13th President of the United States (July 9, 1850 – March 4, 1853)
Age at inauguration: 50 years old
Vice President: None [Note]
- The American Louis Philippe
Preceded by: Zachary Taylor
Succeeded by: Franklin Pierce
Born: Zachary Scott Taylor January 7, 1800 Locke, New York, U.S.
Died: March 8, 1874 (aged 74) Buffalo, New York, U.S.
Cause of Death: Stroke
Resting Place: Forest Lawn Cemetery Buffalo, New York
Father: Nathaniel Fillmore
Mother: Phoebe Fillmore
Abigail Powers (m. 1826; died 1853)
Caroline McIntosh (m. 1858)
- Millard Powers Fillmore Jr.
- Mary Abigail
Education: little formal education
Occupation: United States President, Vice President, Lawyer, Teacher, Attorney, NY Controller
Other Government Positions:
- 12th Vice President of the United States March 4, 1849 – July 9, 1850
- U.S. House of Representatives from New York's 32nd district March 4, 1837 – March 3, 1843
- 14th Comptroller of New York January 1, 1848 – February 20, 1849
Presidential Salary: $25,000/year
Early life and career
Millard Fillmore was born January 7, 1800 in a log cabin, on a farm in what is now Moravia, Cayuga County, in the Finger Lakes region of New York. His parents were Phoebe (Millard) and Nathaniel Fillmore—he was the second of eight children and the oldest son. Nathaniel Fillmore was the son of Nathaniel Fillmore Sr. (1739–1814), a native of Franklin, Connecticut who became one of the earliest settlers of Bennington when it was founded in the territory then called the New Hampshire Grants.
Nathaniel Fillmore and Phoebe Millard moved from Vermont in 1799, seeking better opportunities than were available on Nathaniel's stony farm, but the title to their Cayuga County land proved defective, and the Fillmore family moved to nearby Sempronius, where they leased land as tenant farmers, and Nathaniel occasionally taught school. Historian Tyler Anbinder described Fillmore's childhood as, "...one of hard work, frequent privation, and virtually no formal schooling".
Over time, Nathaniel became more successful in Sempronius, though during Millard’s formative years the family endured severe poverty. Nathaniel became sufficiently regarded that he was chosen to serve in local offices including justice of the peace. In hopes his oldest son would learn a trade, he convinced Millard at age 14 not to enlist for the War of 1812 and apprenticed him to cloth maker Benjamin Hungerford in Sparta. Fillmore was relegated to menial labor; unhappy at not learning any skills, he left Hungerford's employ. His father then placed him in the same trade at a mill in New Hope. Seeking to better himself, Millard bought a share in a circulating library, and read all the books he could. In 1819, he took advantage of idle time at the mill to enroll at a new academy in the town, where he met a classmate, Abigail Powers, and fell in love with her.
Later in 1819, Nathaniel moved the family to Montville, a hamlet of Moravia. Appreciating his son's talents, Nathaniel followed his wife's advice and persuaded Judge Walter Wood, the Fillmores' landlord and the wealthiest person in the area, to allow Millard to be his law clerk for a trial period. Wood agreed to employ young Fillmore, and to supervise him as he read law. Fillmore earned money teaching school for three months and bought out his mill apprenticeship. He left Wood after 18 months—the judge paid him almost nothing, and the two quarreled after Fillmore, unaided, earned a small sum advising a farmer in a minor lawsuit. Refusing to pledge not to do it again, Fillmore gave up his clerkship. Nathaniel again moved the family, and Millard accompanied them west to East Aurora, in Erie County, near Buffalo., where Nathaniel purchased a farm which became prosperous.
