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Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President

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For some reason hard to understand, the historically minded public has had to wait 85 years since the death of a president for an adequate biography. This gap has now been filled with Dr. Rayback's authoritative work on Millard Fillmore. It is no eulogy, rather it is honest and unprejudiced, describing and assaying his defects of judgment such as his leadership of two abus For some reason hard to understand, the historically minded public has had to wait 85 years since the death of a president for an adequate biography. This gap has now been filled with Dr. Rayback's authoritative work on Millard Fillmore. It is no eulogy, rather it is honest and unprejudiced, describing and assaying his defects of judgment such as his leadership of two abused parties at the beginning and at the end of his political career, but asserting that all this -- even his approval of the fugitive slave law -- was far outweighed by his moral convictions and concrete actions against the institution of human slavery. To Western New Yorkers this book will of course have special appeal, but it is by no means unduly concerned with local history; it is the story of a life not only of dignity and integrity but of permanent achievement on both the local and national scene. The Buffalo Historical Society takes pride in this presentation of its first president.


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For some reason hard to understand, the historically minded public has had to wait 85 years since the death of a president for an adequate biography. This gap has now been filled with Dr. Rayback's authoritative work on Millard Fillmore. It is no eulogy, rather it is honest and unprejudiced, describing and assaying his defects of judgment such as his leadership of two abus For some reason hard to understand, the historically minded public has had to wait 85 years since the death of a president for an adequate biography. This gap has now been filled with Dr. Rayback's authoritative work on Millard Fillmore. It is no eulogy, rather it is honest and unprejudiced, describing and assaying his defects of judgment such as his leadership of two abused parties at the beginning and at the end of his political career, but asserting that all this -- even his approval of the fugitive slave law -- was far outweighed by his moral convictions and concrete actions against the institution of human slavery. To Western New Yorkers this book will of course have special appeal, but it is by no means unduly concerned with local history; it is the story of a life not only of dignity and integrity but of permanent achievement on both the local and national scene. The Buffalo Historical Society takes pride in this presentation of its first president.

30 review for Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President

  1. 5 out of 5

    Joe

    Book thirty-one of my Presidential Challenge. Quick, name one thing that you know about Millard Fillmore. Oh, come one, nothing big, I'm just talking greatest hits here. (Crickets) Yeah, same here. I knew very little about Fillmore going into this and the little I knew was all bad. He seemed to appease slaveholders and ... yeah that was about it. In truth, Fillmore was a good man who was President during a pivotal time in charge of a political party that was having an existential crisis. Favorite pa Book thirty-one of my Presidential Challenge. Quick, name one thing that you know about Millard Fillmore. Oh, come one, nothing big, I'm just talking greatest hits here. (Crickets) Yeah, same here. I knew very little about Fillmore going into this and the little I knew was all bad. He seemed to appease slaveholders and ... yeah that was about it. In truth, Fillmore was a good man who was President during a pivotal time in charge of a political party that was having an existential crisis. Favorite parts of the book: - The history of the Anti-Masonic and American (Know Nothing) Parties. I love learning about anything founded purely on fear, hate and misinformation. Any one that thinks there was ever a "civilized" time in American culture needs to read about these. The Anti-Masonic Party in particular was fascinating. It started with the same level of information your parents have when they simply forward an email on without checking Snopes. A Mason published a book with a lot of Masonic secrets, he was then kidnapped and more than likely tortured and killed by Masons. This caused everybody to freak out and say "These Masons have to be stopped!" It reminded me a lot of today's hysteria over terrorism. Clearly if the Masons killed one guy, they're going to kill us all! This party couldn't have REALLY been about that it was a Catholic organization and Catholics were scary and weird back then to the powers at be, right? Never! - The history of the Whig party. I'd always read about how the Slavery issue tore the Whig party apart but before this book, I'd never really understood why. The Whig Party was a Frankenstein made of two distinct parts that tolerated but never liked each other: Northerners and Southerners. Obviously both disagreed on the Slavery issue. Therein lies why Millard Fillmore was the perfect man for the moment and why we only remember bad things about him. He appeased both sides but ultimately came across as pro-Slavery in his policies. This isn't because he was pro-Slavery. He wasn't. If he was anything, he was pro-Union and was willing to do whatever it took to keep it (and his party) together. By that metric, he was a phenomenal success. No, Fillmore appeased the South because those politicians were bat shit cray-cray and kept talking about leaving the Union. This was truly a case of the squeaky wheel getting the grease. In fairness to Southern politicians of the era (those slaveholding, racist monsters) they probably saw the writing on the wall and knew that if they didn't keep Slavery going now, they were going to lose. It's the same reason the anti-gay and anti-immigration people are freaking out so hard today. They know it's only a matter of time before they lose. Ultimately, Fillmore was a boring guy and that's just the way he liked it. He never put himself first and always assumed the best of people. This frequently bit him in the butt like with Thurlow Weed, the Whig newspaper editor who started as his friend and in a very Citizen Kane way ended up his mortal enemy. I want to see that movie! As for the book, it is widely regarded as the best book ever written on Fillmore and I can see why. Good stuff.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Joshua

