The Gospel About Millard Fillmore – a Unitarian paean to our 13th president


This sermon was delivered at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco, by the Rev. John Robinson, on September 18, 2005.

Choir practice at First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Francisco.

Choir practice at First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Francisco.

That church used to keep this text in its sermon archives, but I recently discovered that archive had gone away.  I was happy to find I could get a historic version of the page, from which I got this text below.

I offer this here for scholars of the history of the presidency, and for scholars and fans of Millard Fillmore.  Oh, and to update the link in my list of sources on Millard Fillmore.

The Gospel About Millard Fillmore

This sermon began many years ago, over 30. Elliot Richardson had been invited to speak at the Annual Meeting of our Association of Free churches. He was then the martyred hero who had resigned as Attorney General of these United States rather than obey Richard Nixon’s order to fire Archibald Cox as Special Watergate Prosecutor. He was a Unitarian from an old Unitarian family.

Not all Unitarians were happy to have him as speaker. There was much agitation about the choice. Protesters tried to interrupt his speech, but were finally prevailed upon to let him make it.

In the question and answer period that followed, one of the dissenters demanded to know how Elliot Richardson, when Nixon’s Secretary of Defense, could have authorized the infamous December bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong.

Elliot Richardson pointed out to the questioner that he had not been appointed to Secretary of Defense until after the bombings, indeed until after the Vietnam Truce had been declared. He could have stopped there. Gotten off, as so many of us are apt to do, looking good. But he did not. He told the truth. He continued saying: “But, I think the decision to bomb was right.” It was the sort of candor that impresses.

Later that evening a young minister, this was years ago, was on a hotel elevator on to which Elliot Richardson stepped, unsuspectingly. Emboldened by spirits if not spirit. The young minister thanked Mr. Richardson for his speech and apologized for the rude behavior of some self-righteous Unitarians who treat those others of this tradition with whom they disagree so intolerantly. And then, as an illustration he launched into an impromptu sermon on Millard Fillmore. Ever polite, Elliot Richardson said he would like to see a full text. The young minister sent it to him, at the Court of St. James, where Mr. Richardson was at the time United States Ambassador to Great Britain. The Ambassador sent back a letter thanking the young minister for his sermon, saying that he had enjoyed it immensely. As a not so young minister, I still treasure that letter. Here for you this morning is the text of that sermon.

History has been unkind to Millard Fillmore, often referred to as “Millard Who?”. Forgetting that he was 13th president of the United States. One of the few accomplishments for which he is given credit is installing the first bath tub in the White House. There is serious doubt about that.

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.

The list of reasons for Fillmore’s lack of fame or infamy is long. His presidency was very short, only 2 years 236 days. His presidency is greatly overshadowed by the momentous events of the Civil War, eight years later. He was not liked by either the abolitionist historians or those historians who were apologists for the south. His association with the Know-Nothings tarnished his memory. And perhaps most important, the principal source of information about him came from the writings of his arch rival and enemy, the New York political boss Thurlow Weed, who called Fillmore derisively, “That incorruptible man from Buffalo.” Weed was very corruptible.

Millard Fillmore was born in a log cabin January 1, 1800, in upstate New York on his father’s poor, unproductive, isolated, farm. Millard was his mother’s maiden name. His education was sparse, no more than three months a year. He said that in the nine months working on his father’s farm, he forgot more than he learned the other three months. But his ambitious father apprenticed Millard to a cloth cutter, and then later got him a job in a law office. Millard’s Education was mostly self-learning, though by 20 he had a position as a schoolteacher. And then he became a lawyer. At 26 he married Abigail Powers who had taught him as he tried to catch up on his education. At 28 he was elected to the New York State Assembly.

At age 31 he joined a group of like-minded citizens in Buffalo New York where he now made his home. These were the founding and charter members of the First Unitarian Church of Buffalo New York.

Millard fought many good fights in the New York State Assembly. He fought for repeal of a law that required anyone testifying in court to swear that they believed in God and the hereafter. He pushed for an end to imprisonment for debt, and bankruptcy laws to protect small business interests. He fought for separation of church and state.

Millard was a party switcher right from the beginning. He was elected to the assembly as a National Republican, the party of Jefferson. Then He was elected as an Anti-Mason, a party he had helped to form. The Anti-Masons held that the Masonic Order with its lodges, secret rites and oaths, loyalties to something other than the Constitution, constituted an invisible Empire, a dangerous intrusion in a democracy. He wanted to get Masons out of government.

Fillmore was elected to Congress as a National Republican in 1832. His first term saw the formation of the Whig Party, an event he supported, as he wanted to see a party of National Union.

Unfortunately for those who look for titillation in sermons there were no publish rumors of moral turpitude. He served but one term in Congress, (perhaps an early supporter of term limits) and then went home to Buffalo and devoted himself to cultural and intellectual enrichment of Buffalo. (I know, you may think that an oxymoron.) He supported good causes like free public education and free public libraries.

In 1836 he was again elected to the House of Representatives. There he was made chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. He also was chair of a Select Committee charged with investigation of election fraud in New Jersey (yes, I know, no change there). Incredibly Fillmore’s committee found 5 congressmen of his own party guilty, threw them out of congress, and thus handed control of The House to the opposition party! (IMAGINE!)

