Quote of the moment: Should we reconsider Millard Fillmore?


For an accidental president, a man who no one expected to take the office; for a guy whose term was marked by his party’s rejection of his policies so much that they did not even entertain the idea he might be the nominee in the next election; for the last Whig president, an obvious dinosaur of a dying political view; for a guy so obscure that a hoax more than a half-century later remains his greatest acknowledged point of reference, Millard Fillmore left the U.S. in good shape.

Should that be his real legacy?

Millard Fillmore for President, campaign poster from 1856 (American Party)

Campaign poster for Millard Fillmore, running for president in 1856 on the American Party ticket. He carried Maryland, which is probably ironic, considering Maryland’s Catholic roots, and the American Party’s anti-Catholic views, views probably not entirely shared by Fillmore; the American Party is more often known as the “Know-Nothings.”  Image from the Library of Congress American Memory files.

These are the last two paragraphs of his final State of the Union message, delivered on paper on December 6, 1852.  Perhaps establishing a tradition, he made the message a listing of current zeitgeist, starting out mourning the recent passing of Daniel Webster, and the abatement of epidemics of mosquito-borne plagues in several cities.  He recited activities of the government, including the abolishment of corporal punishment in the Navy and improvements in the Naval Academy; he mentioned U.S. exploration around the world, in the Pacific, in the Amazon River, in Africa, and especially his project to send a fleet to Japan to open trade there.  He noted great opportunities for trade, domestically across an expanded, Atlantic-to-Pacific United States, and in foreign markets reachable through both oceans.

The last two paragraphs would be considered greatly exaggerated had any president in the 20th century delivered them; but from Millard Fillmore, they were not.  He gave credit for these achievements to others, not himself.

In closing this my last annual communication, permit me, fellow-citizens, to congratulate you on the prosperous condition of our beloved country. Abroad its relations with all foreign powers are friendly, its rights are respected, and its high place in the family of nations cheerfully recognized. At home we enjoy an amount of happiness, public and private, which has probably never fallen to the lot of any other people. Besides affording to our own citizens a degree of prosperity of which on so large a scale I know of no other instance, our country is annually affording a refuge and a home to multitudes, altogether without example, from the Old World.

We owe these blessings, under Heaven, to the happy Constitution and Government which were bequeathed to us by our fathers, and which it is our sacred duty to transmit in all their integrity to our children. We must all consider it a great distinction and privilege to have been chosen by the people to bear a part in the administration of such a Government. Called by an unexpected dispensation to its highest trust at a season of embarrassment and alarm, I entered upon its arduous duties with extreme diffidence. I claim only to have discharged them to the best of an humble ability, with a single eye to the public good, and it is with devout gratitude in retiring from office that I leave the country in a state of peace and prosperity.

What president would not have been happy to have been able to claim as much?  Historians often offer back-handed criticism to Fillmore for the Compromise of 1850; in retrospect it did not prevent the Civil War.  In the circumstances of 1850, in the circumstances of Fillmore’s presidential career, should we expect more?  Compared to Buchanan’s presidency and the events accelerating toward war, did Fillmore do so badly?

Have we underestimated Millard Fillmore?  Discuss.

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8 Responses to Quote of the moment: Should we reconsider Millard Fillmore?

  1. [...] Quote of the moment: Should we reconsider Millard Fillmore? (timpanogos.wordpress.com) [...]

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  3. Ed Darrell says:

    Fillmore came along at a fascinating and vexing time. For studies of history, it’s after the colonial era, after the post-colonial era and Jackson, but it’s not yet the Civil War.

    One of the things I’ve been looking at over the past couple of years is the spread of technology. The common canon is the U.S. rather missed out on the second Industrial Revolution, at least until the Civil War was over, and those issues settled. One has to wonder how things could have been different, had new technologies changed products, jobs, incomes and property distribution, more effectively before the war.

    Taking a look at Fillmore’s three State of the Union messages (all written, not spoken), one gets a different view. Fillmore seemed to grasp globalization in a way others didn’t. His opening of Japan, when he did and as he did, laid the foundations for the first three wars the U.S. fought in the 20th century (I’m including the 1898 Spanish-American War in that group) — clearly it led to the rise of Japan as a trading power in the Pacific, and almost certainly led to the rise of Japan as a naval power worldwide and an authoritarian regime by 1935.

    Fillmore’s influence on World War II may be as great as his influence on the Civil War.

    There are lots of issues to unpack there, and most of them are not well studied, I think.

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  4. alexvoltaire says:

    I struggle with where Fillmore should be positioned in our presidential pantheon.

    Having done grad school in Buffalo, part of me would like to see his fortunes improve. At best, though, I can say this: he tried to keep the union together using compromise tactics that had largely worked up until that time. He appointed Benjamin Robbins Curtis to the Supreme Court, one of the only dissenters against the Dred Scott case. And he pursued a bad compromise knowing it would sink the Whigs in both the North and the South. There’s a lot to be said for the “throw yourself at the grenade” presidents who sacrificed re-election, and indeed, their own political parties, to achieve what they believed to be a greater good. (I would put both Adamses in this category as well.)

    As you allude with your picture, Fillmore’s biggest historiographic problem nowadays is this alignment with the American Party and its reflexive anti-Catholicism.

    By the way– we can all agree that Pierce was a doofus, but shouldn’t Buchanan be given a little more credit? Unlike Jefferson, he stuck to his view of the constitution, flawed though it was, and a lot of the reason why the Confederacy didn’t get much help from Europe in the end was due in part to the foreign relations successes of Buchanan’s presidency.

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  5. I don’t want to be a naysayer, but Fillmore appeased the slave-holding South, refusing to recognize what even his slave-holding predecessor Zachary Taylor did – that slavery in the new territories would lead to the destruction of thee Union. At a time when the US was experiencing an influx of Irish and southern German immigrants he also held a decidedly irrational anti-Catholic view, hardly the vision of leadership. I believe he earned his ignominy.

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  6. At least he was humble, right? More than we can say for… um, every politician in government right now?

    Anyway I’m biased. I’d like everyone to reconsider Fillmore, but I’m related (albeit distantly) to the man.

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