    Rayback has managed an excellent biography of a surprisingly interesting man. After reading Bauer's Taylor biography (which only barely touched on Fillmore or his relationship to the administration) I wasn't necessarily expecting much from Rayback, given this is a modern reprint of a 1949 book that doesn't seem to have been firmly replaced by any more recent biographies. This is exactly the kind of biography I love to read. It was thorough about his early life without dragging too much (unlike B Rayback has managed an excellent biography of a surprisingly interesting man. After reading Bauer's Taylor biography (which only barely touched on Fillmore or his relationship to the administration) I wasn't necessarily expecting much from Rayback, given this is a modern reprint of a 1949 book that doesn't seem to have been firmly replaced by any more recent biographies. This is exactly the kind of biography I love to read. It was thorough about his early life without dragging too much (unlike Bauer) and giving me a satisfactory view of the things that formed Fillmore into the politician he became. Fillmore is rescued from total obscurity in this volume, which paints him as an devoted unionist who was at times too willing to forgive to be a successful politician. From his beginnings in the Anti-Masonic party to his leadership of the Whig party, the most interesting story told in this biography is of the New York state politics, first against Martin Van Buren's democratic regency and then with the unscrupulous and self-interested Thurlow Weed, who began as a Fillmore friend but would ultimately be an enemy of his administration, painted as a man searching for political power through the creation of a sectional party, finally accomplished by Weed's invasion of the Republican Party in the 1856 election. Fillmore is not credited with much success. Instead, historians have largely painted him as a man unwilling to offend anyone. That accusation is not entirely without merit, although Rayback paints it in the context of Fillmore's greatest ideal: keeping the union together. Taylor's plan to solve the problems of the lands captured in the Mexican War threatened major dissension. Fillmore, on the other hand, was instrumental in passing the Compromise of 1850. Fillmore sought to follow the compromise to the letter. The truth is, though, that the South is the side that was most easily offended, and was on the defensive. This meant that it seemed Fillmore was defending the South more than the North, and indeed he was - he became the Southern Whig's choice for president in the 1852 election. Fillmore's other presidential achievements were pretty small, but he was a great supporter of trade, and for improvements Buffalo's canal and trading port especially. Disdaining conflict in the name of expansion, he managed to do very little for getting a canal over the central American isthmus and was against spreading manifest destiny, disowning a crew of Americans who attempted to overthrow the Cuban government. He was also responsible for sending Commodore Perry to Japan (which would, after his presidency, open up trade relations) and successfully opposed European influence in Hawaii as a supporter of Pacific trade. I think the most telling part of this book, and the greatest defense of Fillmore, was his support as a national candidate in the two elections following his presidency. He was also well-remembered in his hometown in Buffalo, and very supportive of the union throughout the civil war (except for a brief period in 1864 when union morale was at its lowest, when he gave a speech that would hurt him nationally and in the future). But he helped raise money for the effort, organized a ceremonial company of older folks, and provided greatly for a number of societies in Buffalo. This lasting esteem, even if not on a national scale, point to a man who was not quite the failure that history has remembered him as, even if the compromise of 1850 would prove to be a short-lived panacea. Also well examined in this book is the political infighting in the Whig party. Webster's desire to be vindicated for his service could have lost Fillmore the 1852 nomination, and Thurlow Weed's political machinations would serve to have lingering effects on politics in New York and the nation. That said, it appears to me that any defense of the three presidents prior to Lincoln tends to center on "they were weak because they sacrificed to maintain union" (although it's pretty hard to argue that for Buchanan). It's generally true that whatever the biography, the author will seek to prove a thesis that is usually pro-that president (or more rarely anti-) but they often provide enough evidence that it is possible to come to one's own conclusion. I feel that this biography serves to blow the dust off a bronze president - and that he was probably a much better president than Taylor would have been.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Aaron Million

