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Millard Fillmore

af Paul Finkelman

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993209,480 (3.14)15
The oddly named president whose shortsightedness and stubbornness fractured the nation and sowed the seeds of civil war In the summer of 1850, America was at a terrible crossroads. Congress was in an uproar over slavery, and it was not clear if a compromise could be found. In the midst of the debate, President Zachary Taylor suddenly took ill and died. The presidency, and the crisis, now fell to the little-known vice president from upstate New York. In this eye-opening biography, the legal scholar and historian Paul Finkelman reveals how Millard Fillmore's response to the crisis he inherited set the country on a dangerous path that led to the Civil War. He shows how Fillmore stubbornly catered to the South, alienating his fellow Northerners and creating a fatal rift in the Whig Party, which would soon disappear from American politics--as would Fillmore himself, after failing to regain the White House under the banner of the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic "Know Nothing" Party. Though Fillmore did have an eye toward the future, dispatching Commodore Matthew Perry on the famous voyage that opened Japan to the West and on the central issues of the age--immigration, religious toleration, and most of all slavery--his myopic vision led to the destruction of his presidency, his party, and ultimately, the Union itself.… (mere)

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At first glance, it’s hard to understand why Millard Fillmore possesses such a dismal reputation as president. Taking over in the aftermath of Zachary Taylor’s sudden death, he championed a compromise over the issue of slavery in the new territories that averted the immediate threat of Southern secession. His presidency coincided with a period of economic prosperity and he enjoyed a number of foreign policy successes, most notably the launching of an expedition that would open up relations between Japan and the rest of the world. Yet Paul Finkelman challenges any claim of Fillmore as an underappreciated executive. In this short biography, he presents Fillmore as “a thoroughly unsuccessful president” one who compromised liberty for the sake of politics, and whose political career ended ignominiously as the nominee of a political party built around bigotry.

That Fillmore even became president was unusual. Born to a family of poor farmers in western New York, he turned to a career in the law in search of better prospects. Finkelman sees Fillmore’s social ambitions as key to understanding the impetus behind his political choices, pushing him away from the more egalitarian Democratic Party and towards first the Anti-Masonic Party, then the Whigs. Yet while Fillmore quickly established himself as a Whig leader and enjoyed a successful career as a congressman, Finkelman argues that he was still a relatively obscure figure when internal party machinations made him the Whig Party vice presidential nominee in 1848. Possessing little authority or public standing, Fillmore found himself politically impotent as vice president, as he was repeatedly outmaneuvered by his chief New York rival William H. Seward.

Taylor’s death dramatically transformed Fillmore’s situation. Thrust into the ongoing debate over what became the Compromise of 1850, the new president was forced to make a series of major decisions in a short period of time. Finkelman is less than impressed with Fillmore’s leadership during this period, arguing that he caved far too readily to southern demands, resulting in a settlement that undermined the Whig Party and, ultimately, the nation. Of all the concessions, none was worse than the Fugitive Slave Act, which Finkelman excoriates for its provisions undermining liberty and the due process of law. Efforts to enforce it galvanized resistance in much of the north, to which the Fillmore administration responded with a series of legally questionable prosecutions. Though these efforts failed to win any convictions, they did win support of the southern Whigs, whose support Fillmore wanted to win for his own candidacy for the presidency. Fillmore’s efforts, however, were ultimately crippled by his own indecisiveness about running, resulting in a lengthy retirement interrupted only by a final, failed, run for office as the presidential candidate of the nativist Know-Nothings in 1856.

Concise and well-argued, Finkelman’s biography is a powerful indictment of Fillmore as president. Drawing upon his background as a legal historian, he exposes the flaws of Fillmore’s policies showing how they degraded the country and propelled the nation down the path to war. It serves as a powerful rebuttal to Robert Rayback’s efforts to rehabilitate Fillmore in his [b:Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President|861483|Millard Fillmore Biography of a President|Robert J. Rayback|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1387740771l/861483._SY75_.jpg|846913], the standard scholarly biography of the 13th president. Though Finkelman’s book lacks the degree of detail that Rayback’s possesses, it offers a far more convincing assessment of Fillmore’s failings and a better understanding of the role he played in the nation’s descent into civil war. For anyone seeking to understand Fillmore and his role in American history, this is the book to read. ( )
1 stem MacDad | Mar 27, 2020 |
There is a certain fascination in reading about a mediocrity. By this standard, Millard Fillmore is perhaps the most fascinating President in history.

