Millard Fillmore is usually relegated to a dusty list of our forgotten presidents. Admittedly, most are hard-pressed to name any of our presidents between Jackson and Lincoln (well, maybe Polk has a few fans). To make it worse, Fillmore has been summarily dismissed as the ultimate underachiever. After reading this biography by Robert Rayback, I’m wondering if historians have been a little too unkind to Fillmore. While it’s true that Rayback greatly admired Fillmore and perhaps cast events in the best light possible, I did feel that many of the facts were on Rayback’s side.
While I have no illusions that Fillmore was one of our presidential greats, he does appear to be a likable person, especially when compared to one of his irascible predecessors, John Tyler. He held principles on several occasions where personalities involved caused him to want to go another direction. He was an effective legislator before he became president and was perhaps more suited to that role. He was more adept at compromise and order than he was at either possessing or casting vision. Any record of the short-lived Whig party cannot deny his importance to its history. Somehow, he came through successfully the rough-and-tumble backroom battles of his party without being as cutthroat as many of his colleagues.
Most negative modern analysis of Fillmore stems from his part in the Compromise of 1850. That is somewhat unfair on two fronts: a desire to solve the slavery question without war was obviously appealing at the time and the reading of the convictions of our day onto the past without regard for the context of those times. Since war came a decade later anyway and destroyed slavery in the process, it knocks the luster off what many across the spectrum thought worthwhile at the time. Did, however, the nation progress in that decade to be more able to accept the demise of slavery? Since we can be sure of completely different leadership on both the Union and Confederate sides in this prior decade, are we confident that we would’ve had the same result had it burst out in 1850? Maybe I put more stock in the providence of God than most readers, but it appears to me that the vastly different events of 1850 and 1861 were ultimately for the best.
In reading these presidential biographies, I’ve made a point to check out the religious background of these men. I’m aware that the outlook of the biographer can add an unfortunate layer to what I find. Rayback explains how Fillmore joined the Unitarian church prior to becoming president. He further explains that although Fillmore did not appear to attend church much before this move to the Unitarian church, he became quite faithful afterward. It does appear to me that the author has made a mistake in describing Unitarians more as they are today than they were in Fillmore’s time. Some other American characters widely known for their Christianity were, in fact, Unitarians in those days. Mrs. Fillmore was the daughter of a Baptist pastor and was raised in the Baptist Church. The author is probably correct in explaining that Fillmore did not join the Methodist Church, which was quite zealous in those days, even though he had family members in it. The Unitarian church probably matched his more genteel ways, but it seems altogether possible that Fillmore was a Christian. We may never know for sure.
Since this biography was written 60 years ago, I dreaded a dry writing style. Since presidential biographies have attracted some of the best writers of our day in the last few decades, it’s easy to become spoiled. To be sure, Rayback is no McCullough or Chernow, but I thought his pages flowed easily and were pleasant to read. Even though the book was well written and Fillmore was likely a better president that he’s often given credit for, I’m still of the opinion that 250 pages would have likely been enough for his life. Since I’ve heard that the volume in The American Presidents series is a complete disaster, I’m glad I read Rayback’s take on Fillmore.
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