A vigorous contextual treatment of a problematic president whose name mostly elicits puzzlement.
In the most recent installment of the publisher’s excellent American Presidents series, Finkelman (Law and Public Policy/Albany Law School) takes on previous biographers of Fillmore and gives a firm, unapologetic verdict based on the evidence. Millard Fillmore (1800–1874) was parochial, bigoted and more of an “accidental” leader than one to stand up for his convictions. Fillmore came of age during the great national debate over Manifest Destiny. Although he hailed from the abolitionist North and was a Whig, his actions bore out sympathy to the Southern cause. Born in Cayuga County, near Syracuse, to a family of farm renters, Fillmore mostly educated himself and decided on the study of law as a profession, eventually settling in Buffalo with his schoolteacher wife, Abigail. Tall, handsome, cautious and circumspect, he gravitated to “oddball political movements, conspiracy theories and ethnic hatred.” He would, over time, embrace such unorthodox groundswells as the Anti-Masonic Movement, the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic North American Party in the 1840s and the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s. A New York Congressman, he lost the campaign for governor, then failed to gain the Whig vice presidential nomination of 1844—Finkelman is mystified how he thought he could win, being without any national qualifications—though he was finally nominated four years later. With President Zachary Taylor’s sudden death, the completely unprepared Fillmore acted rashly by firing Taylor’s cabinet, then pressed to enact the divisive Fugitive Slave Act, which would “taint everything else he did,” even his important sponsoring of Commodore Matthew Perry’s expedition to Japan in 1852.
Finkelman expertly depicts the shameful legacy of a president deeply out of touch with the beliefs of his country.