In 1821, Fillmore turned 21 and reached emancipation. He taught school in East Aurora, and accepted a few cases in justice of the peace courts, which did not require the practitioner to be a licensed attorney. He moved to Buffalo the following year and continued his study of law—first while teaching school, and then in the law office of Asa Rice and Joseph Clary. At that time he also became engaged to Abigail Powers. In 1823, he was admitted to the New York bar, declined offers from Buffalo law firms, and returned to East Aurora to establish a practice as the town's only residing lawyer. Later in life, Fillmore stated that he initially lacked the self-confidence to practice in the larger city of Buffalo; his biographer, Paul Finkelman, suggested that after being under others' thumbs all his life, Fillmore enjoyed the independence of his East Aurora practice. On February 5, 1826, Millard and Abigail wed, and later had two children, Millard Powers Fillmore (1828–1889) and Mary Abigail Fillmore (1832–1854).
Election of 1848
President Polk had pledged not to seek a second term, and with gains in Congress during the 1846 election cycle, the Whigs were hopeful of taking the White House in 1848. The party's perennial candidates, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, each wanted the nomination, and amassed support from congressional colleagues. Many rank and file Whigs backed the Mexican War hero, General Zachary Taylor, for president. Although Taylor was extremely popular, many northerners had qualms about electing a Louisiana slaveholder at a time of sectional tension over whether slavery should be allowed in the territories ceded by Mexico. Taylor's uncertain political views gave others pause—career Army, he had never cast a ballot for president, though he stated that he was a Whig supporter, and some feared they might elect another Tyler, or another Harrison.
With the nomination undecided, Weed maneuvered for New York to send an uncommitted delegation to the 1848 Whig National Convention in Philadelphia, hoping to be a kingmaker in position to place former governor Seward on the ticket, or to get him high national office. He persuaded Fillmore to support an uncommitted ticket, though he did not tell the Buffaloan of his hopes for Seward. Weed was an influential editor, and Fillmore tended to cooperate with him for the greater good of the Whig Party. But Weed had sterner opponents, including Governor Young, who disliked Seward and did not want to see him gain high office.
Despite Weed's efforts, Taylor was nominated on the fourth ballot, to the anger of Clay's supporters and of Conscience Whigs from the Northeast. When order was restored, John A. Collier, a New Yorker and a Weed opponent, addressed the convention. Delegates hung on his every word as he described himself as a Clay partisan; he had voted for Clay on each ballot. He eloquently described the grief of the Clay supporters, frustrated again in their battle to make Clay president. Collier warned of a fatal breach in the party, and stated that only one thing could prevent it: the nomination of Fillmore for vice president, whom he incorrectly depicted as a strong Clay supporter. Fillmore in fact agreed with many of Clay's positions, but did not back him for president and was not in Philadelphia. Delegates did not know this was false, or at least greatly exaggerated, and there was a large reaction in Fillmore's favor. At the time, the presidential candidate did not automatically pick his running mate, and despite the efforts of Taylor's managers to get the nomination for their choice, Abbott Lawrence of Massachusetts, Fillmore became the Whig nominee for vice president on the second ballot.
Weed had wanted the vice presidential nomination for Seward (who attracted few delegate votes), and Collier had acted to frustrate them in more ways than one, for with the New Yorker Fillmore as vice president, under the political customs of the time, no one from that state could be named to the cabinet. Fillmore was accused of complicity in Collier's actions, but this was never substantiated. Nevertheless, there were sound reasons for the selection of Fillmore, as he was a proven vote-getter from electorally crucial New York, and his track record in Congress and as a candidate showed his devotion to Whig doctrine, allaying fears he might be another Tyler were something to happen to General Taylor. Delegates remembered him for his role in the Tariff of 1842, and he had been mentioned as a vice presidential possibility along with Lawrence and Ohio's Thomas Ewing. His rivalry with Seward (already known for anti-slavery views and statements) made him more acceptable in the South.
General election campaign
It was customary in mid-19th century America for a candidate for high office not to appear to seek it. Thus, Fillmore remained at the comptroller's office in Albany, and made no speeches; the 1848 campaign was conducted in the newspapers and with addresses made by surrogates at rallies. The Democrats nominated Michigan Senator Lewis Cass for president, with General William O. Butler his running mate, but it became a three-way fight, as the Free Soil Party, opposed to the spread of slavery, chose former president Van Buren. There was a crisis among the Whigs when Taylor also accepted the presidential nomination of a group of dissident South Carolina Democrats. Fearing that Taylor would be an party apostate like Tyler, Weed in late August scheduled a rally in Albany aimed at electing an uncommitted slate of presidential electors, but Fillmore interceded with the editor, assuring him that Taylor was loyal to the party.