    Immediately after beginning Robert Rayback's biography of Millard Fillmore, the reader will note that, while billed as a biography, it is not quite that. In his Preface, Rayback writes that his original intention was not to do a biography of Fillmore, but rather to explain the creation, short life, and fairly quick demise of the Whig Party in the mid-1800s. And a good portion of the book reads exactly as that: Fillmore is a character more or less in the background, periodically coming into spotl Immediately after beginning Robert Rayback's biography of Millard Fillmore, the reader will note that, while billed as a biography, it is not quite that. In his Preface, Rayback writes that his original intention was not to do a biography of Fillmore, but rather to explain the creation, short life, and fairly quick demise of the Whig Party in the mid-1800s. And a good portion of the book reads exactly as that: Fillmore is a character more or less in the background, periodically coming into spotlight, but usually only as it relates to Whig politics. There are many chapters where the focus is much more on the principles that the Whig party was founded on, and the founders of the party, than it is on Fillmore's life. At times it seems like Fillmore is more of an after-thought that anything else. Because of the above, Fillmore's personality does not come out. Rayback flies through his youth – there is very little about his ancestors or family. He stops briefly to talk about Fillmore's rise in the legal profession, and then jumps into Whig politics. Fillmore's wife and children are barely mentioned, and when they are it is fleeting. The births of his children, ostensibly two of the biggest and most important events in a his personal life, are not written about at all. Every now and then, Rayback gives a single paragraph to Fillmore's personality or private life. Then it is right back to New York Whig politics. Rayback whizzes past the election of 1848 so quickly that I had to go back a page to find the one sentence that mentions Fillmore winning the Vice Presidency. Fortunately, once into Fillmore's time as Vice-President, the narrative moves a bit quicker, although still heavily laden with New York Whig politics. Fillmore's primary adversary is the political boss Thurlow Weed. Rayback mentions that Weed has contributed unfavorably to Fillmore's historical reputation because he outlived him and thus was able to write things about him without any fear of Fillmore disputing and possibly proving that Weed was lying about him. While there is not much doubt that Weed did his best to disparage Fillmore both while he was alive and after his death, Fillmore's low ranking amongst the Presidents is his own fault, not Weed's. Fillmore is just one of a series of timid and incompetent men to occupy the Executive Mansion in the decade prior to Abraham Lincoln. Fillmore tried to govern by compromising on all of the tough issues. While, unfortunately, compromise today is considered a dirty word in Washington and it would be really nice to see some of it from today's politicians, it can also be a negative. And in Fillmore's case, at times it was. The Compromise of 1850 was supported by Fillmore. Really, all it did was delay the coming of the Civil War and exacerbate the crisis once it did come. While antislavery in feeling, Fillmore was not an abolitionist and did not press his views strongly on others. Instead of actively opposing the slave-holding Southerners, and fighting against an institution that he knew was wrong, he temporized to avoid possible secession and bloodshed. I do not blame him for wanting the latter, but he had to know that the conflict would eventually reach a head, and the longer it festered the worse it would be. Rayback has a thoughtful chapter on Fillmore's foreign policy, mainly concerning the opening of trade in the Far East and also U.S. relations with Latin American countries. The narrative then moves onto the Whig nomination for the presidency in 1852. Oddly, Fillmore did not appear to be interested in being elected President in his own right – at least not at this stage. Yet, neither did he make any statement refusing to run if nominated. Fillmore's ambivalence helped lead to him losing the nomination to Winfield Scott. As with other parts of the book, Rayback focuses here more on party politics than he does on Fillmore. As he did with the 1848 election, Rayback zooms by 1852 and before we know it, Fillmore is leaving the Executive Mansion. We know almost nothing of Fillmore's personal feelings upon leaving the presidency. There is nothing written about the personal side of he and his family being in the White House, nothing of what he thought about the duties of the office, if he liked it or not, if his family liked it or not. There is little mention of his relations with Congress, nor any mention at all of any interactions with the new President Franklin Pierce. Fillmore's wife dies only a few weeks after he leaves office, and up until that time, we had no idea that she was sick. To be fair, Rayback (or any other biographer tackling Fillmore's life) is hampered by the absence of most of Fillmore's papers, which his son stupidly destroyed. But Rayback offers little in the way of analysis about Fillmore's actions and motives. We do not get a good sense of who the man was. Once out of office, Fillmore decides to do nothing for a year. Then he slowly gets back into politics, taking some trips around the country and a lengthy one to Europe. Fillmore, in my estimation, sullies himself by becoming the presidential nominee of the American Party in 1856. A big segment of the supporters of this party were nationalists, very anti-Catholic and highly discriminatory against anyone who was considered a foreigner. It reminds me, in some respects, of the Republican Party today. For someone seemingly indifferent to staying in the office of the presidency four years earlier, Fillmore is now willing to join forces with a movement that has some less than desirable qualities about it in order to become President again. At any rate, he comes in a distant third in the race, remarries (this time to a wealthy woman), and decides to live in a very large house and not worry about money. Rayback concludes with a detailed chapter of Fillmore's philanthropic and civic duties over the last two decades of his life. Fillmore was very involved in his home city of Buffalo and made significant efforts to be a leading citizen and lend his weight to good causes such as the University of Buffalo and various community endeavors such as a historical society and a library. I appreciated this review of his post-presidential years, as many biographers brush past this past of a president's life as an after-thought. Unfortunately, Rayback does not provide an overall evaluation of Fillmore as president in particular or his life in general. Grade: C-

