Millard Fillmore is one of the United States’ forgotten presidents. That is unfortunate, since he was so instrumental in ensuring the passage of the so-called Compromise of 1850. For that reason alone, I was looking forward to Paul Finkelman’s new biography of 13th president, part of the Times Books’ American Presidents Series. Fillmore’s relationship with Andrew J. Donelson (they were running mates on the 1856 Know-Nothing ticket) and Elektratig’s post earlier this year criticizing Finkelman’s treatment of Fillmore only added to my interest.
The image of Fillmore that Finkelman paints is not pretty. Early in his career, he lacked “ideals,” was “plagued by insecurities,” and thought of himself as “a parvenu” waiting to be revealed (5-7). Once a politician, Fillmore “was drawn to oddball political movements, conspiracy theories, and ethnic hatred” (8). As president, he impetuously fired his entire cabinet, dooming his administration to failure. Finkelman also heaps blame on Fillmore for not exhibiting more leadership in opposition to the pro-slavery aspects of the Compromise of 1850 (79-91). He particularly singles out Fillmore’s support for the revised fugitive slave law passed as part of the compromise legislation. After its passage, the president “would be obsessed with enforcing the law” (105-106).
Fillmore certainly deserves criticism, but Finkelman is too exuberant in his criticism of the New Yorker. Elektratig’s post outlines many of the drawbacks to his analysis, so I won’t repeat them here. A more even-handed presentation of Fillmore’s life surely is possible, though, one that recognizes that becoming vice president requires some personal success and political talent.
Having written a critical biography myself, I understand the allure of accentuating an individual’s flaws in order to avoid hagiography or to dramatize human failings. I don’t know if Finkelman, a respected and prolific historian, had either of these in mind while writing, but, hopefully, his attempt at bringing a fresh perspective on Fillmore will spur further examination of his personal life and political career.