Millard Fillmore: One of the Worst U.S. Presidents?

United States - Scott #818 (1938)
United States – Scott #818 (1938)

Millard Fillmore was born January 7, 1800, in a log cabin on a farm in what is now Moravia, Cayuga County, in the Finger Lakes region of New York. His parents were Phoebe (Millard) and Nathaniel Fillmore — he was the second of eight children and the oldest son. Nathaniel Fillmore was the son of Nathaniel Fillmore Sr. (1739-1814), a native of Franklin, Connecticut, who became one of the earliest settlers of Bennington when it was founded in the territory then called the New Hampshire Grants. Millard Fillmore would become the 13th president of the United States on July 9, 1850, the last to be a member of the Whig Party while in the White House.

A former U.S. Representative from New York, Fillmore was elected the nation’s 12th vice president in 1848, and was elevated to the presidency by the death of Zachary Taylor. He was instrumental in getting the Compromise of 1850 passed, a bargain that led to a brief truce in the battle over slavery. He failed to win the Whig nomination for president in 1852; he gained the endorsement of the nativist Know Nothing Party four years later, and finished third in that election.

New York State Historic Marker for the birthplace of President Millard Fillmore. Located near the town of Summerhill in Cayuga County, New York. Photo taken by <a href=
New York State Historic Marker for the birthplace of President Millard Fillmore. Located near the town of Summerhill in Cayuga County, New York. Photo taken by Skudrafan1 on March 25, 2006.

Fillmore was born into poverty in the Finger Lakes area of New York state — his parents were tenant farmers during his formative years. He rose from poverty through study, and became a lawyer with little formal schooling. He became prominent in the Buffalo area as an attorney and politician, was elected to the New York Assembly in 1828, and to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1832. Initially, he belonged to the Anti-Masonic Party, but became a Whig as the party formed in the mid-1830s; he was a rival for state party leadership with editor Thurlow Weed and Weed’s protégé, William H. Seward. Through his career, Fillmore declared slavery an evil, but one beyond the powers of the federal government, whereas Seward was not only openly hostile to slavery, he argued that the federal government had a role to play in ending it.

Fillmore was an unsuccessful candidate for Speaker of the House when the Whigs took control of the chamber in 1841, but was made Ways and Means Committee chairman. Defeated in bids for the Whig nomination for vice president in 1844, and for New York governor the same year, Fillmore was elected Comptroller of New York in 1847, the first to hold that post by direct election.

Fillmore received the Whig vice presidential nomination in 1848 as Zachary Taylor’s running mate, and the two were elected. He was largely ignored by Taylor, even in the dispensing of patronage in New York, on which Taylor consulted Weed and Seward. As vice president, Fillmore presided over angry debates in the Senate as Congress decided whether to allow slavery in the Mexican Cession. Fillmore supported Henry Clay’s Omnibus Bill (the basis of the 1850 Compromise) though Taylor did not.

“Zachary Taylor, people’s candidate for President.” Print shows a campaign banner for Whig presidential and vice presidential nominees for 1848, Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore. Unlike Currier’s other Whig banners (nos. 1848-5 and -7) this example is horizontal rather than vertical in format. Bust portraits of the two candidates, Taylor in uniform on the left and Fillmore on the right, are framed with acanthus wreaths, and set side-by-side against a dressed stone wall on which are incised three stars. The candidates are turned slightly toward each other and appear against a sky background. The banner compares closely with another banner which Currier produced for the Cass-Butler ticket (no. 1848-9). Taylor and Fillmore were nominated on June 9, 1848, and this print probably appeared soon thereafter. Although Taylor is here titled the “People’s Candidate for President,” Fillmore is merely called the “Whig Candidate.” From the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b51073.

 July 4, 1850 was a very hot day in Washington, and President Taylor, who attended Fourth of July ceremonies, refreshed himself, likely with cold milk and cherries. What he consumed probably gave him gastroenteritis, and he died on July 9. Taylor, nicknamed “Old Rough and Ready”, had gained a reputation for toughness through his military campaigning in the heat, and his sudden death came as a shock to the nation.

Fillmore had been called from his chair presiding over the Senate on July 8, and had sat with members of the cabinet in a vigil outside Taylor’s bedroom at the White House. He received the formal notification of the president’s death, signed by the cabinet, on the evening of July 9 in his residence at the Willard Hotel. After acknowledging the letter, and spending a sleepless night, Fillmore went to the House of Representatives, where, at a joint session of Congress, he took the oath as president from William Cranch, chief judge of the federal court for the District of Columbia, and the man who had sworn in President Tyler.

