Millard Fillmore


Fillmore, Millard (1800-1874), 13th president of the United States (1850-1853) and the second vice president to finish the term of a deceased president. He succeeded Zachary Taylor at a critical moment in United States history. The Mexican War (1846-1848) had renewed the conflict between the Northern and Southern states over slavery, since it had added new territories to the United States. The debate over whether these territories should be admitted as free or slave states precipitated a crisis that threatened civil war. Much to the relief of Northern and Southern politicians, Fillmore pursued a moderate and conciliatory policy. He signed into law the Compromise of 1850, which admitted one territory as a free state and allowed slave owners to settle in the others. This compromise did not solve the basic problem of slavery but did preserve peace for nearly eleven years. During that time the North gained the industrial power that enabled it to defeat the South when civil war eventually came.

Fillmore was born in upstate New York in 1800. He was the second child and eldest son in a family of nine. His parents, Nathaniel and Phoebe Millard Fillmore, had moved from Vermont to New York several years before his birth. Young Fillmore did chores on his father's farm, worked as an apprentice in the clothier's trade, and attended local schools irregularly until he was 17. Although the only books in his home were the Bible, an almanac, and a hymnbook, Fillmore managed to educate himself with the help of a village schoolteacher, Abigail Powers.

When he was 19, Fillmore began to study law with Judge Walter Wood of Cayuga County. He supported himself by teaching school. When his family moved to East Aurora, near Buffalo, New York, Fillmore continued his study of law and his teaching. In 1823 he opened a law office in East Aurora. Three years later he married Abigail Powers. The couple had two children, Mary Abigail and Millard Powers. In the early years of their marriage, Mrs. Fillmore continued to teach school and to help her husband with his law studies.

In 1826, the year Fillmore was married, an incident in western New York set him on the road to the presidency. When William Morgan, a former member of the Masonic fraternal order who had written a book that claimed to expose the order's secrets, disappeared, the rumor spread that he had been murdered by avenging Masons. Thurlow Weed, a newspaper publisher and politician, seized on the incident to arouse public feeling against all secret organizations and helped to organize the Anti-Masonic Party. Meanwhile, Millard Fillmore had been winning respect and popularity in East Aurora. People admired his professional ethics, temperate habits, careful speech and dress, and good looks. These qualities caught the attention of the Anti-Masonic politicians, who were looking for vote-winning candidates. In 1828, Weed and his group ran Fillmore for a seat in the New York state legislature, and he was elected. Four years later, again with Weed's backing, Fillmore was elected to the House of Representatives in the Congress of the United States.

When the Anti-Masonic Party merged with the new Whig Party in the mid-1830s, Fillmore became a Whig. In Congress he was a strong supporter of Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, the leader of the Whigs. The two men agreed that compromise on the slavery issue was necessary to preserve peace between the North and South.

In the important position of chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Fillmore took a leading part in framing the protective tariff (tax on imports) of 1842. The tariff raised rates to about the high level of the tariff of 1833. That tariff was opposed by the South and had provoked the state of South Carolina to pass its Ordinance of Nullification, declaring the tariff void within its borders.

Fillmore did not run for reelection in 1842. He hoped for the vice presidential nomination on Clay's Whig presidential ticket, but the party's national convention of 1844 gave that spot to Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey. Fillmore then accepted the Whig nomination for governor of New York. In the election, however, Fillmore was beaten by his Democratic Party opponent, Silas Wright, and Clay lost the decisive New York vote.

The Whigs nominated Fillmore for state comptroller in 1847. This office was second in power after the governor's and supervised public finances and superintended the banks. Fillmore defeated his Democratic opponent