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jeff

    Robert Rayback makes the most of 1/2-term President Millard Fillmore, providing also a cradle-to-grave biography of the Whig Party, from its Anti-Masonic origins to its seeding of the modern Republican Party. Much time is spent on Fillmore's legacy, the Compromise of 1850, which kept slavery out of new territories but strengthened fugitive slave laws, for the sake of preserving the Union. The first future president born after George Washington's presidency, and the first (earliest) ex-president Robert Rayback makes the most of 1/2-term President Millard Fillmore, providing also a cradle-to-grave biography of the Whig Party, from its Anti-Masonic origins to its seeding of the modern Republican Party. Much time is spent on Fillmore's legacy, the Compromise of 1850, which kept slavery out of new territories but strengthened fugitive slave laws, for the sake of preserving the Union. The first future president born after George Washington's presidency, and the first (earliest) ex-president to survive Abraham Lincoln, Millard Fillmore lived a very full life and dedicated most of it to service of the nation.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    http://bestpresidentialbios.com/2014/... “Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President” is Robert Rayback’s 1959 biography of the thirteenth U.S. president. At the time of the book’s publication Rayback was a professor of history at Syracuse University. Time and history have not conspired to generate an abundance of biographies of Millard Fillmore. In fact, for more than sixty years following his departure from the White House this long-neglected and relatively obscure president was viewed primarily http://bestpresidentialbios.com/2014/... “Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President” is Robert Rayback’s 1959 biography of the thirteenth U.S. president. At the time of the book’s publication Rayback was a professor of history at Syracuse University. Time and history have not conspired to generate an abundance of biographies of Millard Fillmore. In fact, for more than sixty years following his departure from the White House this long-neglected and relatively obscure president was viewed primarily through the pronouncements of his political rivals. Not until 1915 was the first true Fillmore biography even published. Rayback’s contribution to Fillmore scholarship almost never happened either. This book was originally intended not as a full-fledged presidential biography but rather as an analysis of the rise and fall of the Whig political party. While conducting his research, Rayback found Fillmore surprisingly interesting and concluded that a thorough examination of his life might provide unique insight into the evolution of his political party. The result is a fairly comprehensive, and rather flattering, biography of Fillmore. Because of its original purpose as a Whig treatise, one of its strengths is the author’s weaving together of narratives involving the Whig party’s birth and death along with the evolution of Fillmore’s political career. Owing to Fillmore’s political birth in New York, much of the book’s first half centers on New York state politics. But where the discussion of New York machine politics in Van Buren’s biographies was generally tedious and tiresome, Rayback’s description of the political battles between Fillmore and his political nemesis, Thurlow Weed, is more often fascinating. Rayback’s portrayals of Fillmore and Weed also perfectly demonstrates the author’s obvious affinity for his subject. Despite the fact that both gentlemen were engaged in the same high-stakes game of political chess, Fillmore is always the hero…and Weed is always the villain. Fillmore would be pleased at the author’s consistent and passionate defense of his reputation and legacy, but fortunately the favoritism is easy to identify and decrypt. And rather than seeming obtusely fawning, the author’s exoneration of Fillmore often proves provocative and thought-provoking. Like many biographies of the early and more secluded presidents, Rayback’s book focuses primarily on Fillmore’s politics and public service rather than his personal life. Though his two wives are mentioned (his first died shortly after he left the presidency) they are only perfunctorily described. Based on what is described of Fillmore’s private and family life, however, the more interesting focus may well be on his careers in law and politics. Overall, “Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President” is a laudable and impressive analysis of an otherwise remote and little-known president. The book felt about twenty-percent too long and the narrative was not always exciting (or straightforward). But the 1840s and 1850s were a fractious and complex time in American history, and Robert Rayback’s biography proves itself a praiseworthy, well-researched and rewarding (if not always interesting) exploration of Fillmore’s life. Overall rating: 3¾ stars

