Thirteenth President of the United States, Millard Fillmore, was the last Whig president and the last U.S. President not affiliated with either the Democratic or Republican parties.
Millard Fillmore was born in a log cabin on his family’s farm in Cayuga County, in upstate New York, on January 7, 1800. He was the eldest son and second of nine children born to Nathaniel and Phoebe (Millard) Fillmore. In 1802, Fillmore’s father lost possession of his farm because of a faulty deed and moved his family to a leased farm in nearby New Hope, New York.
As a youth, Fillmore attended country schools sparingly when his father did not need his help working the family farm. In 1815, Fillmore’s father apprenticed him for five years to a clothier in New Hope. Fillmore did not like the work, and in 1819 he borrowed thirty dollars, which he used to release him from his obligations to his employer.
After ending his apprenticeship, Fillmore returned to live with his family, which had moved to Montville, New York. There, his father arranged for Fillmore to study law under Judge Walter Wood. In 1822, Fillmore received a clerkship with a legal firm in Buffalo, and in 1823 joined the New York state bar. He then opened a law practice in Buffalo and built a home in nearby East Aurora.
During his time living in New Hope, Fillmore briefly enrolled in New Hope Academy in 1819. His teacher, Abigail Powers, was less than two years older than him. The two developed a friendship that extended beyond the classroom. Although they were later separated for an extended time as Fillmore studied law and began his legal career, they continued their relationship by letter. Once his practice was on solid footing, the couple reunited. On February 5, 1826, they wed at Moravia, New York. Their marriage lasted for twenty-seven years, until Abigail’s death in 1853, and produced one daughter and one son.
In 1828, citizens of Erie County, New York, elected Fillmore to represent them in the New York State Assembly. A member of the Anti-Masonic Party, he served three consecutive one-year terms in Albany from 1829 to 1831.
In 1832, voters in New York’s 32nd Congressional District elected Fillmore to a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He served one term in the 23rd Congress from March 4, 1833 to March 4, 1835, during the fifth and sixth years of Andrew Jackson’s presidency. Fillmore lost his seat in the 1834 congressional election, but he reclaimed it in 1836. After losing his seat, Fillmore returned to Buffalo and opened a successful law practice with Nathan K. Hall. Fillmore also joined the emerging Whig Party, and voters re-elected him to Congress in 1836. Subsequently re-elected twice more, Fillmore served in the 25th through the 27th Congresses from March 4, 1837 to March 4, 1843.
Fillmore did not seek reelection in 1842. Instead, he returned to Buffalo and immersed himself in his thriving law practice. He also began lobbying to secure the Whig Party’s vice-presidential nomination in 1844. When that opportunity did not materialize, he reluctantly accepted the party’s nomination as their candidate for Governor of New York. In the 1844 election, Democrat Silas Wright defeated Fillmore in a close race. Following his defeat, Fillmore wrote to Whig Party luminary Henry Clay, maintaining that he had “no regrets” because he had not solicited the nomination. In his letter to Clay, Fillmore blamed his loss on abolitionists and Catholics.
Buffalo Civic Luminary
During his time out of office, Fillmore became actively involved in local affairs. He played an important role in establishing the University of Buffalo. In 1846, the trustees selected Fillmore as the school’s first chancellor. Fillmore remained active in Buffalo’s civic affairs throughout his life. He helped found the Buffalo Historical Society, and he was president of the organization from 1862 to 1867. In 1862, Fillmore was also a founder of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy. In 1870, he served as president of Buffalo General Hospital. And from 1870 until his death in 1874, Fillmore was a trustee of the Grosvenor Library.
Return to Politics
In 1847, Fillmore made a successful return to politics by handily defeating Orville Hungerford for the office of the comptroller of the State of New York. Taking office in January 1848, Fillmore managed the state’s funds through 1849. As the chief financial officer of the wealthiest and most populated state in the Union, Fillmore maintained a high profile on the national political stage.
The heroics of General Zachary Taylor during the Mexican-American War (1846–1848) paved the way for his election to the presidency in 1848. As the election approached, leaders of both major political parties, the Democrats and the Whigs, courted the popular general as their candidate. Although Taylor belonged to neither party—and had never voted in his life—he tossed his hat into the ring as a Whig.
