union, it would not only add another slave state but provide a vast empire of land where masters could bring their slaves. Northern Whigs, joined by some northern Democrats, saw Texas as a great "Empire for Slavery," and that was reason enough for them to oppose annexation. In Congress, the Whigs had blocked Texas annexation, with southern Whigs joining their northern colleagues, along with some northern Democrats who opposed Texas annexation because of slavery.
With these issues looming for the 1844 election, Fillmore hoped to be the vice presidential nominee. His campaign for the nomination rested on four prongs. First, the presumptive (and eventual) presidential nominee, Henry Clay of Kentucky, needed to run with a northerner to balance the ticket. Fillmore, a prominent Whig in the largest state of the Union, could surely offer that geographic balance. Although nominally opposed to slavery, Fillmore had never taken a public stand on the issue, had never associated with abolitionists, and had never used his legal talents to protect free blacks or fugitive slaves. New York abolitionists were not close to Fillmore, and he was surely no William H. Seward, who had aggressively fought slavery while governor. But Fillmore undoubtedly thought this worked in his favor. Fillmore was a northerner and that (he believed) made him antislavery enough to balance the ticket for Clay. He would provide sectional balance to the ticket by presumably being acceptable to the southern wing of the party because he was not openly antislavery. Fillmore had just served three successful terms in the House, where he had been one of the party leaders, although certainly not the party leader. In Congress, he had been a key supporter of the tariff bill and was deeply committed to other Whig programs on banking, currency, and bankruptcy. Finally, Fillmore believed he had the support of Seward and his chief ally, the editor Thurlow Weed, in his quest for the nomination.
Most of Fillmore's assumptions proved to be weak or just incorrect. A northerner had to balance the ticket, but Fillmore was not the right man. Fillmore had grown up in the heart of New York's antislavery "Burned-over District,"17 and southerners, who did not really know his deeply conservative views on slavery, mistakenly assumed that he was antislavery. In the House, he had supported the right to present antislavery petitions to Congress, as had almost all northern Whigs. While he personally disliked slavery and thought it politically problematic, he had never taken a public stand on the issue. He opposed Texas annexation but not on antislavery grounds. Thus, he stood somewhere between Seward, who was open in his hatred of slavery and prepared to make policy accordingly, and former senator Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, who as a member of the American Colonization Society (like Clay) was clearly an opponent of the abolitionists. Fillmore would eventually support colonization, but no one knew this in 1844. Fillmore's service in Congress was exemplary, but he was only a former four-term congressman who was still virtually unknown outside of New York. Most important, Fillmore misunderstood the support he had from Seward and Weed. By this time Seward had his eye on the White House, and promoting Fillmore to the national stage would not play into that strategy. Seward and Weed gave tacit support to Fillmore and promised that if he did not get the vice presidential nomination, they would support him for governor. This fit better with their own goals. Fillmore was a plausible candidate for governor—a proven vote getter from the fast-growing western part of the state. Seward had already served two terms in that office, and helping regain it for the Whigs by being the kingmaker for Fillmore would enhance his prestige in the party. And if Fillmore failed to win the race, then he might be eliminated as a rival within the state. Weed and Seward gave Fillmore only nominal support for the vice presidential nomination at the national convention, but even their enthusiastic support probably would not have changed the result.
Why Fillmore thought he could gain the vice presidential nomination in 1844—or indeed why he did gain it four years later—remains something of a mystery. Since John Adams first held the office, every vice president had been a significant politician at the state or national level before gaining the nomination. Indeed, every vice president had been a state governor, a U.S. senator, a cabinet member, or a leading founder. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were both signers of the Declaration of Independence and leaders of the Revolution. Elbridge Gerry (who was famous for inventing the gerrymander to manipulate electoral districts) had signed the Declaration of Independence, had been a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and had served as governor of Massachusetts. John C. Calhoun was a prominent political thinker, a major power in Congress, and the secretary of war before becoming vice president. Four New Yorkers had already been vice president. Aaron Burr had been a U.S. senator and a minor Revolutionary War hero; George Clinton and Daniel Tompkins had been governors of New York and had held other important posts; and Martin Van Buren had been governor of New York, a U.S. senator, and secretary of state before being chosen as Andrew Jackson's running mate. Van Buren's vice president, Richard M. Johnson, had been a U.S. senator and was a hero of the War of 1812, credited with having personally killed the Indian leader Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames in 1813. By comparison, Fillmore's career was fundamentally insignificant. He had never been elected to statewide office, had never served in the Senate, nor had he been in a presidential cabinet. Not surprisingly, at the Whig National Convention in Baltimore, Fillmore ran an increasingly distant third on the three ballots to choose Henry Clay's running mate. The nomination went to Theodore Frelinghuysen, the former senator from New Jersey who had gained the nickname the "Christian Statesman" for his six-hour speech denouncing Andrew Jackson's Indian removal policy. But as an avid colonizationist, his conservative views on slavery made him acceptable to southerners, and at the convention almost every southern delegate voted for him. Frelinghuysen's high moral standards made him the perfect northerner to balance with the somewhat sordid reputation of the slaveholding, dueling, hard-drinking Clay. The consolation prize for Fillmore was the nomination for governor of New York. It was not Fillmore's first choice, but it was certainly a step up from being a congressman from the remote western part of New York.
