Unitarian Universalists like to brag about the distinguished folks connected to us. We usually boast of five U.S. Presidents—Thomas Jefferson (if you count his theology and his own claims, not membership in a congregation), John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and William Howard Taft. Oh, did I forget to mention Millard Fillmore. We tend to mutter that one under our breath.
Fillmore is not only the butt of many jokes, but he usually is high on any list of the worst Presidents in history. His less than one full term in office was so disastrous that his party, the Whigs virtually disintegrated.
But they are proud of him in his adopted home town of Buffalo, New York. Yesterday they held an annual memorial service at his grave site. The minister of the congregation he helped found, the Rev. Margaret A. O'Neall of Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo, gave the invocation and the Provost of the University of Buffalo, which he also founded, gave an address. And just to show he’s a good sport, President Barack Obama, sent a wreath.
Fillmore was born in very humble circumstances—in an honest-to-Gwad log cabin on January 7, 1800 in the Finger Lakes area of Cayuga County. He was the seventh of nine children to a struggling settler from New England.
He was entirely self educated, learning to read from the three books in his father’s cabin—The Bible, an almanac, and a hymnal. Bound out as an apprentice to a cloth maker/weaver at the age of 14, he earned enough to buy a dictionary and read definitions between tending the carding machines. In the spring he would be sent home to help with the planting. After moving his apprenticeship to another firm in New Hope, he was able to attend the New Hope Academy briefly. In 1819 He fell in love with his teacher, Abigail Powers.
He worked part of a winter as a rural schoolmaster himself to earn enough money to purchase his release from his apprenticeship and went to reading law with Judge Walter Wood of Montville. He moved to Buffalo, just on the cusp of a great boom as the outlet of the Erie Canal, on the shores of Lake Erie to finish his law studies with Asa Rice and Joseph Clary and was admitted to the bar in 1823.
Fillmore hung out his shingle in East Aurora, about twenty miles south of Buffalo and sent for Abigail, who had been waiting for him to establish himself. They were married in 1826. He prospered and his reputation as a lawyer grew.
In 1828 he won his first election for the state Assembly. He ran on the locally powerful Anti-Masonic Party but supported John Quincy Adams for re-election under the National Republican banner, the forerunner of the Whigs. In his three one year terms he managed to pass legislation ending imprisonment for debt in New York and tried to end the practice of requiring religious oaths to serve in public office.
The family moved to bustling Buffalo in 1831. He became one of the founding members of the new Unitarian congregation in that city the same year. His wife, a Baptist, refused to participate, perhaps putting a strain on their marriage.
Elected to Congress in 1832 as a National Republican with local Anti-Masonic support, he joined the new coalition of Whigs under the leadership of Henry Clay forming to oppose the policies of Andrew Jackson. That alienated his Anti-Masonic supporters and he declined to be nominated again.
Instead in 1834 Fillmore joined the most prestigious law firm in western New York while he worked to bring his old supporters into the Whigs. That didn’t prove too hard as the Anti-Masonic Party was disintegrating.
At the time Fillmore was widely known for his liberal views, including opposition to the expansion of slavery.
He was returned to Congress as a Whig in 1836 with the support of local abolitionists. In his three terms Fillmore opposed the Annexation of Texas as a slave state, and regularly supported his old hero, John Quincy Adams, in his fruitless efforts to lay anti-slavery petitions before Congress. Elevated to Chair of the Ways and Means Committee under Speaker of the House Clay, he helped move the Whig agenda including the protective tariff.
Fillmore opted out of a run for a fourth term in hopes of being named Vice-President on a Whig ticket with Clay. But New York Whig boss Thrulow Weed asked him to step aside for firebrand abolitionist William Steward. Instead he ran for, and was defeated for governor.
Back home in he found time to found the University of Buffalo in 1846. The same year he was elected to the new post of Comptroller, and used that office to modernize the New York banking system, making it a model for Whig proposals for national reform.
During the Mexican War, which he opposed, Fillmore became an officer in the New York State Militia as befitting an elected official of his stature. It must be said that on his watch no Mexican depredations were even attempted in western New York.
In 1848 the Whigs, hungry for victory, bypassed party leaders Clay and Daniel Webster to nominate a popular war hero, General Zachary Taylor, a slave-holding Louisiana plantation owner. Party leaders turned to Fillmore, a northern anti-slavery man to balance the ticket. The pair campaigned on a pledge to serve all of the country and overcome sectionalism.
Immediately upon taking office the new administration was faced with a full-blown crisis as southern states threatened to secede from the Union unless all of the land stolen from Mexico including California, New Mexico and parts of four other future states were open to slavery. In Congress Henry Clay cobbled together yet another compromise to try and reconcile North and South. His Omnibus Bill among other things would allow California to be admitted as a Free State, leave the future of Kansas and Nebraska to a decision by voters in those territories—popular sovereignty, and the Fugitive Slave Act. Taylor surprised everyone with opposing any extension of slavery and was soon at odd with his own party in Congress.
