The Gospel about Millard Fillmore

Great title for a sermon, yes?

Does the sermon live up to the title?  The Rev. John Robinson preached the sermon on September 18, 2005, at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco — at least, that’s what it looks like from the sermon archives where I stumbled on the thing. Fillmore was a Unitarian, so that sect might take a bit of pride in his accomplishments.

One historian said of Fillmore: “He came to the Presidency by the only road available to a man of limited ability, the death of his predecessor.” He was accused of being both pro-slavery and abolitionist. It was said he did “not have courage” “but was just inflexible.” They accused him of having “no position except equivocation,” that he was “without personal earnest conviction, personal force, or capacity for strong personal leadership.” His general rating as a president has been, until recently, below average, way below. He is judged bad or poor in his religiousness by those who judge such things. He was rejected by the religious community of which he was a member. He was a Unitarian.

There are three reasons to tell the story of Millard Fillmore: First, he illustrates the on-going tension in our free religious community, between the prophetic and the practical – the privilege of moral purity and the necessity to make real world decisions. Second, he illustrates well how difficult it is to judge our contemporaries. And third, to help restore Millard Fillmore to his rightful place in history.

I wish the good Rev. Robinson had included footnotes with the sermon.


7 Responses to The Gospel about Millard Fillmore

  1. This is not strictly relevant, but since I don’t have your e-mail address, and it is about the Fillmores — in this case, Abigail, I figured I’d drop it here.
    According to today’s WaPo Political Trivia Quiz, she was the person who first started a White House Library. Better than a bathtub, certainly, and hopefully more accurate.



  2. I haven’t read the Rayback, just the quotes in THE POLITICS OF FEAR. I don’t have access to any Academic Library which would have this. Hopefully you do, and can check the information. I DO suggest you find the Bennett — but he really goes off the rails when he surveys the current (in his terms) scene, expecting that ‘antialienism’ was dead — not expecting its return in the many forms it haunts us today. (I’m also curious as to whether you agree with his parallels between nativism and McCarthyism.)
    As for my apologizing, maybe just a verbal quirk.


  3. Ed Darrell says:

    I’m not sure why you keep apologizing. I’m not defending Fillmore’s positions at all.

    I wonder — does Rayback have that quote about God saving the nation? Any other good lines in it?


  4. Sorry, Ed, but after reading your note, I did some research. My main source was THE PARTY OF FEAR, by David H. Bennett — the historical section of which is a very god study of the Nativist phenomenon, even if the contemporary part is somewhat weak in trying to see the same tendencies in the — then current — Reagan Administration. (Ironically, if it were written today about the Bushites, it would be much more on point.)

    It gives the following quote from Fillmore (p.115):
    “the foreign vote was ‘fast demoralizing the whole country, corrupting the ballot box — that great palladium of our liberty — into a mockery where the rights of native born citizens are voted away by those who blindly followed their mercenary and selfish leaders.'” (Bennett bunches his references by paragraphs, but this seems to come from Robert J. Rayback, MILLARD FILLMORE — published by the Buffalo Historical Society in 1959.)

    It further states — about the Know Nothing Presidential race in 1856 — apparently also quoting Rayback (emphasis mine, and I wish your comments allowed italics):
    “Millard Fillmore, nativist favorite in 1852, NEWLY INITIATED MEMBER OF THE ORDER, was the favorite.” (p. 125)

    As Bennett, and most writers I have seen who discussed the Know Nothings, says, while they were, theoretically a secret society, the secrecy went to their members, not their goals. Their position on immigration WAS widely known, and Fillmore must have known their purpose. Furthermore, there was a substantial group (called the “Know Somethings” and led by Seward and Weed), that were predominantly anti-slavery and eventually moved into the Republican party. Nathaniel Banks as well seems to have been part of this group.

    I’d suggest you read Chapters 7, 8, and 9 for a full discussion of the topic, and if you have any counters to these points, please pass them on.

    Now, it is true that some major anti-slavery Republicans were once Know-Nothings, like Banks and Henry Winter Davis, but Fillmore can hardly be included among them.


  5. Ed Darrell says:

    I think that decision is amazingly troubling. But I must admit, I know very little about Fillmore’s motivations, or even the outlines of what went on in that period of time. He was revered as a hero in Buffalo partly for his inability to sign on to every good cause that came along — universities, schools, clubs, roads, bridges, etc., etc., etc. I wonder if there isn’t something more going on.

    And so I’m digging. You may have noted my post just prior to Fillmore’s birthday, in which I tried to get contributions to source a quote that was showing up all over the internet, attributed to Fillmore. So far, no luck. But I’ve found some great new sources on the internet, and made acquaintance of several people in libraries who should know.

    Would Fillmore have known all the unsavory aspects of the Know Nothings? Was it even manifest, then?

    Interesting questions.

    Among other things I’ve learned along the way, one of Fillmore’s sons was captured by pirates, and fought his way to freedom, taking over the pirate vessel. Could we write fiction like that?


  6. (I am sure this has been brought up before and I missed it, so my apologies if it is opening a dead discussion.) For me, the defining fact that will always keep me from having any respect for Fillmore is not his weakness on slavery, but his willingness to run for the Presidency on the Know-Nothing (American Party) ticket.
    I am aware that he is supposed to have disagreed with the main tenets of the party (anti-immigration, anti-Catholicism) but I do not see this as an excuse. He knew that the members and voters would not necessarily know this, and he would have been compromised by having been supported by them.
    I’m sorry, but this keeps me from ever feeling he has been ‘underrated,’ especially given the continuing poison that the anti-immigration faction spills into our political discourse (frequently using the same arguments, even if the groups libeled differ — compare the arguments — reported in Orcinus’s recent columns — against Orientals with todays “Families First on Immigration’ position on ‘anchor babies’).


  7. elektratig says:

    What a great link! Thanks.


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