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?
On the anniversary of his final State of the Union message, let us ponder what Millard Fillmore bragged about.
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 abolishing 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?
Compare with modern analogs: Donald Trump appears to be working exactly contrary to those things Fillmore said were beneficial to the U.S., then: Friendly relations with foreign powers, the U.S. recognized as a refuge for persecuted people, and domestic prosperity. Any president since Franklin Roosevelt would have loved to have left such a legacy.
Have we underestimated Millard Fillmore? Discuss.