  6. 5 out of 5

    Patrick Johnston

    This book goes to show that excellent research can make any topic worth reading. Fillmore of course is not a well-known president; of his own short presidency there is not much to write. I think he did what he could to try to save the union, but was only able to delay the Civil War a bit longer. I don't blame him, though, as the situation then was hopeless (not even Washington could have cured the nation's sparring at that time). Fillmore's real story is in the rest of his career. He is the textb This book goes to show that excellent research can make any topic worth reading. Fillmore of course is not a well-known president; of his own short presidency there is not much to write. I think he did what he could to try to save the union, but was only able to delay the Civil War a bit longer. I don't blame him, though, as the situation then was hopeless (not even Washington could have cured the nation's sparring at that time). Fillmore's real story is in the rest of his career. He is the textbook example of someone who slowly worked his way up the political ladder. And in his post-presidency he stayed involved in public service, really making Buffalo into a great city. If Fillmore himself does not interest you, this book is also a great history of the Whig party. Rayback ends up taking us through the rise and fall of that party, and the voters' struggle to find an identity.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Bruce

    Recently in this age when human rights issues have come to the fore Millard Fillmore our 13th president is getting quite a beating for his signing of the Fugitive Slave Law. He also had the dubious distinction in being the only presidential nominee of the American aka Know Nothing party in 1856. On one he's unfairly maligned, on the other sad but true he probably did have nativist views. Millard Fillmore came into the world with the 19th century in 1800. Like Lincoln he was born a poor farm kid in C Recently in this age when human rights issues have come to the fore Millard Fillmore our 13th president is getting quite a beating for his signing of the Fugitive Slave Law. He also had the dubious distinction in being the only presidential nominee of the American aka Know Nothing party in 1856. On one he's unfairly maligned, on the other sad but true he probably did have nativist views. Millard Fillmore came into the world with the 19th century in 1800. Like Lincoln he was born a poor farm kid in Cayuga County, New York and had a rudimentary education and read law clerking in an office. Both he and his widowed father Nathaniel Fillmore moved to Erie County for better opportunities, Nat for land in East Aurora and Millard to practice law in the county seat Buffalo. It was home to them for the rest of their lives. First with Anti-Masons and then with the newly created anti-Jacksonian party the Whigs Fillmore got into politics. He was elected to the State Assembly in 1828 and to Congress in 1832. He was one of the Congressional leaders of the Whig Party eventually becoming Chair of the Ways And Means Committee. In that capacity by the way he got funds to help Samuel F.B. Morse to develop his idea for a telegraph. He ran and lost for Governor of New York in 1844, but won election for state Comptroller in 1847 when that post became an elective one. Finally in 1848 he ran for Vice President with Zachary Taylor and the ticket won. For the 15 months or so that he was Vice President Fillmore had to silently suffer as his rivals in New York State's Whig Party William Seward the newly elected Senator and state chair Thurlow Weed got Taylor's ear in policy and patronage. The union was threatened with dissolution over slavery and how it would be dealt with in the new territories gained in the Mexican War. Henry Clay in the Senate was trying to work out a compromise which included a strict Fugitive Slave Act. The courts right up to the Supreme Court had vacillated over the issue. Taylor wouldn't sign it and the south threatened war. Then he died July 9, 1850 and Fillmore was president. Fillmore had already indicated he would sign all the compromise bills which also included California as a free state the New Mexico territory to be determined, abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia. It was the concession to the south and Fillmore who detested slavery but wanted to