Monday, February 18, 2019
President's Day Profile: Millard Fillmore (#13)
Believe it or not, that is not a time-lost Alec Baldwin. That is the 13th President of the United States of America, Millard Fillmore.
I know pretty much nothing about Fillmore other than that he existed, and I guessed he was a Whig, and, indeed, he was. But that guess was based on my impression that he seemed old-timey.
So, what should we know about President Fillmore?
Look, I try very hard to take folks operating in the past for who they were in the times in which they lived. It doesn't mean I agree with how everything worked in the past, and I have no idea what my thoughts, opinions or life would be like if I was born in 1800 versus the last half of the 20th Century. When we look at how and why people did what they did, imposing our 2019 lens over them is, to borrow a phrase from the kids, problematic. None of us can imagine being born in a log cabin to poor farmers a handful of years after the birth of the US. What challenges did Fillmore face? What threats loomed over him in his youth? In his adulthood? What was it like to live in a nation still unsure of itself?
Weirdly, historians kind of come down on the "this dude kinda sucked" angle at worst, and "he did the job as described, but maybe not with any thought to what the rules meant" at best. Not exactly how one seeks to be remembered.
From my brief reading... I can't say I'm a huge fan of Fillmore's record, and neither were a lot of people at the time. After landing in the White House thanks to the premature death of President Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore's big claim to fame was the "punt on this one" Compromise of 1850 - essentially doing as little as possible about the issues of the day and instituting the Fugitive Slave Act. He failed to receive the nomination of his own party, leading to its collapse (I dunno... any of you still voting Whig?), and - after that debacle - got super involved with the Proto-Trumpsters, literally called the Know-Nothings, for whom he ran as the Presidential Candidate in 1856 (and, look it up kids, he lost. Bigly.).
Before these achievements, Fillmore was really invested in the conspiracy minded Anti-Masonic Party, and managed to run up against William Seward because Fillmore thought slavery just wasn't that big of a deal. I am on board with Fillmore's opposition to the Mexican-American War, and we can talk about why one would not want to annex Texas.
Anyway, for geographic reasons, etc... Zachary Taylor picked up the for-some-reason-liked Fillmore, under relatively false pretenses. As VP, Fillmore seemed adrift and had plenty of time to go hang out and basically sit on the board for the growing Smithsonian.
And that's sorta it. Not every President is going to be a story of the wonders of democracy and America's leaders as flaming beacons of wisdom. Sometimes an okay President everyone wanted keels over from eating bad cherries with milk - a bad choice in summer, don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
Millard Fillmore - a guy who stumbled into the White House, flailed around a bit, got bumped by his own people and then led a movement to deny Catholics entry to the country. Slow clap for this guy.