Sunday, 19 June 2011

“Millard Fillmore” by Paul Finkelman (Times)

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The oddly-named president whose short-sightedness and stubbornness fractured the nation and sowed the seeds of civil war.

In the summer of 1850, America was at a terrible crossroads. Congress was in an uproar over slavery, and it was not clear if a compromise could be found. In the midst of the debate, President Zachary Taylor suddenly took ill and died. The presidency, and the crisis, now fell to the little-known vice president from upstate New York.

In this biography, legal scholar and historian Paul Finkelman reveals how Millard Fillmore’s response to the crisis he inherited set the country on a dangerous path that led to the Civil War. Fillmore stubbornly catered to the South, alienating his fellow Northerners and creating a fatal rift in the Whig Party, which would soon disappear from American politics — as would Fillmore himself, after failing to regain the White House under the banner of the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic “Know Nothing” Party.

Though Fillmore did have an eye toward the future, dispatching Commodore Matthew Perry on the famous voyage that opened Japan to the West, on the central issues of the age his myopic vision led to the destruction of his presidency, his party, and ultimately, the Union itself.

In this short biography of the largely forgotten thirteenth president of the United States, historian Finkelman provides a superb history of the time, but after finishing, Fillmore himself remains somewhat elusive and incidental.

We get a brief personal history of Fillmore, which outlines his very difficult childhood and early life. He was born in poverty, poorly educated, and “utterly unsophisticated”. He had a largely unimpressive tenure as a Congressman from Buffalo, before being selected as Zachary Taylor’s vice president. As is frequently the case, this early-life backgrounds was quite interesting, although all-too short. This cannot be blamed on Finkelman, for in truth Millard Fillmore was not much of a writer and therefore left very little in the way of personal letters or documents for future historians. While he wasn’t much of a writer, he was a voracious reader, always self-conscious of his poor education, and filled with a burning desire to better himself and be able to stand among the educated, more elite strata of society.

Despite this rather noble desire for self-betterment, Fillmore was an odd politician. He was “drawn to oddball political movements, conspiracy theories, and ethnic hatred”, which made him toxic to many members of his own party, and resulted in his expulsion from the Whig Party, and his evolution into a standard bearer for the anti-Catholic, racist Know-Nothing Party in 1856.

He was not all bad, however, and his “legacy includes some visionary ideas that he could not accomplish”. He pushed for a transcontinental railway system, which would eventually be accomplished under Abraham Lincoln. Fillmore’s interest in foreign lands led to his sanctioning of Commodore Perry’s trip to open up Japan, which would be completed by Franklin Pierce. He helped maintain America’s dominant presence in Hawaii, which allowed William McKinley to annex the islands. Fillmore also began the push for a South American canal, which would be shepherded to completion by Theodore Roosevelt.

There’s probably more in this book about William H. Seward than there is about Fillmore. An awful lot of (good) background and setting-of-the-scene, but Fillmore himself features disappointingly little in the pre-Presidential chapters. Even the sections about his vice-presidency are largely devoid of the man, too. While, yes, it is clear that there is not exactly a wealth of sources to draw upon when writing about or studying Fillmore, it gives a sense that the inclusion of Fillmore into the narrative and history is somewhat an afterthought: Multiple pages of history and detail are often followed by a single, short paragraph on Fillmore’s involvement (or lack thereof) in the given issue, fixed at the end.

In a time when Vice Presidents weren’t included in anything, really, “Fillmore, however, seems to have been particularly wounded by Taylor’s failure to include him” in decision-making and governing. Finkelman argues that Fillmore’s “inexperience and his lifelong sense of insecurity no doubt made it especially hard for him to be a vice president with no role to play in the administration.” This would have major consequences for his presidency, during which he “acted impulsively”:

“The usually careful, plodding Fillmore reverted to the petulant teenager who stormed off from his first legal apprenticeship. Angry that the cabinet members had not included him in their deliberations, he fired the entire cabinet.”

Showing a distinct lack of awareness for his situation, he was then surprised and further hurt when the stunned, now-former cabinet members understandably refused to accede to the new president’s request that they remain to help his new administration get off the ground. Sadly for both Fillmore and by extension America, the new president bungled his re-staffing and most of the governing he was required to do for the rest of his term.

Despite the positive legacy mentioned above, “on the central issues of the age his vision was myopic and his legacy worse.” Like so many presidents of this era, Fillmore’s presidency would be defined by the ever-critical slavery debate. Despite being from New York, Fillmore was consistently on the wrong side of history on the issue, and there can be little doubt that this cost him any chance of re-election or, in truth, success. He opened the West to slavery, and “destroyed the Missouri Compromise line”, and his “total appeasement” of the Southern slave interests only meant they pushed for ever-more concessions and territory open to the institution of slavery.

Finkelman offers a devastating indictment of Fillmore’s apparent lack of awareness and understanding of what the job of the Executive Office and Congress actually was (specifically, with regards to Texas and New Mexico’s addition to the Union). In particular, Finkelman takes Fillmore to task for his utter fecklessness and dispassionate approach to the implementation and ratification of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (which was thoroughly unconstitutional and so blatantly bias towards Southern interests – Fillmore, rather clearly, didn’t understand the Constitution). Indeed, in Finkelman’s words, Fillmore “aggressively – indeed fanatically – implemented the Fugitive Slave Act… arguably the most oppressive law in American history.”

Fillmore would run as the presidential candidate on the Know-Nothing ticket that “openly attacked foreigners, immigrants, and Catholics”. After his electoral failures, he would continue to favour bizarre and objectionable policies and platforms – he was against emancipation, and during the Civil War campaigned for a peace that would have left millions of African Americans in chains. His fellow Buffalo and New York natives branded him a traitor during the Civil War (although, he would remain in Buffalo for the rest of his life).

“In the end, Fillmore was always on the wrong side of the great moral and political issues of the age: immigration, religious toleration, equality, and, most of all, slavery.”

Overall, I would say this is not among the better volumes in the series, which is a pity, as the volumes on the lesser-known presidents have often been the better books (Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan in particular stand out). Despite Finkelman’s solid and fluid prose, this one failed to ignite my interest in the first half, and never truly got off the ground, improving only towards the end. That being said, it is a very good short history of the period and its issues. However, this does not make up for its failures as a biography, which is what it is meant to be. By the time I finished reading, I still considered it a better introductory-history of the time than a presidential biography, but it did get better by the time we get to Fillmore’s presidency.

Recommended for an introduction to the age, and a very brief introduction to the thirteenth President.

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