Northerners assumed that Fillmore, hailing from a free state, was an opponent of the spread of slavery. Southerners accused him of being an abolitionist, which he hotly denied. Fillmore responded to one Alabamian in a widely published letter that slavery was an evil, but one that the federal government had no authority over. Taylor and Fillmore corresponded twice in September, with the general happy that the crisis over the South Carolinians was resolved. Fillmore, for his part, assured his running mate that the electoral prospects for the ticket looked good, especially in the Northeast.
In the end, the Taylor/Fillmore ticket won narrowly, with New York's electoral votes again key to the election. The Whig ticket won the popular vote by 1,361,393 (47.3 percent) to 1,223,460 (42.5 percent), and triumphed 163 to 127 in the Electoral College. Minor party candidates took no electoral votes, but the strength of the burgeoning anti-slavery movement was shown by the vote for Van Buren—though he won no states, he earned 291,501 votes (10.1 percent), and finished second in New York, Vermont and Massachusetts.
Vice president (1849–1850)
Fillmore had spent the four months between the election and swearing-in being feted by the New York Whigs and winding up affairs in the comptroller's office. Taylor had written to him, promising influence in the new administration; the president-elect mistakenly thought that the vice president was a cabinet member, which was not true in the 19th century. Fillmore, Seward and Weed had met and come to general agreement on how to divide federal jobs in New York. Seward, once he went to Washington, made friendly contact with Taylor's cabinet nominees, advisers, and the general's brother, and an alliance between the incoming administration and the Weed machine was soon under way behind Fillmore's back. In exchange for support, Seward and Weed were allowed to designate who was to fill federal jobs in New York, with Fillmore given far less than had been agreed. When Fillmore, after the inauguration, discovered this, he went to Taylor, which only made the warfare against Fillmore's influence more conspicuous. Fillmore supporters like Collier, who had nominated him at the convention, were passed over for candidates backed by Weed, who was triumphant even in Buffalo. This greatly increased the influence of Weed in New York politics, and diminished Fillmore's. According to Rayback, "by mid-1849, Fillmore's situation had become desperate." Despite his lack of influence, he was pestered by office seekers and those with a house to lease or sell him, as there was then no official residence for the vice president. He enjoyed one aspect of his office, due to his lifelong love of learning: he became deeply involved in the administration of the Smithsonian Institution as a member ex officio of its Board of Regents.
Through 1849, the slavery issue was unresolved in the territories. Taylor advocated the admission of California and of New Mexico, as likely to outlaw slavery. Southerners were surprised to learn the president, despite being a Southern slaveholder, did not support the introduction of slavery into the new territories, as he believed the institution could not flourish in the arid Southwest. There was anger across party lines in the South, where making the territories free of slavery was considered excluding Southerners from part of the national heritage. When Congress met in December 1849, this discord was manifested in the election for Speaker, which took weeks and dozens of ballots to resolve as the House divided along sectional lines.
Fillmore countered the Weed machine by building a network of like-minded Whigs in New York state; with backing from wealthy New Yorkers, their positions were publicized by the establishment of a rival newspaper to Weed's Albany Evening Journal. All pretense at friendship between Fillmore and Weed vanished in November 1849 when the two happened to meet in New York City, and they exchanged accusations.