The Whig National Convention met on June 7, 1848, in Philadelphia. It took the delegates only one day to choose a presidential candidate and conclude their business. On the fourth ballot, they selected Taylor as their nominee, although no one really knew what his political beliefs were. The selection of a southern slaveowner incensed northern abolitionist delegates. To maintain unity, party leaders brokered a deal to nominate Fillmore as Taylor’s running mate. They believed that the New Yorker would appeal to northern voters and balance the ticket. It took the delegates only two ballots to select Fillmore as the Whig Party’s vice-presidential candidate.
November 7, 1848, was the first time the entire nation went to the polls to elect a president on the same day. When election officials tabulated the results, the Whig ticket prevailed, collecting 1,361,393 votes (47.3%) to 1,223,460 votes (42.5%) for Democratic candidate Lewis Cass and 291,501 votes (10.1%) for Free Soil Party candidate Martin Van Buren. In the Electoral College vote, the Whigs and Democrats each carried fifteen states, but Taylor and Fillmore won the larger states, including New York, and defeated Cass 163 to 127.
Vice President of the United States
President Taylor and Vice-President Fillmore had never met until after their election. Taylor soon quashed any illusions Fillmore had about playing a significant role in the new administration. Taylor ignored Fillmore’s patronage requests, and he excluded him from any significant policymaking.
Sectional Tensions over the Extension of Slavery
When Taylor took the presidential oath of office on March 4, 1849, he inherited a growing crisis regarding the future of slavery in the territories Mexico ceded to the United States after the Mexican-American War. In 1847, American diplomat Nicholas P. Trist began negotiations to end the conflict. Trist and his Mexican counterparts reached an accord in January 1848. On February 2, 1848, representatives from both sides signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The peace treaty established the Rio Grande as the southernmost border between Mexico and the United States. It also required Mexico to cede California, Arizona, New Mexico, and portions of Utah, Nevada, and Colorado to the United States, in return for a payment of fifteen million dollars. The U.S. Senate ratified the peace treaty on March 10, 1848.
In 1848, the discovery of gold in California launched the Gold Rush of 1849. As the population of California swelled, residents clamored to join the Union. Taylor sought to avoid the discord over the extension of slavery in the new territories by urging the residents of California (and New Mexico) to bypass territorial status by drafting constitutions and applying directly for statehood. His position outraged many Southerners. Because most of the “Forty-niners” were from northern states, the constitution of California would most likely prohibit slavery. Southerners opposed California’s petition because the admission of another free state would upset the delicate balance of power in the U. S. Senate. When some southern leaders threatened secession if California became a state, Taylor responded with solidly Unionist rhetoric. In a February 1850 meeting with southern congressmen, Taylor stated that if it were necessary, he would personally take the field to enforce the laws of the nation and that he “would hang . . . with less reluctance than hanging deserters and spies in Mexico” anyone who attempted to disrupt the Union by force or by conspiracy.
As talk of secession escalated, Congressional leaders struggled to hold the Union together by seeking an accord that would accommodate Northerners and Southerners regarding several slavery-related issues. Taylor, however, remained intractable.
President of the United States
Zachary Taylor’s Death
The prospects for compromise improved dramatically in July 1850. On Independence Day, President Taylor ate or drank something that contained deadly bacteria. Within hours, he was suffering from violent stomach cramps and diarrhea. Following five days of agony, Taylor died at 10:35 p.m. on July 9, 1850. The next day, Fillmore took the presidential oath of office as Taylor’s successor.
Compromise of 1850
Fillmore was much more amenable to compromise legislation than Taylor had been. In September, he signed a series of Congressional bills collectively known as the Compromise of 1850. The combined legislation featured the mutual accord that Taylor had opposed. Abolitionists harshly criticized Fillmore for signing a key component of the compromise, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Moderates across the country celebrated the legislation, believing that it saved the Union. Fillmore proclaimed a “final settlement” to the sectional differences that plagued the nation. Extremists on both sides of the sectional issues were not so easily convinced. Free Soil Senator Salmon P. Chase of Ohio could have been speaking for both sides when he guardedly observed that “the question of slavery in the territories has been avoided. It has not been settled.” Events a decade later proved Chase correct.