save the country signed all the bills that made up the Compromise of 1850. He was praised for saving the country from Civil War for 10 years, but he's damned in some circles now. Author Rayback gives Fillmore high praise in foreign policy for encouraging trade with the Far East and part and parcel of that was his decision to open up relations with isolationist Japan. He worked well with his Secretaries of State Daniel Webster and Edward Everett. He also resisted the southern hotheads who wanted filibustering expeditions to the Carribean and Central America. He ran a halfhearted campaign for election in his own right in 1852. The only reason he even had his name put in nomination was to hold the southerners in the Whig Party. Had he used the full power of the office with patronage he would have obtained the nomination. It was the mindset of the northern Whigs to become an unencumbered anti-slavery party and cast off the south. Weed and Seward got the party to back Winfield Scott who lost big to Democrat Franklin Pierce only carrying 4 states. Fillmore had a happy home life with wife Abigail Powers Fillmore and their children Abigail Fillmore and Millard Powers Fillmore. He suffered a double tragedy with the sudden deaths of first the First Lady a month after his term was up and a year later his daughter. He traveled Europe and came back and remarried widow Caroline Carmichael McIntosh and accepted the nomination of the Know Nothing Party which was an anti-slavery party but it's primary reason for being was as an anti-immigrant party. I think he probably shared those views. Fillmore carried only one state, Maryland in the election. Ironically I feel he was the best man in the race. James Buchanan's pussyfooting as president, a performance far worse than Fillmore's is well known. And the Republican nominee their first John C. Fremont was a great explorer, but a man given to recklessness and self promotion. Fillmore lived until 1874. He never could join the Republicans, but he did give Abraham Lincoln his loyal, but not uncritical support. Until he died he was Buffalo's first citizen and many of his public work is still around today. Millard Fillmore was not a great president, but he's miles from the worst we ever had in that office. Robert Rayback's book is a must if you want to understand him.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Lucas Brandl

    This is one of those rare biographies where the sections that don't talk about the main subject are more interesting than the ones that do. As a history of the Whig party (which is how the author first envisioned the book), and a telling of America's slide to Civil War, this is a good book. As a futile attempt to make Millard Fillmore seem like an underrated President, and, even more preposterously, an interesting person, this book is rather dull. Most of the Presidents leading up to the Civil Wa This is one of those rare biographies where the sections that don't talk about the main subject are more interesting than the ones that do. As a history of the Whig party (which is how the author first envisioned the book), and a telling of America's slide to Civil War, this is a good book. As a futile attempt to make Millard Fillmore seem like an underrated President, and, even more preposterously, an interesting person, this book is rather dull. Most of the Presidents leading up to the Civil War were uninteresting and spineless. Whether they supported slavery or not, (and Fillmore from Buffalo supposedly didn't), they were all terrified of being the President who saw the nation split into two. So they just tried to compromise and compromise and keep it all together, even though the schism was clearly coming. Fillmore was no exception. He signed the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act, an extremely dangerous law that allowed southern slaveholders to go North and reclaim slaves who had escaped, or just say a person used to be their slave and kidnap them. Fillmore reportedly "hesitated" about signing this part of the Compromise. He also saw the role of President as basically incapable of doing anything about anything, and essentially beholden to Congress and the Constitution. If you read about any of the great Presidents in American history, you might notice that none of them shared that philosophy.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Brent Ecenbarger