Fillmore presided over some of the most momentous and passionate debates in American history as the Senate debated whether to allow slavery in the territories. The ongoing sectional conflict had already excited much discussion when on January 21, 1850, President Taylor sent a special message to Congress urging the admission of California immediately and New Mexico later, and that the Supreme Court settle the boundary dispute whereby the state of Texas claimed much of what is now the state of New Mexico. On January 29, Henry Clay introduced what was called the "Omnibus Bill". The bill would give victories to both North and South: it would admit California as a free state, organize territorial governments in New Mexico and Utah, and ban the importation of slaves into the District of Columbia for sale and export out of it. It would also toughen the Fugitive Slave Act, as resistance to enforcement in parts of the North was a longtime Southern grievance. Clay's bill provided for the settlement of the Texas-New Mexico boundary dispute; the status of slavery in the territories would be decided by those living there (known as popular sovereignty). Taylor was unenthusiastic about the bill, and it languished in Congress, but Fillmore, after hearing weeks of debate, in May 1850 informed Taylor that if senators divided equally on the bill, he would cast his tie-breaking vote in favor. He did his best to keep the peace among the senators, reminding them of the vice president's power to rule them out of order, but was blamed for failing to maintain it when a physical confrontation between Mississippi's Henry S. Foote and Missouri's Thomas Hart Benton broke out on April 17—before other senators intervened to separate them, Foote pointed a gun at his colleague as Benton advanced on him.
Succession amid crisis
July 4, 1850 was a very hot day in Washington, and President Taylor, who attended Fourth of July ceremonies, refreshed himself, likely with cold milk and cherries. What he consumed probably gave him gastroenteritis, and he died on July 9. Taylor, nicknamed "Old Rough and Ready", had gained a reputation for toughness through his military campaigning in the heat, and his sudden death came as a shock to the nation.
Fillmore had been called from his chair presiding over the Senate on July 8, and had sat with members of the cabinet in a vigil outside Taylor's bedroom at the White House. He received the formal notification of the president's death, signed by the cabinet, on the evening of July 9 in his residence at the Willard Hotel. After acknowledging the letter, and spending a sleepless night, Fillmore went to the House of Representatives, where, at a joint session of Congress, he took the oath as president from William Cranch, chief judge of the federal court for the District of Columbia, and the man who had sworn in President Tyler. The cabinet officers, as was customary when a new president took over, submitted their resignations, expecting Fillmore to refuse, allowing them to continue in office. Fillmore had been marginalized by the cabinet members, and the new president accepted the resignations, though he asked them to stay on for a month, which most refused to do. Fillmore is the only president who succeeded by death or resignation not to retain, at least initially, his predecessor's cabinet. He was already in discussions with Whig leaders, and on July 20 began to send new nominations to the Senate, with the Fillmore cabinet to be led by Webster as Secretary of State. Webster had outraged his Massachusetts constituents by supporting Clay's bill, and with his Senate term to expire in 1851, had no electoral future in his home state. Fillmore appointed his old law partner, Nathan Hall, as Postmaster General, a cabinet position that controlled many patronage appointments. The new department heads were mostly supporters of the Compromise, as was Fillmore.
The brief pause from politics out of national grief at Taylor's death did not abate the crisis. Texas had attempted to assert its authority in New Mexico territory, and the state's governor, Peter H. Bell, had sent belligerent letters to President Taylor. Fillmore received another such after becoming president. He reinforced federal troops in the area, and warned Bell to keep the peace. By July 31, Clay's bill was effectively dead, as all the significant provisions had been deleted by amendment other than the organization of Utah Territory—one wag put it that the "Mormons" were the only remaining passengers on the Omnibus. Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas then stepped to the fore, with Clay's agreement, proposing to break the Omnibus into individual bills that could be passed piecemeal. Fillmore endorsed this strategy, with the Omnibus to become (as it proved) five bills.
