Who is Millard Fillmore?

wiseGEEK Writer

Millard Fillmore was the thirteenth President of the United States, and the second president to assume the office due to the death of the acting President. A year and a half after being elected as Vice President, Zachary Taylor’s death would hand Millard Fillmore the presidency. He served in office from 1850-1853, and would unsuccessfully run again in 1856.

The White House, home of the president of the United States.
The White House, home of the president of the United States.

Millard Fillmore is a sharp contrast to many of the Presidents who preceded him, and especially to his running mate Taylor. He was born to a family of relatively poor Native New Yorkers, and was only one of two Presidents who were indentured workers, being an apprentice to a clothmaker. He also lacked much in the way of formal education, but did ultimately pass the bar examination to work as a lawyer.

The Fugitive Slave Act ordered that captured slaves be returned to their owners.
The Fugitive Slave Act ordered that captured slaves be returned to their owners.

Fillmore’s career in politics began in 1828, when he was 28. He served on the New York State assembly for three years. He had strong Whig leanings, and would be elected as a Whig politician to the 23rd, 25th, and 27th Congress. He served in the US House of Representatives from 1832-1843. After an unsuccessful candidacy for Governor of New York he became the New York State Comptroller.

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Millard Fillmore was considered an excellent check to Taylor. He was a northerner, and opposed to slavery. Yet despite his public comments on slavery as an evil, he angered the Whig party, particularly in the North, by supporting the Compromise of 1850, which would keep the balance between slave states and non-slave states equal. Millard Fillmore was a president who tried to ride that middle line between opposing parties and ideas, and like many who have done so before and after, by trying to please everyone, he pleased virtually no one.

Much of the presidency of Millard Fillmore can be said to be a deliberate effort to keep the Whig party intact and mollify its left and right contingents. Though paying lip service to anti-slavery ideas, Millard Fillmore passed the Fugitive Slave Act. This act would result in the fining of any Federal Marshal or a member of law-enforcement who failed to arrest escaping slaves. Aiding escaping slaves was also a crime, and could be punishable by fine.

To Northerners, the passage of this act was a violation of states' rights, making them responsible for enforcing slavery in the Southern territories. It was viewed as support of slavery and a terrible concession, and many criticized Milton Fillmore for not vetoing the act. Fillmore felt the act would keep the Southern states from seceding, and was anxious for its passage.

Millard Fillmore did abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, in an attempt to keep the Northern Whigs in check, but this was simply not enough. His attempts to unite the Whig party largely failed. Fillmore left the presidency with discord in the Whig Party still running high, leading to its total dissolution by 1856.

After serving as President, Millard Fillmore established the University of Buffalo, and was later offered an honorary degree by Oxford University. He declined it because he had never studied Latin and suggested that it was not right for a person to take a degree he couldn’t read. Fillmore was married twice, early in life to Abigail Powers, and later to Caroline Carmichael McIntosh. He had two children with his first wife.

Millard Fillmore died by stroke in 1874, at the age of 74. His second wife Caroline survived him, but her later life was marked by increasing illness.

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