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Who Was Millard Fillmore? - Facts & Biography

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Millard Fillmore was an American president at a very interesting time in American history. In this lesson, we'll examine Fillmore's life and legacy and see how he dealt with the challenges of the time.

Millard Fillmore

As historians, it's easy to look back at America's 19th century and see the warning signs that the Civil War was coming. We can ask questions like how did nobody see the red flags, and why did nobody do anything to stop it, but the truth is that they did. People did see the writing on the wall, and they did try to stop it. One of those people was Millard Fillmore.

Millard Fillmore was the 13th president of the United States. As a member of the Whig Party, he was also the last president in American history who wasn't either a Democrat or a Republican. Fillmore held office from 1850-1853, as America was dividing beyond the point of repair, and may have seen the signs but was unable to stop it.

President Millard Fillmore
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Early Life

Unlike many other presidents, Millard Fillmore was not born to a life of privilege. Instead, he was born in a log cabin in rural New York in 1800. Raised in poverty as the second of eight children, Fillmore's father got him an apprenticeship as a clothmaker to help support the family. It was brutal work, but kept the family solvent. Fillmore worked hard and eventually paid off his apprenticeship so that he could return home.

With these experiences, Fillmore became obsessed with educating himself. He taught himself to read, sometimes stealing books to practice. At roughly age 17, he finally managed to enroll himself in school for the first time. His teacher, Abigail Powers, was only two years older than him and took a deep interest in his education. You can probably tell where this is going. Yep, Millard Fillmore married his teacher.

Political Career

In total, Millard Fillmore only had about six months of formal schooling, but (with Abigail's help) he had educated himself enough to pass the bar and earn a clerkship with a judge. He developed a reputation in law and decided to run for the New York Assembly. Fillmore was elected to the legislature around 1829, and served three terms before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1832.

This was an interesting time for American politics. The US was expanding west, and the Democrat-controlled federal government started pushing for the expansion of slavery beyond the Mississippi. In the roughly 15 years that Fillmore served in federal politics, he witnessed the Trail of Tears, the rise of the Oregon Trail, the start of the Mexican-American War, and countless debates on the role of slavery in the expanding nation.

Presidency

The Taylor-Fillmore ticket of 1848.
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In 1848, it was time for the Whigs to select a presidential nominee who could challenge Democrat supremacy. Their choice: popular general of the Mexican-American War, Zachary Taylor. This was a controversial decision as Taylor himself was a slave owner. To balance the ticket, a more moderate Northerner was selected as vice president: Millard Fillmore. Fillmore and Taylor never actually met until after the election, and didn't much care for each other when they did. It seemed that Fillmore was destined to four years as a background figure in the White House, until something unexpected happened. Zachary Taylor died in 1850.

The president's unexpected death (possibly of cholera) thrust Fillmore into the presidency. It also thrust him into the center of one of the biggest debates of the generation. California was applying for statehood. Why was this a big deal? Since 1820, the USA had worked off a compromise which recognized new states below the latitudinal line of 36'30 as slave states, and those above as free states. Well, this line went right through the center of California. This large and prosperous territory had only been in the Union for two years but had already seen a thriving gold rush. So, would it allow slavery or not?

Fillmore recognized the potential danger in this issue. Northern states were furious with Southern control of the government over the last several years and attempts to spread slavery. Southerners were furious with the notion of slavery ever being restricted. With Daniel Webster as Secretary of State, Fillmore attempted to advance a compromise which had been first proposed under Taylor.

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