The cabinet officers, as was customary when a new president took over, submitted their resignations, expecting Fillmore to refuse, allowing them to continue in office. Fillmore had been marginalized by the cabinet members, and the new president accepted the resignations, though he asked them to stay on for a month, which most refused to do. Fillmore is the only president who succeeded by death or resignation not to retain, at least initially, his predecessor’s cabinet.

He was already in discussions with Whig leaders, and on July 20 began to send new nominations to the Senate, with the Fillmore cabinet to be led by Webster as Secretary of State. Webster had outraged his Massachusetts constituents by supporting Clay’s bill, and with his Senate term to expire in 1851, had no electoral future in his home state. Fillmore appointed his old law partner, Nathan Hall, as Postmaster General, a cabinet position that controlled many patronage appointments. The new department heads were mostly supporters of the Compromise, as was Fillmore.

Engraved portrait of U.S. President Millard Fillmore by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
Engraved portrait of U.S. President Millard Fillmore by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

The new president exerted pressure to gain the passage of the Compromise, which gave legislative victories to both North and South, and which was enacted by September. The Fugitive Slave Act, expediting the return of escaped slaves to those who claimed ownership, was a controversial part of the Compromise, and Fillmore felt himself duty-bound to enforce it, though it damaged his popularity and also the Whig Party, which was torn North from South. In foreign policy, Fillmore supported U.S. Navy expeditions to open trade in Japan, opposed French designs on Hawaii, and was embarrassed by Narciso López’s filibuster expeditions to Cuba.

He sought election to a full term in 1852, but was passed over by the Whigs in favor of Winfield Scott. The final months of Fillmore’s term were uneventful. Webster died in October 1852, but during the final illness, Fillmore effectively acted as his own Secretary of State without incident, and Everett stepped competently into Webster’s shoes. Fillmore intended to lecture Congress on the slavery question in his final annual message in December, but was talked out of it by his cabinet, and he contented himself with pointing out the prosperity of the nation and expressing gratitude for the opportunity to serve it. There was little discussion of slavery during the lame duck session of Congress, and Fillmore left office on March 4, 1853, succeeded by Pierce.

Fillmore was the first president to return to private life without independent wealth or possession of a landed estate. With no pension to anticipate, he needed to earn a living, and felt it should be in a way that would uphold the dignity of his former office. His friend, Judge Hall, assured him it would be proper for him to practice law in the higher courts of New York, and Fillmore so intended. The Fillmores had planned a tour of the South after leaving the White House, but Abigail caught a cold at President Pierce’s inauguration, developed pneumonia, and died in Washington on March 30, 1853. A saddened Fillmore returned to Buffalo for the burial. The fact that he was in mourning limited his social activities, and he made ends meet on the income from his investments. He was bereaved again on July 26, 1854, when his only daughter Mary died of cholera.

Official White House portrait of Millard Fillmore
Official White House portrait of Millard Fillmore

As the Whig Party broke up after Fillmore’s presidency, many in Fillmore’s conservative wing joined the Know Nothings, forming the American Party. In his 1856 candidacy as that party’s nominee, Fillmore had little to say about immigration, focusing instead on the preservation of the Union, and won only Maryland.

In retirement, Fillmore was active in many civic endeavors — he helped in founding the University of Buffalo and served as its first chancellor. During the American Civil War, Fillmore denounced secession and agreed that the Union must be maintained by force if necessary, but was critical of the war policies of Abraham Lincoln. After Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, black ink was thrown on Fillmore’s house because it was not draped in mourning like others; he was apparently out of town at the time and put black drapes in the windows once he returned. Although he retained his position as Buffalo’s leading citizen and was among those selected to escort the body when Lincoln’s funeral train passed through Buffalo, there was still anger towards him for his wartime positions.

Fillmore supported President Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction policies, feeling that the nation needed to be reconciled as quickly as possible. He devoted most of his time to civic activities. He aided Buffalo in becoming the third American city to have a permanent art gallery, with the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy.

Fillmore stayed in good health almost to the end, but suffered a stroke in February 1874, and died after a second one on March 8. Two days later, he was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo after a funeral procession including hundreds of notables; the U.S. Senate sent three of its members to honor its former president, including Lincoln’s first vice president, Maine’s Hannibal Hamlin.

A pink obelisk marks Millard Fillmore's gravesite at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, New York. Photo taken on May 19, 2006.
A pink obelisk marks Millard Fillmore’s gravesite at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, New York. Photo taken on May 19, 2006.