The Whigs assumed the presidential election would be something of a cakewalk, believing Clay would swamp Polk, a former Tennessee governor and Speaker of the House of Representatives. In 1840 the Whigs—with the Log Cabin and Hard Cider campaign of the war hero William Henry Harrison—had been an exciting party with an exciting ticket. Running as Tippecanoe and Tyler Too, they won nineteen states and defeated the incumbent Van Buren by more than 170 electoral votes and about 150,000 popular votes. The Whigs entered the campaign of 1844 with high expectations.
But the Whigs of 1844 were a different team. Clay and Frelinghuysen, with the less-than-snappy slogan Hurray, Hurray the Country's Risin'; Vote for Clay and Frelinghuysen, seemed too conservative, too upper class, and too prim and proper (despite Clay's "character" issues). The Whigs wanted to talk about the tariff and currency, which were no longer exciting issues. Meanwhile, they were whipsawed by Texas annexation (on which Clay waffled), Manifest Destiny and the Oregon question (where Polk was shrewdly aggressive and Clay was inconsistent and indecisive), nativism (which pushed most new immigrant voters into the Democratic Party), and the antislavery Liberty Party, which won more than 62,000 votes nationally. The 1844 election turned out to be a deep disappointment for the Whigs. Clay carried only eleven states to Polk's fifteen, but the popular vote was razor thin, as fewer than 39,000 votes separated the two candidates. Clay lost New York by 5,100 votes—1 percent of the total cast. If he had won New York, Clay would have had a majority of the electoral votes and been elected president. Fillmore surely wondered if he might have made the difference in carrying his home state.
Most frustrating of all for Fillmore and the Whigs, more than 15,000 New Yorkers voted for the antislavery Liberty Party. Had the Liberty voters supported Clay, he would have won New York and the election. Whigs like Fillmore believed that this vote should have been theirs, and many historians have reiterated this, arguing that the antislavery men should have supported the moderate Clay. Such arguments are based on the assumption that for an antislavery voter Clay was the lesser of two evils. But such theories deeply misunderstand the Liberty men. Clay, like Polk, was a slaveholder, so he was unacceptable to these serious antislavery voters. The Liberty Party ran James G. Birney, a former slaveholder and ex-colonizationist, who had long since denounced the ACS as racist and fundamentally pro-slavery. The ACS wanted to remove free blacks from the nation, which would actually strengthen slavery by sending away those blacks whose very successes proved that slavery could be abolished. For those truly opposed to slavery, there was no significant difference between Master Clay of Kentucky and Master Polk of Tennessee. Despite Fillmore's belief that the Liberty men should have supported the Whigs, there was no reason for any of them to have voted for Clay.
Fillmore's race for the New York governorship was even less successful than Clay's campaign; he lost by 10,000 votes, winning only 231,057 to Silas Wright's 241,090. He believed that he would run better than Clay among opponents of slavery, but this did not happen. The Liberty candidate for governor in New York won 15,136 votes, about the same number as voted for Birney in the presidential race. Fillmore surely believed these Liberty men should have voted for him, because he was personally opposed to slavery. But nothing in Fillmore's campaign made him attractive to antislavery voters. He tried to avoid slavery by talking about the tariff, a key issue in national Whig politics, but one that generated little excitement. While campaigning, Fillmore opposed Texas annexation, but he refused to take a strong antislavery stand on the issue. Rather, he opposed annexation because he believed it was unconstitutional, would be costly, and would lead to a war with Mexico. But he did not oppose annexation on antislavery grounds, even though in running for a state office he did not have to worry about offending southerners. Had he opposed Texas annexation because it would create a new slave state and endorsed the kind of antislavery stands Governor Seward had taken, he might have won some Liberty votes. He might even have won over a few Democrats who opposed annexation on antislavery grounds. But he did not do this.