In 1842 he again left Congress, this time as a prominent Whig. The next year Horace Greely, editor of the NEW YORK TRIBUNE (also an alleged Unitarian), urged Fillmore’s candidacy for Vice-President. (Years later Fillmore repaid the favor by getting Greely out of debtors’ prison in Paris.)

1844 was not the year for Millard to get the nomination. He was held to be anti-slave and anti-Southern. He opposed the annexation of Texas as an attempt to swell slavery forces.

Later Millard opposed the Mexican War, which he believed would spread slavery and weaken the North’s industrial economy.

1848 was the year when Fillmore was tapped as the Whigs vice-presidential candidate. He balanced the ticket, with General Zachary Taylor, a Southerner, and slave owner, who was a hero of the Mexican War (ironically). Taylor ran on a rough and ready image. Leading abolitionists bolted the party, particularly New Englanders, notably the leading Unitarian, Charles Francis Adams.

The Taylor-Fillmore ticket had no platform because whatever was said would alienate part of the country. Abe Lincoln supported this ticket. On November 7, they won.

On July 9, 1850, rough and ready Zachary Taylor died from illness. Fillmore became President, the third President to be Unitarian. (In October of that same year this church was founded.) Within a month Fillmore had aroused the ire of the North by signing the Compromise of 1850. He did it, knowing that he had ruined any hope he had to run for the Presidency on his own. He also earned the animosity of many Unitarians.

The Compromise of 1850 preserved the balance between the North and South that dated from the Missouri Compromise and earlier. By it: California was admitted as a free state; New Mexico and Utah became Territories with no restriction on slavery; Texas was paid 10 million dollars to accept the Texas-New Mexico boundaries; slavery was to be decided by the people of Texas. The balance of concessions was further kept by prohibiting the slave trade in Washington, D.C. but continuing the right (better said the wrong) of slave ownership in the capital. The provision that enraged the abolitionists most was the strengthening of the fugitive slave laws. It empowered federal agents to enforce the act. The Whig Party split over Fillmore’s signing of the law.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (Unitarian) said of the fugitive slave law, “I will not obey it, by God.” Theodore Parker (author of the opening words this morning), a Boston Unitarian minister, led an armed band of vigilantes that confronted slave hunters up from the South; intimidated them into leaving; and saved a slave couple who had escaped to Boston. Parker had acted in direct defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law. With loaded pistol and sword ready on his writing desk Unitarian Parker wrote the Unitarian President, Fillmore, telling what he had done and challenging Fillmore to enforce his “damned law.”

History has judged Fillmore harshly for that one law – a Unitarian President perpetuating slavery – the scandal! Why did he do it? Talk of secession! Remember the times. Even before Taylor’s inauguration, Virginia had passed legislation that threatened secession if the federal government interfered with “Southern Institutions”. John C. Calhoun (also a Unitarian and charter member of the Unitarian Church in Washington D.C.) and other Southern leaders were making ominous warnings. Tension between the States in the House of Representatives kept them from selecting a Speaker for over three weeks. By the time Fillmore took office, the South was ringing with calls for secession, not only if slavery were interfered with but if its expansion were checked.

Fillmore’s predecessor, Taylor, a Southerner, a slave owner and war hero, might have held the country together had he lived to veto the compromise of 1850 as he had said he would. Fillmore knew he could not hold the Union if he vetoed it. He set one goal, to preserve the Union and the Constitution. To give up the great compromise forged in 1787-1788 would, he knew, lead to the rupture of the Union. He thought the North was at that time not yet strong enough to win a civil war. Modern historians agree.

By the end of October 1850, Fillmore had angered abolitionists by sending federal troops to assist U.S. Marshal’s in the arrest of fugitive slaves. His determination for the compromise was also felt in the South. He sent reinforcements for Charleston, South Carolina where Southerners, angry over the North’s resistance to the fugitive slave laws, were threatening to seize federal property.

Fillmore has been most severely criticized for not fighting slavery with determination. However, there is another side. John F. Kennedy in Profiles of Courage chose to profile Daniel Webster. Webster was also a Whig and a Unitarian. Kennedy praises Webster for his courage in supporting The Compromise of 1850 with its Fugitive Slave Law. Fillmore had presided as Vice-President over the debates on the Compromise. He had heard Webster’s famous speech that cost Webster the support of his Massachusetts constituents. Emerson said of Webster at this time “The word ‘liberty’ in the mouth of Mr. Webster sounds like the word ‘love’ in the mouth of a courtesan.”

Webster and Fillmore thought slavery would die a natural death in the industrial revolution (Why invest capital in slave ownership when an Irishman could be rented for next to nothing in wages.) They saw the tension, not so much as slave vs. free, as agriculture vs. industry.

Webster was but one vote for the bill. Fillmore alone shouldered the final responsibility to veto or sign the bill. Fillmore bore the blame for the Compromise of 1850. Do not forget that Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, said that if he could preserve the Union by keeping slavery, he would.

