In his rise from a log cabin to wealth and the White House, Millard Fillmore demonstrated that by using methodical industry and some competence an uninspiring man could serve in the highest and most prestigious office in the country, President of the United States.
Born in the Finger Lakes country of New York in 1800, the young Millard Fillmore endured the struggles of the frontier lifestyle. He worked on his father’s farm, and at 15 was apprenticed to a cloth dresser. He attended one-room schools, and fell in love with the redheaded teacher, Abigail Powers, who later became his wife.
In 1823, he was admitted to the bar; seven years later he moved his law practice to Buffalo. As an associate of Thurlow Weed, a Whig, Fillmore held state office and for eight years was a member of the House of Representatives. In 1848, while Comptroller of New York, he was elected Vice President.
Fillmore presided over the Senate during the months of nerve-wracking debates over the Compromise of 1850. He made no public comment on the merits of the compromise proposal. A few days before President Taylor’s death, however, Fillmore confided to him that he would vote in favor of Henry Clay’s bill if there were a tie vote.
The Sudden Presidency
The unexpected accession of Millard Fillmore to the Presidency in July 1850 brought a major political shift in the administration. Taylor’s Cabinet resigned and President Fillmore at once appointed Daniel Webster to serve as Secretary of State, thus proclaiming his alliance with the moderate Whigs.
A bill to admit California still aroused all the violent arguments for and against the extension of slavery, without any progress toward settling the major issues. The bill was rewritten and with Fillmore’s pressure from the White House, five separate bills were introduced to the Senate:
- Admit California as a free state.
- Settle the Texas boundary and compensate her.
- Grant territorial status to New Mexico.
- Place Federal officers at the disposal of slaveholders seeking fugitives.
- Abolish the slave trade in the District of Columbia.
Each measure obtained a majority, and by September 20, President Fillmore had signed them into law. Webster wrote, “I can now sleep of nights.”
Some of the more militant 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.
Failed Re-election and Later Years
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.
As the Whig Party disintegrated in the 1850’s, Fillmore refused to join the Republican Party; but, instead, in 1856 accepted the nomination for President of the Know Nothing, or American, Party. Throughout the Civil War he opposed President Lincoln and during Reconstruction supported President Johnson. He died in 1874.
The accompanying image highlights the America President Millard Fillmore’s life and achievements: