The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Fillmore, Millard

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Edition of 1920. See also Millard Fillmore on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

FILLMORE, Millard, American statesman, 13th President of the United States: b. Summer Hill, Cayuga County, N. Y., 7 Feb. 1800; d. Buffalo, 8 March 1874. He was descended from New England parentage and reared to the hard life of a frontier farm in western New York. He studied law at Buffalo and began the practice of his profession in 1827 in the neighboring town of Aurora. In 1830 he moved to Buffalo and formed, with Nathan K. Hall and Solomon G. Haven, a law partnership which soon became well-known throughout the region. But he had already served two years in the New York legislature and identified himself with the repeal of the harsh law of the State for the imprisonment of debtors. In 1832 he was sent to the national House of Representatives as a follower of Henry Clay. During the next decade he alternated between membership in the House and the work of his profession, building all the while a state-wide reputation as a political leader. As a result of the “landslide” of 1840 he found himself in Congress and chairman of the House committee of ways and means and as such he drew the tariff bill of 1842 which became a law and also set in motion the free trade influences of the lower South. He was thus a representative of the industrial and financial interests of the North against which the South and West made an alliance in the presidential campaign of 1844. He became a candidate for the governorship of New York upon the retirement of William H. Seward in 1844 and was defeated by Silas Wright, the democratic candidate. Three years later he was elected comptroller of the State of New York from which office he was chosen in 1848 to be a candidate for the vice-presidency with General Taylor. Taylor and Fillmore were elected. By this time a sharp difference of opinion between the Seward and the Fillmore men had developed. Seward, Wed and Greeley labored hard and long to gain the favor of the new President. They were successful. Fillmore naturally tended to a closer support of Clay, who manifested a hearty ill will toward Taylor. Fillmore was inaugurated vice-president in March 1849; Seward became a member of the Senate in December following. The division in the Whig party of New York was typical of the larger division in the party as a whole. When President Taylor took a vigorous stand against the threats of Southern leaders to secede in 1849-50, Seward and most of the Northern Whigs supported him and seemed ready to take the chance of civil war. But Fillmore drew still nearer to Clay and the southern Whigs, endeavoring to avoid conflict by compromise. Thus when Congress took up the problem of restricting slavery in the territories acquired from Mexico, the administration took one view while the great leaders of the party in Congress took another. Fillmore's position as president of the Senate was, therefore, very difficult. After several months of debate and an apparently complete deadlock, President Taylor suddenly died. Fillmore succeeded to the presidency on 9 July 1850. The Taylor cabinet promptly resigned. A new one was formed with Webster at its head. Clay was now in close touch with the administration, if he did not actually advise and direct its course. There was no longer a question of the peaceable solution of the pending issues. Clay, Webster, Fillmore and the Southern Whigs, aided by the Northern Democrats, arranged for the admission of California, the organization of New Mexico, the payment of the Texan claims, the prohibition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia and the return of fugitive slaves. Although Clay died two years later the popular hero of the compromise struggle, Webster and Fillmore lost standing in the North. When the next Whig convention met, Fillmore endeavored to secure the nomination for the presidency. Webster's friends pressed his claims, but Seward and the irate Northern Whigs would not permit either nomination. The foreign policy of the Fillmore administration was strong and vigorously American, although it was not expansionist like so many others of that period. Fillmore indicated to Europe very plainly that American ideals were still strongly democratic through Webster's famous Hulseman letter in which the government of Austria was told that the people of the United States always sympathized with democratic revolutions, especially with the Hungarian uprising against government imposed from without. There has never been a stronger presentation of the American attitude than that put forth by Fillmore and Webster in 1852. At the close of the administration Fillmore returned to Buffalo where he spent the remainder of his life except two or three prolonged visits to Europe. In 1856 the American or Know Nothing party nominated him for the presidency but he received only a small popular vote and the one electoral vote of a single State, Maryland. He and his supporters in the North, men like Edward Everett and Robert Winthrop, were known as the Silver Grey or Cotton Whigs. But when President-elect Lincoln passed through Buffalo on his way to Washington in 1861 Fillmore was chosen to greet him on behalf of the city. Nor was there ever any question of his loyalty to the cause of the Union. There is no good life of Fillmore, although a great many of his papers have been published in volumes X and XI of the Buffalo Historical Society publications. Consult also Rhodes, J. F., ‘History of the United States’ (Vol. I), and Bancroft, Frederic, ‘Life of William H. Seward’ (Vol. I).

William E. Dodd,
Professor of History, University of Chicago.

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Thirteenth President of the United States