Few American presidents have suffered from a more dismal historical reputation than Millard Fillmore. Succeeding to the presidency upon the death of Zachary Taylor in 1850, his years in office were characterized by the increasing failure of the political process to deal with the growing tensions over the issue of slavery. His greatest triumph as president, the shepherding of the Compromise of 1850 to passage, came to be seen in retrospect as a marker on the path leading to secession and civil war. Even his very name has come to be held against him – after all, what kind of name was Millard Fillmore for a president?
Yet even a president of Fillmore’s poor standing is not without his defenders, and foremost among them is Robert Rayback. His biography of America’s 13th president highlights a remarkable person and an unlikely path to the nation’s highest political office. Born into a poor farming family in western New York, Fillmore became an attorney by reading the law. Moving to Buffalo, he prospered with the city and became a leading figure of the community, soon moving from a lucrative legal career into politics. An able state legislator and Congressman, his nomination for the vice presidency in 1848 nonetheless had to do more with the complex politics of his state than any acknowledgment of his national stature. When thrust into the presidency, however, Fillmore rose to the challenge, focusing on sectional peace and winning the esteem of southern Whigs for his defense of the institution of slavery against the increasing anti-slavery clamor of the north. Yet Rayback sees Fillmore’s hesitation over seeking another term as costing him the Whig Party nomination in 1852, while an ill-advised run for the presidency four years later as the nominee of the nativist American (Know-Nothing) Party represented the climax of his career in politics, leaving him to serve a lengthy retirement engaged in a range of civic activities back in Buffalo
Rayback’s biography is a well-written account of Fillmore’s life and career, though one that is far too sympathetic to its subject. Throughout the book Rayback exaggerates Fillmore’s opposition to slavery and downplays his staunch support for nativism. His Fillmore possesses no flaws, only virtues which are then exploited by unscrupulous and self-centered opponents who exploit his high-minded goals for their own selfish ends. Nowhere is this approach demonstrated more clearly than in his depiction of Fillmore’s relationship with Thurlow Weed, the New York editor and political boss. Weed becomes the great villain in Rayback’s account, reducing William H. Seward, Weed’s associate and Fillmore’s real political competitor, to the status of a mere puppet. Not only is Weed seen as the primary force behind Fillmore’s political setbacks but also his poor historical reputation – all while Fillmore regularly takes the high road or turns the other cheek. Such partisanship ultimately proves counterproductive, as it undermines the overall value of his book by bringing into question Rayback’s judgment of Fillmore’s character and accomplishments, which distorts the president’s role in American history. Readers seeking a more balanced analysis of Fillmore would be better off turning to Paul Finkelman’s more recent biography of the man than this book, which is both defined and limited by its author’s passionate defense of his subject.