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Portraits: Millard Fillmore   4 comments

Fillmore's portrait by an unidentified artist dates to about the time he retired from the House of Representatives in the early 1840s. National Portrait Gallery

Fillmore’s portrait by an unidentified artist dates to about the time he retired from the House of Representatives in the early 1840s. National Portrait Gallery

Millard Fillmore (1800 – 1874)

The 13th President of the United States, 1850 – 1853

AKA: The Accidental President, The Wool Carder President, The American Louis Philippe

From: New York

College: One of eight US Presidents that did not attend college

Married to: Abigail Powers (1826 – 1853), Caroline Carmichael (1858 – 1874)

Children: Millard, Mary

Party: Anti-Masonic (before 1832), Whig (1832 – 1856), American (1856 – 1860)

Photo by Matthew Brady

Photo by Matthew Brady

Previous Jobs: Lawyer, New York State Assemblyman, New York State Comptroller, Chancellor of the University of Buffalo, US Representative, Vice President

In His Words: “The Government of the United States is a limited Government. It is confined to the exercise of powers expressly granted and such others as may be necessary for carrying those powers into effect; and it is at all times an especial duty to guard against any infringement on the just rights of the States.”

“An honorable defeat is better than a dishonorable victory.”

“God knows that I detest slavery, but it is an existing evil, for which we are not responsible, and we must endure it, and give it such protection as guaranteed by the Constitution, till we can get rid of it without destroying the last hope of free government in the world.”

Not true: Millard Fillmore did not install the first bathtub in the White House.

A piece authored by HL Mencken was published in the New York Evening Mail on December 28, 1917 — 33 years after Fillmore died! — that credited Fillmore with the plumbing innovation. It was all a hoax, though … but it was a hoax that came to be cited as fact for decades after the piece was published.

Mencken eventually admitted that the article was not true, but not before Millard Fillmore had his reputation besmirched. Poor guy; his reputation wasn’t that good to start with!

True: Millard Fillmore was born in a log cabin, and grew up very poor on the New York frontier, in the Finger Lakes region.

He was apprenticed to a cloth maker at age 15, where he learned to card wool.

He was a compromise candidate when he became the Vice Presidential nominee for Zachary Taylor.

As the Vice President, he of course served as President of the Senate during Taylor’s Presidency. He came to support what is now known as the Compromise of 1850, and he championed its final passage early in his Presidency. That legislation was intended to calm emotions and help strengthen the republic, but in the end it only inflamed divisive passions further. It was composed of five separate bills:

  1. Texas surrendered its claim to New Mexico.
  2. California was admitted to the Union as a free state.
  3. The slave trade in Washington DC was banned (though slavery was not).
  4. New Mexico and Utah were named US territories with no clear ruling about slavery within their borders.
  5. The Fugitive Slave Act required Federal law officers to return runaway slaves to their owners.

Fillmore directed Commodore Perry to travel to Japan and open that nation to trade with the west. Fillmore directed Perry to use the guns on his steamships to persuade Japanese representatives if they refused to allow Perry to present Fillmore’s letter to the Emperor. The threat was not necessary, and trade with Japan became a reality.

Fillmore threatened to use the US Military on three occasions to help enforce domestic law: against Texas, when that state’s militia was about to invade the territory of New Mexico; against South Carolina, when that state was rumored to be near secession; and against a citizen revolt that attempted to lead a coup against Cuba … and failed.

The Whig party would not nominate him as their candidate in 1854. He eventually became a third party candidate representing the racist “Know Nothing” American Party … which he joined perhaps not because of their ideology, but because it was the best political platform available to him at the time. He lost, winning only the state of Maryland, and retired from politics.

He was not a weak President, but is often seen as such, since his actions failed to save the Union and prevent the Civil War. Today, his legacy is as much about what isn’t true as it is what he actually accomplished.

The Official Portrait: Congress commissioned George P. A. Healy to paint six Presidential portraits: John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, James K Polk, Franklin Pierce and Millard Fillmore. Fillmore was finished in 1857; the rest were all complete by 1859. At that point, the paintings were then stored in the White House attic, as framing had not been budgeted. It was left to Andrew Johnson to frame and suitably display the paintings after the Civil War.

Millard Fillmore, official White House portrait

Fillmore,-Millard,-FINAL

More

Big Mo

Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub: Fillmore Still Dead, Still Misquoted

Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub: Mencken’s Hoax

Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub: Sources on Millard Fillmore

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