Saturday, January 07, 2006

Hail to the Nonentity


"By almost universal agreement, the most vague and ineffectual of all our leaders was Millard Fillmore, who succeeded to the office in 1850 upon the death of Zachary Taylor, and spent the next three years demonstrating how the country would have been run if they had just propped Taylor up in a chair with cushions." -- Bill Bryson.

Millard Fillmore (who was born on this day in 1800 in Locke, New York) was a virtual nonentity in national politics even as he took the presidential oath of office following the death of Zachary Taylor in July 1850. Being president did little to change that; today he is little remembered except as a cheap punch line (as in the 1960 film Bells are Ringing, for example, when Dean Martin's gets his eyes covered with feminine hands in a "guess who" game and he quips "Ah, I'll never forget that perfume -- Millard Fillmore!").

Fillmore was, however, a self-made man, born dirt poor and destined for a life of manual labor were it not for his fortitude and well-developed opportunism. Tall, handsome and socially graceful, he took time off from working at the cloth mills to learn to read at the local academy, and ended up marrying his schoolteacher Abigail Powers after he entered the Bar.

In 1828, he was elected to the New York Assembly as an Anti-Masonic candidate (capitalizing on the recent abduction of a local youth, allegedly by Freemasons). Five years later he was elected to U.S. Congress from Buffalo as a Whig (the Masonic controversy having faded from the limelight), becoming chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, where he helped pass the Whig-sponsored Tariff of 1842.

Hoping to tuck Fillmore away while fellow New York Whig William Seward could secure the vice-presidential nomination in 1848, New York Whig leader Thurlow Weed steered Fillmore into the obscure post of Comptroller of New York in 1847. As Whig delegates debated who would be General Zachary Taylor's running mate in 1848, however, an anti-Weed delegate reminded his colleagues of Fillmore's role in the Tariff of 1842, and after the election Fillmore suddenly found himself a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Fillmore and Taylor did not agree on the key issue of the day (slavery: even though Taylor was a Southern slaveholder, he opposed the entrance of new slave states to the Union, and even though Fillmore was a Yankee, he believed the Constitution protected the right to own slaves), and thus Fillmore was a marginal V.P.

When he suddenly became president, the slavery issue would be his undoing. While Kansas raged in bloody conflict over slavery, Fillmore supported Henry Clay's compromise which permitted several new slave states to be created, something which drove abolitionist Whigs to leave the party and form the Republican Party.

In foreign affairs, Fillmore pretended to be an isolationist (rebuffing Lajos Kossuth's plea for American intervention in Hungary, for example), although he did open trade with Japan and also managed to do more for bird droppings than any other president, interceding on behalf of American fertilizer companies with the Peruvian government over its protection of its offshore guano reserves.

Having lost the support of Northern Whigs over his support of the Fugitive Slave Law, Fillmore retired and went on the Grand Tour: he appeared with Martin Van Buren at the House of Commons, turned down an honorary degree at Oxford (stating that "no man should accept a degree that he may not read"), bailed Horace Greeley out of debtors' prison in Paris, and (although he worried about the possibility of having to kneel and kiss the ring of the Pope) met with Pius IX in Rome. While in Europe in 1856, Fillmore was informed that he had been nominated for president by the American ("Know-Nothing") Party, an anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant third party which ironically conducted itself as a secret society not unlike the Freemasons. Fillmore came in 3rd in the election, carrying only Maryland. Afterwards, he busied himself with Buffalo civic affairs, until his death on March 8, 1874.

There is, of course, no truth to the story that Fillmore's most significant contribution to the presidency was his introduction of a bathtub to the White House; that was a fabrication by H.L. Mencken that, despite Mencken's disavowals of it, seems to have a life of its own.

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