Compared to the sectional crisis that the Compromise of 1850 temporarily averted, the rest of Fillmore’s presidency was rather bland. He endorsed legislation that encouraged the construction of new railroads. He also began diplomatic efforts to restore American goodwill in Latin America lost during the recent war with Mexico. Fillmore also sent an American fleet commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry to Asia to open Japanese ports to American trade, with orders to use gunboat diplomacy if necessary.
As the presidential election of 1852 approached, Fillmore’s intentions about seeking re-election remained clouded. Although he hinted at not seeking a second term, he was the leading vote-getter on the first ballot of the Whig National Convention on June 17. Mexican-American war hero General Winfield Scott was a close second. Through fifty-two ballots, neither candidate could muster enough support to secure a majority of the votes. Finally, on the fifty-third ballot, Scott prevailed. Democratic candidate Franklin Pierce swamped Scott in the November election. Pierce took office on March 4, 1853, ending Fillmore’s presidency.
Only twenty-six days after leaving the White House in 1853, Abigail Fillmore passed away, leaving the former president a widower. Fillmore returned to Buffalo and immersed himself in local civic affairs. Just a year after her mother’s death, Fillmore’s daughter, Mary Abigail, died unexpectedly from cholera. Distraught and lonely, Fillmore returned to politics to cope with his grief.
A mid-19th century flood of immigrants to America’s shores sparked a nativist backlash in the 1850s. An emerging body of “native” Americans coalesced around an anti-immigrant agenda to form the American Party, also known as the Know-Nothing Party. Many of its members were remnants of the Whig Party, which dissolved after the 1852 election. Know-Nothings were especially hostile to German and Irish Catholics, who they suspected the Pope in Rome controlled. The party reached its zenith between 1854 and 1856 when it won fifty-two House seats and five Senate seats in the U.S. Congress.
American Party Presidential Candidate
In 1856, while Fillmore was traveling in Europe, the American Party nominated him for the presidency. Fillmore accepted the nomination and returned to America, where he ran a half-hearted campaign. In the general election that November, Fillmore finished a distant third to winner James Buchanan and runner-up John C. Fremont.
Fillmore accepted his defeat graciously and returned to Buffalo, where he once again immersed himself in civic affairs. In 1857, he met Caroline C. McIntosh at a Buffalo social event. The two became friends and married on February 10, 1858. The couple lived in the widow’s palatial home in Buffalo. In 1861, they hosted Abraham Lincoln as the president-elect traveled to Washington to assume office.
When the Civil War erupted, Fillmore was critical of the policies of President Abraham Lincoln and opposed his re-election, but he remained a staunch Union supporter. Although he was too old to fight, Fillmore helped organize the Buffalo Union Continentals in April 1861. The Continentals was a group of roughly 150 former military officers living in the Buffalo area who volunteered to serve as a home guard. The members elected Fillmore as their captain in part because he was a twelve-year veteran of the New York State Militia from 1818 to 1830, who had attained the rank of brigade major and inspector of the 47th Infantry Brigade. Throughout the war, the Continentals trained to defend upstate New York against Confederate guerrilla attacks, organized enlistment and support drives, and took part in parades and military funerals. The Continentals also served as an honor guard during ceremonies for President Lincoln when his body passed through Buffalo on its way back to Springfield, Illinois, for burial after his assassination in 1865. Fillmore remained active with the group after the war and until his death.
Death and Burial
On February 13, 1874, Fillmore suffered a stroke at his home in Buffalo. Two weeks later, he suffered a second stroke on February 26, from which he never recovered. Paralyzed on his left side, Fillmore slipped into a coma and died in his sleep at 11:10 p.m. on March 8, 1874, at age seventy-four.
Funeral services were held at Fillmore’s home and at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Buffalo on March 12, 1874. Fillmore’s body was then buried at Buffalo’s Forest Lawn Cemetery.