Then one hot morning in the summer of 1850 Taylor sat down to a big bowl of chilled strawberries and cream, which killed him, or so the story goes. Millard Fillmore was an accidental President.
But he was much more tractable than Taylor. He threw his support around Clay’s Omnibus Bill despite the poison pill of the Fugitive Slave law, despised in New England and much of the rest of the North. When the bill bogged down, he threw his support to Democrat Stephen Douglas’s plan to pass five separate bills incorporating most of Clay’s proposals. By cobbling different coalitions to pass each bill, all five arrived with a thump on Fillmore’s desk.
He signed the first four, but briefly dithered on the Fugitive Slave Act which both offended his own anti-slavery views and, he knew, probably doomed his political future if he signed it. In the name of “national unity” and the greater good, Fillmore swallowed hard and signed the act. He thought he was brining about sectional peace, but only lit the long fuse of a gigantic bomb.
Both sides hated him. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, the leader of anti-slavery Whigs denounced him, “Better for [Fillmore] had he never been born; better for his memory and the good name of his children, had he never been President.” Neither were the firebrands of the south appeased. The governor of South Carolina threatened immediate secession. Fillmore responded by re-enforcing garrisons at Ft. Sumter and other southern posts with Federal troops.
His party shattered three ways. Southern Whigs were driven to the welcoming arms of the Democrats, abolitionists seethed and began to plot a new party, and a straggle of “moderates” supported, tepidly, the President.
Despite this, Fillmore was in some ways a successful executive. Coming after a string of week, incompetent, or foolish Presidents, he was a capable administrator. And he enjoyed several major foreign policy successes, including diffusing crises that might have led to war with Portugal, France, or England. Of course his able Secretary of State, Daniel Webster got most of the credit.
In 1852 both Fillmore and Webster wanted the Whig nomination, for what it was worth. Neither would make way for the other. Party leaders tried once again to put forth a war hero, General Winfield Scott. Fillmore refused to endorse the ticket. Scott was creamed, carrying only four states. Democrat Franklin Pierce moved into the White House and promptly tried to drink himself to death after his family was killed in a railroad accident Fillmore returned to Buffalo to practice law and resume the duties of Chancellor of the University of Buffalo, a position he held in abstencia all during his terms as Vice President and President. Abigail died the next year leaving him a widower with two children.
He plotted a political comeback. Unlike most northern Whigs, including his closest political associates, he refused to join the new Republican Party believing its anti-slavery position would fuel sectional conflict. That was alright with the Republicans, who didn’t want him anyway.
Fillmore consoled himself with a Grand Tour of Europe. He was still abroad when the new American Party offered to make him their candidate. The American Party was the political arm of the rabidly anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic Know Nothing Movement. In New York State some former anti-Masonic leaders joined out of sheer opportunism. The new party was aware that Fillmore did not share their views on either immigration or the Catholic Church, but they were eager to field a candidate who would, they hope, bring them national attention.
Fillmore not only refused to campaign on the Know Nothing platform, he publicly refuted it. He campaigned on a program of regional reconciliation, tariff protectionism, and liberal banking laws that were essentially the old Whig platform. Most historians say Fillmore was crushed, carrying only Maryland. But the maiden efforts of the new Republicans under John C. Fremont were only marginally better. Hapless Democrat James Buchannan won election handily. But Fillmore won 21% of the popular vote, one of the best showings of any third party candidate ever.
Fillmore’s association with the vile Know Nothings, despite being merely political opportunism, sealed the scorn of most historians.
Once again back in Buffalo Fillmore consoled himself by marring a wealth widow, Caroline McIntosh in 1858. Previously a man of only moderate wealth, his new bride brought enough assets to erect a fine new mansion which became the center of Buffalo society. The former President busied himself in good works and basked in the esteem of his townsfolk. In addition to his continued service to the University, he founded and was president of the Buffalo Historical Society, the Buffalo General Hospital, and the Buffalo Club.
In 1860 he still refused to support the Republicans and denounced Abraham Lincoln as a dangerous extremist. Despite this when Lincoln showed up in Buffalo on his circuitous route to assume his duties in Washington in 1861, Fillmore escorted the President elect to services at the Unitarian Church, just has he had done nearly twenty years earlier for John Quincy Adams.
During the war he remained critical of the Administration, but was an ardent Unionist. He assumed the command of the Union Continentals, a unit of home guard militia for men over the age of 45.
Fillmore began to retire from public business when his wife’s health began to decline in the late 1860’s. He died in his beloved Buffalo of a stroke on March 8, 1874 after uttering his stirring last words, “The nourishment [soup] is palatable.”
He was buried under an impressive obelisk at Forest Lawn Cemetery, where local dignitaries gather annually to honor the President most of the rest of the nation has forgotten.