Though he is relatively obscure today, Fillmore has been praised by some, for his foreign policy, and criticized by others, for his enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act and his association with the Know Nothings. Historians and scholars have consistently ranked Fillmore as one of the worst presidents.

According to biographer Scarry, “No president of the United States … has suffered as much ridicule as Millard Fillmore”. He ascribed much of the abuse to a tendency to denigrate the presidents who served in the years just prior to the Civil War as lacking in leadership. For example, later president Harry S. Truman “characterized Fillmore as a weak, trivial thumb-twaddler who would do nothing to offend anyone”, and as responsible in part for the war. Anna Prior, writing in The Wall Street Journal in 2010, stated that Fillmore’s very name connotes mediocrity. Another Fillmore biographer, Finkelman, commented, “on the central issues of the age his vision was myopic and his legacy is worse … in the end, Fillmore was always on the wrong side of the great moral and political issues”. Rayback, however, applauded “the warmth and wisdom with which he had defended the Union”.

Although Fillmore has become something of a cult figure as America’s most forgettable chief executive, Smith found him to be “a conscientious president” who chose to honor his oath of office and enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, rather than govern based on his personal preferences. Paul G. Calabresi and Christopher S. Yoo, in their study of presidential power, deemed Fillmore “a faithful executor of the laws of the United States — for good and for ill”. According to Smith, the enforcement of the act has given Fillmore an undeserved pro-southern reputation. Fillmore’s place in history has also suffered because “even those who give him high marks for his support of the Compromise have done so almost grudgingly, probably because of his Know-Nothing candidacy in 1856”. Smith argued that Fillmore’s association with the Know Nothings looks far worse in retrospect than it did at the time, and that the former president was not motivated by nativism in his candidacy.

Photo of President Millard Fillmore by Mathew B. Brady circa 1855-1865. Part of the Library of Congress Brady-Handy photograph collection.
Photo of President Millard Fillmore by Mathew B. Brady circa 1855-1865. Part of the Library of Congress Brady-Handy photograph collection.

Benson Lee Grayson suggested that the Fillmore administration’s ability to avoid potential problems is too often overlooked. Fillmore’s constant attention to Mexico avoided a resumption of the Mexican–American War and laid the groundwork for the Gadsden Treaty during Pierce’s presidency. Meanwhile, the Fillmore administration resolved a controversy with Portugal left over from the Taylor administration, smoothed over a disagreement with Peru over guano islands, and peacefully resolved disputes with Britain, France, and Spain over Cuba. All of these crises were resolved without the United States going to war or losing face. Grayson also applauded Fillmore’s firm stand against Texas’ ambitions in New Mexico during the 1850 crisis. Fred I. Greenstein and Dale Anderson praised Fillmore for his resoluteness in his early months in office, noting that Fillmore “is typically described as stolid, bland, and conventional, but such terms underestimate the forcefulness evinced by his handling of the Texas–New Mexico border crisis, his decision to replace Taylor’s entire cabinet, and his effectiveness in advancing the Compromise of 1850”.

Millard Fillmore, with his wife Abigail, established the first White House library. There are a number of remembrances of Millard Fillmore; his East Aurora house still stands, and sites honor him at his birthplace and boyhood home (where a replica log cabin was dedicated in 1963 by the Millard Fillmore Memorial Association). A statue of Fillmore stands outside Buffalo City Hall. At the university he helped found, now SUNY Buffalo, Millard Fillmore Academic Center and Millard Fillmore College bear his name. On February 18, 2010, the United States Mint released the thirteenth coin in the Presidential $1 Coin Program, bearing Fillmore’s likeness.

According to the assessment of Fillmore by the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia:

Any assessment of a President who served a century and a half ago must be refracted through a consideration of the interesting times in which he lived. Fillmore’s political career encompassed the tortuous course toward the two-party system that we know today. The Whigs were not cohesive enough to survive the slavery imbroglio, while parties like the Anti-Masonics and Know-Nothings were too extremist. When, as President, Fillmore sided with proslavery elements in ordering enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, he all but guaranteed that he would be the last Whig President. The first modern two-party system of Whigs and Democrats had succeeded only in dividing the nation in two by the 1850s, and seven years later, the election of the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, would guarantee civil war.

