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Potus Geeks Book Review: Millard Fillmore-Biography of a President by Robert Rayback

Millard Fillmore is considered the least remembered President of the United States (an honor sometimes shared with Chester Alan Arthur). He is more often remembered as the punchline to a joke, such as when H. L. Mencken perpetrated what came to be known as the "bathtub hoax" or when the Kia Motor Company gave a faux tribute to Fillmore as part of their Presidents Day sales event. There are other examples (such as in George Pendle's farcical fictitious biography entitled The Remarkable Millard Fillmore, reviewed here in this community, the cover of which had Fillmore riding a unicorn.) He has also been remembered of late as a victim of cancel culture because of his promotion of the Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850, a measure that had his whole-hearted support. Just last summer (August of 2020), the University at Buffalo removed Fillmore's name from a campus building at the institution he helped to found because of a legacy that views the ex-president as someone who set back the cause of freedom for enslaved African-Americans.



Does Fillmore deserve to be vilified and turned into the Rodney Dangerfield of presidents in the manner that he has? Biographer Robert Rayback is convinced that his subject is undeserving of such treatment and was a greater president and leader than history recalls. Rayback wrote what is considered the leading biography of the 13th President of the United States, simply called Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President. The book was first published in 1959, a time when presidents and antebellum politicians were held to a different standard than they are currently. It is understandable therefore that the measuring stick against which Fillmore is judged by Rayback is considerably different than that by which he would be held to account today.

The text of this work runs some 435 pages and there are portions of Fillmore's life which are given more attention than others. The author frequently speaks confidently about Fillmore's thoughts and motives, telling the reader what his subject was thinking at various points in his life. This is likely because the most oft-quoted source material for the book is the Millard Fillmore Papers, a collection maintained by the Buffalo Historical Society. This is not to disparage the author's meticulous research or his impeccable academic credentials. The problem is that this biography is heavily weighted in defense of its subject because Fillmore himself is given the last word in justifying his actions, many of them demonstrating questionable judgement.

A second-most quoted source is the autobiography of New York's longtime political boss Thurlow Weed, who was first an ally of Fillmore and later his nemesis. Rayback clearly takes Fillmore's side in this quarrel, largely because Weed's autobiography, written after Fillmore's death, disparaged Fillmore, even though the two men had purportedly reconciled previously. Rather than pitting each man's position in their disagreements against one another, Rayback is unshakable in his belief that Fillmore was a thoughtful, patient and benevolent man, while Weed was a snake. The conclusion may be fair or unfair, but readers are not given the opportunity to reach their own conclusions.

For Rayback, Fillmore's desire to keep the nation together was a core principle that justified all manner of decisions that we would question today. Fillmore was not alone as a northerner in his tolerance of "the peculiar institution" of slavery, but it is difficult to understand how Fillmore courted the votes of abolitionists while giving whole-hearted support for the Fugitive Slave Act, legislation which compelled northern law enforcement and governments to return escaped enslaved persons, or even how Fillmore could even overlook the immorality of slavery at a time when enlightened persons were coming to realize what a great wrong it was. Fillmore's support of and candidacy for the anti-immigrant "Know-Nothing Party" is dismissed because according to the author Fillmore only made one anti-immigrant speech during the campaign so therefore he was not really a bigot. It is also difficult to understand why ex-President Fillmore initially supported the Union cause, going so far as to form a home guard unit of those too old to serve in the war, only to later join the Copperhead cause in advance of the 1864 election when the war was going badly for the Union. Rayback makes no attempt to explain this, though one motive appears most likely. Fillmore was not a leader like Lincoln. He was first and foremost a politician whose studied demeanor was in reality an exercise in determining which way the political winds were blowing so that he could set his sails in the direction of political expediency.

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Other reviewers have commented about the tedious nature of the writing, and I think this is a fair comment. The book is a slog to read at times and this biography is hardly a page-turner. However it is worth the effort to read for anyone wanting to consider whether or not Fillmore is being judged fairly by today's standards for his actions in keeping the institution of slavery alive. Fillmore became President of the United States, following the death of Zachary Taylor, at a time when the issue threatened to tear the nation apart. Fillmore placed national unity as a greater priority above freeing enslaved persons. He wanted to avoid a civil war that ended up pitting countrymen against one another, a war that would result in approximately 750,000 soldiers killed and many more casualties. Many respected political leaders of his time agreed with him. In 1959, many justified Fillmore's motivation for making the choices he made. In 2021 many see these choices as inherently wrong and morally repugnant. It is a subject on which diversity of thought, if respected, will lead to different conclusions. We all bring different perspectives on this question. A white academic from upstate New York writing in the 1950s would quite likely view history differently than a person whose ancestors were denied freedom and subjected to violent enslavement.

How will Fillmore be judged a hundred years from now?
Tags: abraham lincoln, book review, chester alan arthur, civil war, millard fillmore, slavery, zachary taylor
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