When the Compromise of 1850 fell apart, the Civil War began. The Whigs were terribly weakened by abolitionist outrage.

Perhaps Fillmore’s next most far-reaching act was to send Commodore Perry to Japan. But Fillmore was done. The Whigs were done.

In the election of 1852 Fillmore and Webster fought over the nomination for President at the next Whig Convention, for 47 ballots to a deadlock. In the end, a man neither of them could support was nominated and lost the election. A saddened Fillmore attended, with his wife, the cold rainy inauguration of Franklin Pierce. Three weeks later Fillmore’s wife died of pneumonia contracted that inauguration day. Fillmore’s 22 year old daughter died the year after he left office.

After he had stepped down from office, the Officers of the American Unitarian Association invited Millard Fillmore to preside over the Annual Meeting. But abolitionists refused to allow him to be seated after he got there. They would have no part of this man who would not follow their conscience. One hopes that this free religion might be gentler today but I am not sure. After the Civil War, Fillmore stung by their action resigned from the Buffalo Church when its minister and his friend died.

By 1856 the Whig party had disintegrated. The lines grew harder: Democrats to the South, Republicans to the North. Millard Fillmore wanted a party for the Union. He then made the second mistake for which he has been charged harshly. He offered himself to the American Party, the Know-Nothings, anti-foreign and anti-Catholic, as candidate — a devil of a thing for a free religionist to do. He hoped to gather there the remnants of the Whigs. He then went off to Europe on a 12-month vacation.

Ironically he was on foreign soil, after just completing an audience with the Pope when he was notified that he had received the Know-Nothing’s nomination for President. He was chosen because he was the only person of stature that they could get.

But many Know-Nothings were unhappy with him and bolted the party. Fillmore is not known to have ever expressed any anti-Catholic sentiments. This though he had lost a bid for Governor of New York because Catholics were angry that his militancy for separation of church and state made him oppose state funding they sought for various Catholic institutions.

Fillmore expressed no support for the Know-Nothing goal of removing all Catholics from office alleging they would be loyal to the Pope rather than the U.S.A. He did, however, believe that foreigners should be fully Americanized in their views before becoming citizens. He was also concerned that immigrants, who joined our diplomatic service, were sent to the countries from which they had come. He thought it a potential conflict of interest.

In 1856, he ran for President as the American Party candidate with a Southern slaveholder as his running mate. They emphasized in the campaign regional compromise and preservation of the Union. They carried only the State of Maryland. However they also were the spoilers that kept the Republicans from winning and thus put the Civil war off four more years. It is important remember that the changes happening in this nation, at this time, were more dramatic and far reaching in many ways than the computer revolution in our own. These were the years of the industrial revolution. The dramatic growth of railroads and factories, was changing the North for a subsistence farm economy to market agriculture and industrial growth. These changes radically altered the balance between North and South, increasing the might of the North disproportionately.

It is difficult to know whether Millard was in any sense a believer in Know-Nothingism, or if he knew of the violence in which some of its members engaged, or if he merely compromised himself to win his objective of continued Union of the States. He wouldn’t be the first prejudice Unitarian. He was not a radical Abolitionist. He said, however, that he thought the fugitive slave law odious but constitutional.

Slavery was a despicable practice. There is no apology for it. It is easy to condemn compromisers. But it is harder to make the difficult decisions that the real world demands. If it had not been for the courage of Fillmore the Civil war would have come sooner. And if the South had succeeded in becoming independent, how long and how entrenched by bitterness would slavery have lasted? Until today? And if cooler heads had prevailed, compromise succeeded, would slavery possibly have collapsed anyway without the blood shed and bitterness engendered by that fratricidal war?

The tension between the ideal and the real, the promise and what is practical, between moral purity and the sin of every day life, is very real. It is a tension that we humans are both burdened and blessed with. I leave you to struggle with these hard dilemmas. You do each time you vote. I believe that we are at our best when we walk with each other talk with each other, even in our differences, rather than separating.

Millard Fillmore lived out the balance of his days quietly in private life. He supported Lincoln, met Lincoln in Buffalo when Lincoln was on his way from Illinois to his First Inaugural. He took Lincoln to services at the First Unitarian Church of Buffalo. He thought that the Republicans had provoked the Civil War but gave it his support at rallies. He thought Lincoln too harsh – he strongly supported Andrew Johnson’s efforts at conciliation.

Fillmore was no Saint if you look for moral purity, nor was he our most brilliant President. He refused an Honorary Degree from Oxford, because he had no earned degree of any kind. He said he was “not entitled to it.” (Give him high marks on humility). But he was more than most have given him credit for. He risked and lost his reputation to keep the vision of a United States, even as others risked much to purify that vision. In looking up Eliot Richardson on the Internet, I find that he is listed as an Episcopalian/Anglican. Perhaps he too felt the sting of our righteousness at the General Assembly.

May we, O God, be people who understand that the course of truth and good is never so easy, and that the tread of evil runs through each of us, most surely when we are convinced of our own righteousness.

Amen and Amen.

Mostly accurate, so far as I can tell.  No, I haven’t figured out how you cite this under MLA standards.

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