Fillmore sent a special message to Congress on August 6, 1850, disclosing the letter from Governor Bell and his reply, warning that armed Texans would be viewed as intruders, and urging Congress to defuse sectional tensions by passing the Compromise. Without the presence of the Great Triumvirate of John C. Calhoun, Webster, and Clay, who had long dominated the Senate; Douglas and others were able to lead that body towards the administration-backed package of bills. Each bill passed the Senate with the support of the section that wanted it, plus a few members who were determined to see all the bills passed. The battle then moved to the House, which had a Northern majority because of population. Most contentious was the Fugitive Slave Bill, whose provisions were anathema to abolitionists. Fillmore applied pressure to get Northern Whigs to abstain rather than oppose, including New Yorkers—threatening to kill the renomination of Congressman Abraham Schermerhorn of Rochester, whose constituents included Frederick Douglass, if he voted against the bill. Through the legislative process, various changes were made, including the setting of a boundary between New Mexico Territory and Texas—the state would be given a payment to settle any claims. California was admitted as a free state, the District slave trade was ended, and the final status of slavery in New Mexico and Utah would be settled later. Fillmore signed the bills as they reached his desk, holding the Fugitive Slave Bill for two days until he received a favorable opinion as to its constitutionality from the new Attorney General, John J. Crittenden. Although some Northerners were unhappy at the Fugitive Slave Act, relief was widespread, as was the hope this would settle the slavery question.
Election of 1852 and completion of term
As the election of 1852 approached, Fillmore remained undecided whether to run for a full term as president. Secretary Webster had long coveted the presidency and, though past seventy, planned a final attempt to gain the White House. Fillmore, sympathetic to the ambitions of his longtime friend, issued a letter in late 1851 stating that he did not seek a full term, but he was reluctant to rule it out, fearing the party would be captured by the Sewardites. Thus, approaching the national convention in Baltimore, to be held in June 1852, the major candidates were Fillmore, Webster and General Scott. Weed and Seward backed Scott; in late May, the Democrats nominated former New Hampshire senator Franklin Pierce, who had been out of national politics for nearly a decade before 1852, but whose profile had risen as a result of his military service in the Mexican War. The nomination of Pierce, a northerner sympathetic to the southern view on slavery, united the Democrats and meant the Whig candidate would face an uphill battle to gain the presidency.
Fillmore was by then unpopular with northern Whigs for signing and enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act, but had considerable support from the South, where he was seen as the only candidate capable of uniting the party. Once the convention passed a party platformendorsing the Compromise as a final settlement of the slavery question, Fillmore was willing to withdraw, but found that many of his supporters could not accept Webster and his action would nominate Scott. The convention deadlocked, and this persisted through Saturday, June 19, when a total of 46 ballots had been taken; delegates adjourned until Monday. Party leaders proposed a deal to both Fillmore and Webster: if the secretary could increase his vote total over the next several ballots, enough Fillmore supporters would go along to put him over the top; if he could not, Webster would withdraw in favor of Fillmore. The president quickly agreed, but Webster did not do so until Monday morning. On the 48th ballot, Webster delegates began to defect to Scott, and the general gained the nomination on the 53rd ballot. Webster was far more unhappy at the outcome than was Fillmore, who refused the secretary's resignation. Bereft of the votes of much of the South, and also of Northerners who depended on peaceful intersectional trade, Scott was easily beaten by Pierce in November. Smith suggested that the Whigs might have done much better with Fillmore.
The final months of Fillmore's term were uneventful. Webster died in October 1852, but during the final illness, Fillmore effectively acted as his own Secretary of State without incident, and Everett stepped competently into Webster's shoes. Fillmore intended to lecture Congress on the slavery question in his final annual message in December, but was talked out of it by his cabinet, and he contented himself with pointing out the prosperity of the nation and expressing gratitude for the opportunity to serve it. There was little discussion of slavery during the lame duck session of Congress, and Fillmore left office on March 4, 1853, succeeded by Pierce.
Post-presidency -Tragedy and political turmoil (1853–1855)
Fillmore was the first president to return to private life without independent wealth or possession of a landed estate. With no pension to anticipate, he needed to earn a living, and felt it should be in a way that would uphold the dignity of his former office. His friend, Judge Hall, assured him it would be proper for him to practice law in the higher courts of New York, and Fillmore so intended. The Fillmores had planned a tour of the South after leaving the White House, but Abigail caught a cold at President Pierce's inauguration, developed pneumonia, and died in Washington on March 30, 1853. A saddened Fillmore returned to Buffalo for the burial. The fact that he was in mourning limited his social activities, and he made ends meet on the income from his investments. He was bereaved again on July 26, 1854 when his only daughter Mary died of cholera.
