An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Presidents of the United States of America
Michael F. Shaughnessy -
1) Today, we will look at Millard Fillmore, the thirteenth president of the United States. When and where was this President born and when did he serve-( during what time period or event or series of events ?)
Millard Fillmore was born January 7, 1800, in Moravia, New York. Shortly thereafter, his family moved to East Aurora, New York. When he was fourteen, Fillmore was apprenticed by his father to a cloth maker. Four months later, he became apprenticed to a different cloth maker in New Hope, New York. This proved to be a critical moment in Fillmore’s life, as he was able to attend the New Hope Academy for six months in 1819. With his new academic credentials, Fillmore was able to become a part-time law clerk.
He soon used his earnings to buy out his apprentice contract, and moved to Buffalo and became a full-time law clerk. Fillmore had started to study law in New Hope, and continued that pursuit with his new employers. Passing the bar in 1823, Fillmore began a law practice, and in 1834 he opened a firm with his friend Nathan Hall. The firm still exists today.
In 1846, Fillmore started the University at Buffalo. By that time, Fillmore had become a prominent politician in western New York. He had served three terms in the New York state legislature, and in 1832 had been elected to the US House of Representatives. He served one term, sat out a term, and then was elected again in 1836. Fillmore served three terms, and then once again decided not to seek reelection. He did so because he hoped to be elected governor of New York in 1844, but he lost to Silas Wright.
In 1848, Fillmore was elected to serve as the comptroller of New York, but he was also a candidate for a different office that year. In the early 1830s, Fillmore had become an early convert to the Whig Party, and in 1848 he was chosen by the party to be Zachary Taylor’s vice-presidential candidate. Taylor won, and on March 4, 1849, Fillmore was sworn in as the nation’s vice-president. 16 months later, Taylor developed gastroenteritis and died. Fillmore took the presidential oath of office on July 9, 1850, and served out Taylor’s term of office.
2) What was he MOST known for?
Fillmore is a president who has been regarded as a non-factor by the vast majority of historians, because he was not active on the political stage while in office. But it can also be stated that he was an important president precisely because he wasn’t an activist. Taylor, for example, had brought the nation to the brink of civil war through his insistence that the territory ceded by Mexico in 1848 should be organized into the free states of New Mexico and California.
Fillmore, however, privately made it clear that he would not oppose a compromise that had been introduced by Henry Clay.
In addition, Fillmore chose to deal behind the scenes with diplomatic disputes with Great Britain, Mexico, France, Spain, and Peru, rather than run the risk of hostilities. In a similar fashion, Fillmore chose to work with Brigham Young and the Mormons already living in the newly created Utah Territory. Indeed, Fillmore made Young the territorial governor rather than appoint his own person. It could therefore be argued that Fillmore should be remembered as a good president because of his prudence and caution.
3) What would you say were his strengths?
Fillmore was calm and deliberate. He had his own beliefs and convictions, but had a willingness to work with others.
4) What were his relative weaknesses- politically perhaps, personally?
Fillmore’s greatest strengths could also be considered to be weaknesses. He lost any chance to be elected president in his own right, for example, by not opposing the provision known as the Fugitive Slave Act in Clay’s compromise.
5) What would you say was his impact on the United States and possibly the world?
Fillmore’s quiet diplomacy did have positive impacts on both the United States and the world. This is especially evident in regard to Hawaii. The emperor of France announced that he hoped to acquire the Hawaiian Islands, and Fillmore quietly made the emperor aware that the United States would not look favorably upon such an action. The French emperor backed down, and 50 years later the United States was able to secure Hawaii. World history would have unquestionably altered if Hawaii had not become American territory.
6) In terms of his place in history- it seems to be secure- but could you summarize your views as a historian about him?
While it can be argued that Fillmore should be given credit for not acting rashly, I think that Fillmore will always be regarded as an ineffective president.
7) What would you say were his greatest accomplishments?
Perhaps his greatest positive accomplishments were two actions that he is usually not credited with. First, his administration authorized Commodore Matthew Perry to take a small detachment of US naval vessels to Japan. Prior to that time, the Japanese had refused for centuries to interact with the outside world, but the might of Perry’s armaments convinced the Japanese to deal with the United States.
Secondly, Fillmore began a process of negotiating with Mexico for the purchase of a strip of land for the purpose of building a transcontinental railroad. This would become known as the Gadsden Purchase. Unfortunately for Fillmore, both of these developments actually came to fruition shortly after Fillmore left office.
8) Could you provide a summary statement about our thirteenth President?
For years, Fillmore was such an obscure president that the only thing people associated him with was the introduction of the bath tub to the White House. It turned out, however, that the bath tub had actually been introduced before him. This confusion about what Fillmore actually did seems to be a fitting epitaph for him.