United States - Scott #2217 (1986) miniature sheet
United States – Scott #2217 (1986) miniature sheet
United States - Scott #2217d (1986)
United States – Scott #2217d (1986)
United States - Scott #2217d (1986) first day cover; ArtCraft/Postal Commemorative Society cachet
United States – Scott #2217d (1986) first day cover; ArtCraft/Postal Commemorative Society cachet

Millard Fillmore has appeared on just two U.S. stamps, each time as part of a multi-stamp set. The most recent was a set of four miniature sheets each containing nine 22-cent commemorative stamps (Scott #2216-2219) released on May 22, 1986, in Chicago, Illinois, to mark the AMERIPEX stamp exhibition. Fillmore appeared on Sheet II as the first stamp in the second row (Scott #2217d). First-time stamp artist Jerry Dadds of Baltimore, Maryland, designed the four sheets containing thirty-six stamps under the direction of Howard Paines, a design coordinator for the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee. After hours of carefully researching hundreds of old paintings, etchings, and photographs, Dadds executed the designs in the woodcut style that has become his artistic trademark. Thirty-five of the stamps feature portraits of the deceased presidents, and a thirty-sixth stamp depicts the White House. Above each president’s portrait is a facsimile of his signature. Listed below each portrait are the years of his administration. The stamps were printed on the offset/intaglio combination press.

At the suggestion of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Post Office Department opened a national competition in 1937 to design the first stamp in a new series of definitive stamps honoring U.S. presidents. Artist Elaine Rawlinson of New York City won the contest. She based her design for the 1-cent stamp on a bust of George Washington’s profile by the sculptor Jean Antoine Houdin and this became the basis of the designs for the rest of the 1938 Presidential Series, also affectionately known as the “Prexies” (Scott #803-834). Each design of the 1938 set included a bust profile of a president and the dates of his term(s) as president.

The stamps depict all twenty-nine presidents who had died before 1938, including many who had never before appeared on a postage stamp. In addition to the twenty-nine presidents appearing on these stamps, Benjamin Franklin appeared on the half-cent stamp (Scott #803); Martha Washington appeared on the 1½-cent value (Scott #805); and the White House appeared on the 4½-cent denomination (Scott #809). Thus, the Presidential Series contained thirty-two stamps issued in sheet format. The stamps were in use for over eighteen years, from 1938 into the mid-1950s.

United States - Scott #818 (1938) full pane of 100
United States – Scott #818 (1938) full pane of 100
United States - Scott #818 (1938) first day cover
United States – Scott #818 (1938) first day cover

The issue provided a chronological overview of the American presidency, from George Washington on the 1-cent stamp to Calvin Coolidge on the 5-dollar value. On stamps from 1-cent through 22-cent, each stamp’s denomination corresponded to the presidential sequence: Washington, the first president, on the 1-cent; Adams, the second president, on the 2-cent, and so on. Grover Cleveland, the 22nd president, appeared on the 22-cent stamp. However, since Cleveland served two nonconsecutive terms, this pattern stopped at that point. Any attempt to match the denomination to the order of presidency ended with McKinley. There was no 23-cent stamp in the series. Benjamin Harrison appeared next, on the 24-cent stamp. William McKinley, the 25th president, appeared on the 25-cent stamp. Some of these stamps did not pay any obvious postal rate. Rather, they were issued to present our nation’s presidents on denominations in the order of their terms in office.

Though all the stamps in the series were similar, they were not identical. Values from half-cent to 9-cent had no border, as in Rawlinson’s original design. The 10-cent through 19-cent values had a single line border, and the 20-cent through 50-cent values had a double line border. The dollar values were bicolor, with designs significantly different from the cent values. All sheet stamps up to 50-cent were printed on rotary presses, perforated 11 x 10½, and the dollar values were printed on flat plate presses, perforated 11.

U.S. Navy cover postmarked January 7, 1942, marking Millard Fillmore's 142nd birthday anniversary.
U.S. Navy cover postmarked January 7, 1942, marking Millard Fillmore’s 142nd birthday anniversary.

The 1-cent Washington sheet stamp, the first of the series (Scott #804), was issued on April 25, 1938. All of the stamps were issued in Washington, D.C., except the half-cent Franklin, which made its appearance in Philadelphia. The Presidential Series contains nine coil stamps with vertical perforations (Scott #839-847) and four coils with horizontal perforations (Scott #848-851), all printed on the rotary press. The 1-cent, 2-cent, and 3-cent stamps were issued as booklet panes in eighteen different combinations of booklets with a variety of different covers.

The 13-cent Millard Fillmore stamp was released on September 22, 1938, printed in blue green but with several different shades observed. There were a total of 293,750,100 copies of Scott #818 printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing on the rotary press. There were no coil versions of this stamp.

United States flag, 1795-1818

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