There have been Presidents less "qualified" than Fillmore (Abraham Lincoln, who had served only one term in congress, was one). There have been presidents who have been more lucky in ending up with the job (Lincoln's vice president Andrew Johnson probably qualifies). But Fillmore managed to be lucky, unqualified -- and in the middle of a very hot situation as California's quest for statehood forced the federal government to face the issue of slavery head-on. President Zachary Taylor -- the man elected in 1848 -- had been prepared to tackle the issue, and he had stature as an elected President and a successful general. Fillmore, who succeeded in 1850 when Taylor died in office, had none of that.

Nor did he have any brilliant ideas. The Compromise of 1850 was not his but Henry Clay's, and Fillmore backed it but did not make it his own. Fillmore did little to address the problem of conflict between North and South. Frankly, he did little, period. In the view of this book, it is because he was too much a particularist -- interested in his own people and his own concerns, and with little regard for those (such as slaves) who weren't part of his own circle.

Biographers have a tendency to be sympathetic to their subjects. Paul Finkleman is not at all sympathetic to Fillmore. It is hard to know if this is fair -- we don't really get to know the "inner Fillmore" in this book. All we see is the mediocrity (which was certainly real) and the lust for power (also pretty hard to deny). It may not be a complete picture. But it is a fascinating one. ( )
1 stem waltzmn | Feb 27, 2012 |
Well!!! This turned out to be one of the most interesting presidential biographies I've read so far.

Finkelman vehemently disagrees with [[Robert Rayback]] about Fillmore's philosophy, intentions, and political successes (or not). Simply put, this is a scathing 137-page indictment of a man the author sees as the day's ultimate doughface (Northerner with Southern sympathies) and future Copperhead (Northerner with Confederate sympathies).

I don't know enough about Fillmore or the time period to make a judgment on which author sees Fillmore more clearly, but Finkelman is certainly convincing. First, there is a lengthy and informative summary of the personal, historical and political background leading up to Fillmore's nomination for Vice President. Then comes a vivid dissection of his political ineptness, moral failings (he hated and acted against pretty much everyone who wasn't white, Protestant, and a citizen, as well as abolitionists of all creeds), and collaboration with Daniel Webster to push through the Compromise of 1850 and the beefed up Fugitive Slave Act. Finkelman discusses Fillmore's intense effort to appease extreme Southerners and the dramatic imbalance between what the Northerners and Southerners received in the final Compromise, with the South receiving pretty much everything it wanted and the North receiving nothing it wouldn't have had anyway, including a free California. There is an extended discussion of the damage done to the black community with the suspension of habeas corpus for people claimed as runaways (including kidnapped free blacks and fugitives with free spouses and children) and various court cases in which people of both races were charged with treason for aiding escaped slaves. Meanwhile, cases involving actual treason and threats to national security and international relations (private invasions of Cuba, threats of war by the new state of Texas) were smoothed over with little ado. Finkelman, a specialist in American legal history, race, and constitutional law, clearly sees the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 as Fillmore's chief claim to ignominy, while recognizing the resultant increase in Northern anti-slavery efforts.

Finkelman does give Fillmore credit for several "visionary" ideas (for example, movements towards a transcontinental railroad and towards the opening of Japan to American diplomacy and trade). But the lasting impression is of a man with little pity and few values besides maintenance of business and property rights. What a stinker. ( )
2 stem auntmarge64 | Jun 17, 2011 |
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The oddly named president whose shortsightedness and stubbornness fractured the nation and sowed the seeds of civil war In the summer of 1850, America was at a terrible crossroads. Congress was in an uproar over slavery, and it was not clear if a compromise could be found. In the midst of the debate, President Zachary Taylor suddenly took ill and died. The presidency, and the crisis, now fell to the little-known vice president from upstate New York. In this eye-opening biography, the legal scholar and historian Paul Finkelman reveals how Millard Fillmore's response to the crisis he inherited set the country on a dangerous path that led to the Civil War. He shows how Fillmore stubbornly catered to the South, alienating his fellow Northerners and creating a fatal rift in the Whig Party, which would soon disappear from American politics--as would Fillmore himself, after failing to regain the White House under the banner of the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic "Know Nothing" Party. Though Fillmore did have an eye toward the future, dispatching Commodore Matthew Perry on the famous voyage that opened Japan to the West and on the central issues of the age--immigration, religious toleration, and most of all slavery--his myopic vision led to the destruction of his presidency, his party, and ultimately, the Union itself.

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