His defeat was also caused by his flirtations with nativists, his opposition to Catholic interests, and his generally anti-immigrant views. In his congressional races, Fillmore had successfully courted German Americans, and in 1843 he helped fund a German-language newspaper in Buffalo to shore up his political support. Many Germans were Protestants, and even those who were Catholic did not feel particularly discriminated against. But in his gubernatorial campaign Fillmore paid little attention to the Irish Catholic population in New York City and the smaller number of Irish voters upstate. Instead, he openly courted the nativists, who were virulently anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant. During the gubernatorial campaign Fillmore prepared a letter to the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant American Republican Party, indicating his support for mandatory Protestant Bible reading in the public schools. Fillmore gave the letter to the Whig editor Horace Greeley, who refused to deliver it to the nativists, correctly understanding that such a letter could harm Fillmore and the Whig Party.18 But even without the publication of this letter (which confirms his views), Fillmore's hostility to immigrants and Catholics was transparent. The hostility cost him dearly, even in Buffalo, where he nearly lost his own ward because of immigrant voters.19
Following his defeat, Fillmore returned to his Buffalo law practice, blaming his loss mostly on "foreign Catholics."20 He never acknowledged that his own flirtations with nativism cost him Catholic votes and that he lost the governorship because of his parochialism and bigotry. He also blamed the abolitionists for the Whig losses, but again he never considered that he lost the antislavery vote because he did not oppose Texas annexation on antislavery grounds, he refused to attack slavery in general, and he failed to suggest new programs and laws to create greater racial equality in the state. In other words, he blamed the Catholics (whom he had attacked) and the abolitionists (whom he would not support) for failing to vote for him.
In Buffalo he practiced law, gave interviews on politics, and took his place as a civic leader. The annexation of Texas, completed in December 1845, quickly led to war with Mexico in May 1846. Fillmore publicly argued that the war was in part to add slave territory to the nation, and he complained that southerners controlled Congress and the White House, even though the majority of the population lived in the North.21 This was as close as he would ever come to publicly acknowledging and condemning what other northerners were beginning to see as the slave power conspiracy.
After his gubernatorial defeat, Fillmore was actively engaged in politics but not as a candidate. In 1846 he helped his law partner Solomon Haven become mayor of Buffalo, and he helped his longtime friend and former law partner, Nathan K. Hall, win Fillmore's old seat in Congress. Fillmore could easily have had the Whig nomination for governor that year, but he did not want to run for governor again. What Fillmore did want was to ensure that his candidate, John Young, got the nomination rather than having it go to Thurlow Weed's candidate, Ira Harris. To accomplish this, Fillmore agreed to be a candidate, and on the first ballot at the Whig Convention he had the most votes. Indeed, his strategy almost backfired when he came within one vote of getting the nomination on the first ballot. Fortunately for Fillmore, because he did not actually want the nomination, his own campaign manager did not vote for him. Fillmore's floor managers then withdrew his name from consideration, and two ballots later Fillmore's candidate, John Young, won the nomination. Fillmore had successfully outmaneuvered the Seward-Weed faction of the party, and in November Young carried the state. The 1846 victory put the Whigs back in the governor's mansion, but it did not give them full control of the state. A new constitution provided for direct election for a number of top state offices, to be filled in 1847. Fillmore accepted the Whig nomination as state comptroller. Campaigning hard, with a united party behind him, he won by a margin of 38,000. This was a huge victory—indeed it would be the greatest victory of any Whig in the state's history. Symbolically, Fillmore sold his law books, closed his law office in Buffalo, and moved to Albany.
Given his strong interest in economics and finance, the comptrollership was the perfect position for him. Had he stayed there, he might have become a lasting figure in the state and a powerful political leader. However, his competence in running the office and his growing power in the state worked against a long tenure in Albany. Fillmore still had his eye on national politics, and the Weed-Seward faction in the state considered him to be an intolerable rival. Thus, Fillmore's ambition, and the ambitions of his Whig rivals, would push him onto the national stage a year later.
Excerpted from Millard Fillmore by Paul Finkelman
Copyright 2011 by Paul Finkelman
Published in 2011 by Times Books/Henry Holt and Company
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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