The former president ended his seclusion in early 1854, as debate over Senator Douglas's Kansas–Nebraska Bill embroiled the nation. This would open the northern portion of the Louisiana Purchase to settlement, including slavery, and would end the northern limit on slavery under the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Fillmore retained many supporters, and planned an ostensibly nonpolitical national tour, while privately rallying disaffected Whig politicians to preserve the Union, and back him in a run for president. Fillmore made public appearances opening railroads and visiting the grave of Senator Clay, but met with politicians out of the public eye, during the late winter and spring of 1854.
Such a comeback could not be under the auspices of the Whig Party, with its remnants divided by the Kansas–Nebraska legislation (which passed with the support of Pierce). Many northern foes of slavery, such as Seward, gravitated towards a new party, the Republicans, but Fillmore saw no home for himself there. There was in the early 1850s considerable hostility towards immigrants, especially Catholics, who had recently arrived in the United States in large numbers; several nativist organizations, including the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, sprang up in reaction. By 1854, the Order had morphed into the American Party, which became known as the Know Nothings—in its early days, members were sworn to keep its internal deliberations private, and if asked, were to say they knew nothing about them. Many from Fillmore's "National Whig" faction had joined the Know Nothings by 1854, and influenced the organization to take up causes besides nativism. Fillmore was encouraged by the success of the Know Nothings in the 1854 midterm elections, in which they won in several Northeastern states and showed strength in the South. On January 1, 1855, he sent a letter for publication, warning against immigrant influence in American elections, and soon thereafter joined the Order of the Star Spangled Banner.
Later that year, Fillmore went abroad, stating publicly that as he lacked office, he might as well travel. The trip was at the advice of political friends, who felt that by touring, he would avoid involvement in the contentious issues of the day, and he spent over a year, from March 1855 to June 1856, in Europe and the Middle East. Queen Victoria is said to have pronounced the ex-president the handsomest man she had ever seen, and his coincidental appearance with Van Buren in the gallery of the House of Commons triggered a comment from MP John Bright. Fillmore was offered an honorary Doctor of Civil Law (D.C.L.) degree by the University of Oxford; he declined, explaining that he had neither the "literary nor scientific attainment" to justify the degree. He is also quoted, that he "lacked the benefit of a classical education" and could not, therefore, understand the Latin text of the diploma, adding that he believed "no man should accept a degree he cannot read." Alternatively, Fillmore may have refused the degree to escape the heckling and taunting which Oxford students typically imposed upon the recipients of such honors.
Dorothea Dix had preceded him to Europe, and was lobbying to improve conditions for the mentally ill. They continued to correspond, and met several times. In Rome, Fillmore had an audience with Pope Pius IX. He carefully weighed the political pros and cons of meeting with Pius; he nearly withdrew from the meeting when told he would have to kneel and kiss the pope's hand. To avoid this, Pius remained seated throughout the meeting.
Fillmore's allies were in full control of the American Party, and they arranged for him to get its presidential nomination while he was in Europe. The Know Nothing convention chose Andrew Jackson Donelson of Kentucky to be Fillmore's running mate; he was the nephew by marriage and onetime ward of President Jackson. Fillmore made a celebrated return in June 1856, speaking at a series of welcomes, which began with his arrival at a huge reception in New York City, and continued across the state to Buffalo. These addresses were portrayed as expressions of thanks for his reception, rather than as campaign speeches, which might be considered illicit office-seeking if made by a presidential hopeful. Fillmore warned that electing the Republican candidate, former California senator John C. Frémont, who had no support in the South, would divide the Union and lead to civil war. Both Fillmore and the Democratic candidate, former Pennsylvania senator James Buchanan, agreed that slavery was principally a matter for state and not federal government. Fillmore rarely spoke about the immigration question, and focused on the sectional divide, urging preservation of the Union.
