[This review was published in the Fall 2007 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 38-383.]

 

Book Review 

 

Will the Real Millard Fillmore Please Stand Up?

Rachelle Moyer Francis

Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2006

 

            Most Americans have long accepted the assessment that Millard Fillmore was the most undistinguished of American presidents.  (It is, of course, hard to tell whether he will continue to hold down last place after time has allowed the reputations of recent presidents to ferment for a while).  That is why it is surprising that this unassuming little book, which presents a wholly different view of Fillmore, is so refreshing and thought provoking.

            Fillmore was elected vice-president of the United States in 1848 as General Zachary Taylor’s running mate and took office in March 1849.  He succeeded to the presidency on July 9, 1850, when Taylor died of cholera.  At the next election in 1852, the Whig party gave its nomination to General Winfield Scott rather than to Fillmore.  Although Fillmore ran again in 1856 as the American Party candidate, he came in third behind James Buchanan and John Fremont.

            If ever events have conspired to form reputations, those surrounding Fillmore, and at the same time Abraham Lincoln, provide perhaps the best example.  For almost a century and a half, Lincoln has been perceived in mythical proportions.  His having been born in a log cabin, his long walks to school, his rail-splitting—all these and more have been the subject of countless tellings, with the image of a hero fashioned out of the American wilderness.  The love that has so long embraced him was hammered out on the anvil of war.  Conflict, victory, martyrdom and the decades of intense passion that followed them gave Lincoln a special place in the hearts of most Americans.

            Meanwhile, Fillmore has languished in a back storeroom (a “dustbin”) of history.  It surprises us, then, that he was born in a log cabin; that he was self-taught through a craving for learning; that he, too, split rails as one of his many boyhood farm chores; and that he on several occasions walked long distances, sometimes 100, sometimes 140 miles, across upstate New York, not as pleasure jaunts but in pursuit of family or business.  In his case, though, none of that makes him the subject of legend.

            What happened was that Fillmore, as a man of peace who sought reconciliation between the North and the South ten years before the Civil War, was appreciated only by those who shared that purpose.  The firebrands on each side of the slavery issue cared nothing for him; and after the war broke out, and especially after the North won, the victors wrote the history.  The losers and the peacemakers had no reputations to carry aloft.  It made no difference that Fillmore, like Lincoln, had been a rail splitter.  Nor has it made any difference that Fillmore helped found the University of Buffalo and served as its first chancellor until his death; as president, worked in the bucket brigade when the Library of Congress burned; helped start the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy; became the first president of the Buffalo Historical Society; was a founder and trustee of the Grosvenor Library; and assisted in starting the Buffalo General Hospital, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Buffalo Museum of Science.  For an undistinguished fellow, that was pretty good, but in his case not the stuff that spawned a myth.

            Rachelle Moyer Francis has done us a service writing this history.  She was well prepared to do so, having already written several books about the history of western New York State.  There’s nothing pretentious about the book, which can be read as well by an elementary school student as by an adult.  But pretension isn’t what a thoughtful reader values most.  She has made possible a new insight into a man and his times.

            We won’t summarize what she has to tell us about Fillmore’s life, since readers of the book will find that easily accessible.  What interests this reviewer most is how directly Fillmore’s views on public issues speak to matters that continue to be crucial to Americans more than a century and a half later.

            1.  Fillmore was a friend and admirer of John Quincy Adams, who as president had famously admonished Americans to tend to their own business at home and not to “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”  While Fillmore was president, there was agitation to get the American government to support General Lajos Kossuth in his rebellion against Austria in Hungary.  In rejecting this agitation, Fillmore sent Congress one of the more eloquent statements of the Adams position (which continued to be central to American policy until 1898).  He wrote in his third annual message to Congress on December 6, 1852:           

It is said that we ought to interfere between contending sovereigns and their subjects for the purpose of overthrowing the monarchies of Europe and establishing in their place republican institutions… This is a most seductive but dangerous appeal… [T]here is no man who has an American heart that would not rejoice to see these blessings extended to all other nations… Nevertheless, is it prudent or is it wise to involve ourselves in these foreign wars?

            … [The Founding Fathers] knew that it was not possible for this nation to become a “propagandist” for free principles without arraying against it the combined powers of Europe, and that the result was more likely to be the overthrow of republican liberty here than its establishment there.

            … European nations have had no such training for self-government, and every effort to establish it by bloody revolutions has been, and must without that preparation continue to be, a failure… Our policy is wisely to govern ourselves, and thereby to set such an example of national justice, prosperity, and true glory as shall teach to all nations the blessings of self-government.

             2.  To Fillmore and others in his day, large-scale immigration threatened the existential nature of American society as one of essentially Anglo-Saxon Protestants.  The American Party, for which Fillmore served as the standard-bearer in the 1856 election, was one of the first groups to be concerned about the transforming effects of immigration.  Fillmore foresaw the formation of urban slums, with political bosses who later derived their power from the poverty-stricken immigrant population.  As with so much else, the issue became lost in the fog of civil war and of the passions over slavery.

            3.  One of the major issues in the United States today has to do with the deindustrialization of the economy and the substitution of cheap foreign labor for that of Americans at home.  Similarly, this was an issue during the early decades of United States’ history: Jefferson wanted the country to remain almost entirely agricultural, valuing the yeoman farmer as the ideal citizen.  Others, like Fillmore, wanted tariffs at a level that would encourage American industry.  While in Congress in 1842, Fillmore wrote, and gave a famous speech in support of, the Tariff Law of 1842, which President John Tyler, though a Jeffersonian, reluctantly signed into law.

            In all this, we find much that is instructive from Fillmore’s life. If Rachelle Moyer Francis’ little book can help bring him the respect he deserves, it has made a significant contribution.

 

                                                                                                                         Dwight D. Murphey