Once Fillmore was back home in Buffalo, he had no excuse to make speeches, and his campaign stagnated through the summer and fall of 1856. Political fixers who had been Whigs, such as Weed, tended to join the Republican Party, and the Know Nothings lacked experience at selling anything but nativism. Accordingly, Fillmore's pro-Union stance mostly went unheard. Although the South was friendly towards Fillmore, many there feared a Frémont victory would lead to secession, and some sympathetic to Fillmore moved into the Buchanan camp lest the anti-Frémont vote be split, which might elect the Republican. Scarry suggested that the events of 1856, including the conflict in Kansas Territory and the caning of Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate, polarized the nation, making Fillmore's moderate stance obsolete.
On Election Day, Buchanan won with 1,836,072 votes (45.3%) and 174 electoral votes to Frémont's 1,342,345 votes (33.1%) and 114 electoral votes. Fillmore and Donelson finished third, winning 873,053 votes (21.6%) and carrying the state of Maryland and its 8 electoral votes. The American Party ticket narrowly lost in several southern states, and a change of fewer than 8,000 votes in Louisiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee would have thrown the election to the House of Representatives, where the sectional divide would have made the outcome uncertain.
Historian Allan Nevins wrote that Fillmore was not a Know Nothing or a nativist. He was out of the country when the nomination came and had not been consulted about running. Furthermore, "By no spoken or written word had he indicated a subscription to American tenets." He sought national unity and felt the American Party was the "only hope of forming a truly national party, which shall ignore this constant and distracting agitation of slavery."
Remarriage, later life, and death
Fillmore considered his political career to be at an end with his defeat in 1856. He again felt inhibited from returning to the practice of law. But his financial worries were removed when on February 10, 1858, he married Caroline McIntosh, a well-to-do widow. Their combined wealth allowed them to purchase a large house on Niagara Square in Buffalo, where they lived for the remainder of his life. There, the Fillmores devoted themselves to entertaining and philanthropy; according to historian Smith, "they generously supported almost every conceivable cause". Among these was the Buffalo Historical Society and the Buffalo General Hospital, which he helped found.
In the election of 1860, Fillmore voted for Senator Douglas, the nominee of the northern Democrats. After the vote, in which the Republican candidate, former Illinois representative Abraham Lincoln was elected, many sought out Fillmore's views but he refused to take any part in the secession crisis that followed, feeling that he lacked influence. He decried Buchanan's inaction as states left the Union, writing that while the federal government could not coerce a state, those advocating secession should simply be regarded as traitors. When Lincoln came to Buffalo en route to his inauguration, Fillmore led the committee selected to receive the president-elect, hosted him at his mansion, and took him to church. Once war came, Fillmore supported Lincoln in his efforts to preserve the Union. He commanded the Union Continentals, a corps of home guards of males over the age of 45 from the upstate New York area. The Continentals trained to defend the Buffalo area in the event of a Confederate attack. They performed military drill and ceremonial functions at parades, funerals, and other events. The Union Continentals guarded Lincoln's funeral train in Buffalo. They continued operations after the war, and Fillmore remained active with them almost until his death.
Despite Fillmore's zeal in the war effort, he gave a speech in early 1864 calling for magnanimity towards the South at war's end, and counting the heavy cost, financial and in blood, of the war. The Lincoln administration saw this as an attack on it that could not be tolerated in an election year, and Fillmore was criticized in many newspapers, called a Copperhead and even a traitor. This led to lasting ill-feeling against Fillmore in many circles. In the 1864 presidential election Fillmore supported Democratic candidate George B. McClellan for the presidency, believing that the Democratic Party's plan for immediate cessation of fighting and allowing the seceded states to return with slavery intact was the best possibility for restoring the Union.
After Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, black ink was thrown on Fillmore's house because it was not draped in mourning like others; he was apparently out of town at the time and put black drapes in the windows once he returned. Although he retained his position as Buffalo's leading citizen and was among those selected to escort the body when Lincoln's funeral train passed through Buffalo, there was still anger towards him for his wartime positions. Fillmore supported President Andrew Johnson's Reconstruction policies, feeling that the nation needed to be reconciled as quickly as possible. He devoted most of his time to civic activities. He aided Buffalo in becoming the third American city to have a permanent art gallery, with the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy.
Fillmore stayed in good health almost to the end, but suffered a stroke in February 1874, and died after a second one on March 8. Two days later, he was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo after a funeral procession including hundreds of notables; the U.S. Senate sent three of its members to honor its former president, including Lincoln's first vice president, Maine's Hannibal Hamlin.
Legacy and historical view
According to biographer Scarry: "No president of the United States ... has suffered as much ridicule as Millard Fillmore". He ascribed much of the abuse to a tendency to denigrate the presidents who served in the years just prior to the Civil War as lacking in leadership. For example, later president Harry S. Truman "characterized Fillmore as a weak, trivial thumb-twaddler who would do nothing to offend anyone", and as responsible in part for the war. Anna Prior, writing in The Wall Street Journal in 2010, stated that Fillmore's very name connotes mediocrity. Another Fillmore biographer, Finkelman, commented, "on the central issues of the age his vision was myopic and his legacy is worse ... in the end, Fillmore was always on the wrong side of the great moral and political issues". Rayback, however, applauded "the warmth and wisdom with which he had defended the Union". Although Fillmore has become something of a cult figure as America's most forgettable chief executive, Smith found him to be "a conscientious president" who chose to honor his oath of office and enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, rather than govern based on his personal preferences. Paul G. Calabresi and Christopher S. Yoo, in their study of presidential power, deemed Fillmore "a faithful executor of the laws of the United States—for good and for ill". But, according to Smith, the enforcement of the act has given Fillmore an undeserved pro-southern reputation. Fillmore's place in history has also suffered because "even those who give him high marks for his support of the compromise have done so almost grudgingly, probably because of his Know-Nothing candidacy in 1856". Smith argued that Fillmore's association with the Know Nothings looks far worse in retrospect than it did at the time, and that the former president was not motivated by nativism in his candidacy.
Benson Lee Grayson suggested that the Fillmore administration's ability to avoid potential problems is too often overlooked. Fillmore's constant attention to Mexico avoided a resumption of the Mexican–American War and laid the groundwork for the Gadsden Treaty during Pierce's presidency. Meanwhile, the Fillmore administration resolved a controversy with Portugal left over from the Taylor administration, smoothed over a disagreement with Peru over guano islands, and peacefully resolved disputes with Britain, France, and Spain over Cuba. All of these crises were resolved without the United States going to war or losing face. Grayson also applauded Fillmore's firm stand against Texas' ambitions in New Mexico during the 1850 crisis. Fred I. Greenstein and Dale Anderson praised Fillmore for his resoluteness in his early months in office, noting that Fillmore "is typically described as stolid, bland, and conventional, but such terms underestimate the forcefulness evinced by his handling of the Texas–New Mexico border crisis, his decision to replace Taylor's entire cabinet, and his effectiveness in advancing the Compromise of 1850".
Millard Fillmore, with his wife Abigail, established the first White House library. There are a number of remembrances of Millard Fillmore; his East Aurora house still stands, and sites honor him at his birthplace and boyhood home (where a replica log cabin was dedicated in 1963 by the Millard Fillmore Memorial Association.) A statue of Fillmore stands outside Buffalo City Hall. At the university he helped found, now SUNY Buffalo, Millard Fillmore Academic Center and Millard Fillmore College bear his name. On February 18, 2010, the United States Mint released the thirteenth coin in the Presidential $1 Coin Program, bearing Fillmore's likeness.
According to the assessment of Fillmore by the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia:
Any assessment of a President who served a century and a half ago must be refracted through a consideration of the interesting times in which he lived. Fillmore's political career encompassed the tortuous course toward the two-party system that we know today. The Whigs were not cohesive enough to survive the slavery imbroglio, while parties like the Anti-Masonics and Know-Nothings were too extremist. When, as President, Fillmore sided with proslavery elements in ordering enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, he all but guaranteed that he would be the last Whig President. The first modern two-party system of Whigs and Democrats had succeeded only in dividing the nation in two by the 1850s, and seven years later, the election of the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, would guarantee civil war.