    At times, reading Robert Rayback’s biography on Millard Fillmore felt like Déjà vu all over again, and not just because it’s the thirteenth presidential biography I’ve read in the last 18 months. I should have expected similarities after the numerous recurring themes between William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, but sure enough the John Tyler/Millard Fillmore comparisons are too apparent to ignore. Both Tyler and Fillmore were elected Vice Presidents for the Whig party under two older war h At times, reading Robert Rayback’s biography on Millard Fillmore felt like Déjà vu all over again, and not just because it’s the thirteenth presidential biography I’ve read in the last 18 months. I should have expected similarities after the numerous recurring themes between William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, but sure enough the John Tyler/Millard Fillmore comparisons are too apparent to ignore. Both Tyler and Fillmore were elected Vice Presidents for the Whig party under two older war hero Generals; both elections featured vague promises and unclear politics to try to catch as many Whig votes across the country as possible. Both took office shortly into their President’s first term as illness took their predecessor. Both were then turned on by their party, with neither man even representing the Whigs in the follow-up election. Both men were part of the string of presidents that attempted to preserve the union through compromise rather than confronting the sectional issues head on. So considering all that, why did I not really care for Fillmore afterward while Tyler was absolutely one of my favorite presidents to read about? It boiled down to two reasons, Fillmore’s home state and Tyler’s convictions. Whereas Tyler was a southern man, his compromises appeared better in an historical light as they showed an understanding for the Northern goal of halting the expansion of slavery. Fillmore’s New York origin naturally meant that his compromises look much worse historically, as he embraced the Fugitive Slave act much more heartily than any other President. Despite being a New Yorker, it was only the Southern Whigs that continued to support him after his term. More intrinsically, Tyler stayed true to his own convictions even when they were completely opposed to Clay’s Whig party platforms. Fillmore was much more willing to bend his convictions to reach compromises and would even wait to see which way the wind was blowing (figuratively speaking) before making a decision. Here’s how he scores up on my presidential ratings rubric: Born into – Fillmore scores well here, as his father was a farmer who got duped by the land giveaways for veterans scheme in New York (those that fought in the Revolutionary War had opportunities to be compensated with farm land; in this case not particularly fertile or easy to sell farm land). Fillmore was the oldest son (a common theme with our highest office thus far) and his education was unexceptional. In addition to farming, Fillmore learned how to work in a mill before apprenticing as a clerk for an attorney; this was a great opportunity for him however he ended up quitting due to feeling taken advantage of by the man who offered him this position. Fillmore took a job for $3 using the skills he had picked up, his boss found out and chastised him for it. He caught his big break when he got another Clerk job and was admitted to practice law 27 months after starting, something that usually required seven years of education. 4/5 Pre-President – After Fillmore was an attorney, he went to a small town to be the only attorney rather than work with partners in bigger area. He became an important figure locally as a result. Drawn into politics by the Anti-Mason saga, he ended up becoming part of the Anti-Mason party following Jackson/Adams election (Fillmore supported loser eventual Adams). Taking advantage of his local statute, he was elected to the New York legislature. Fillmore was quiet first year in legislature, still learning the ropes. After his reelection, he became much more vocal. His most impressive accomplishment in the entire biography was probably the creation of the first bankruptcy laws in the United States. In order to get it passed, he offered it as non-party legislation so Democrats would vote and take credit for it instead of its creators (the Anti-Masons). After this success, he moved to Buffalo, where he was heavily involved in organizations and local affairs. His involvement directly created the Fire Fighting system that was in effect at least 70 years after its formation. Fillmore began his own law firm eventually employing future politicians Solomon Haven and Nathan Hall, and eventually Grover Cleveland as a law clerk. Haven and Hall were also prolific, in that one of them helped make Buffalo the first publicly funded free school system in America. Once elected to the national Congress, Fillmore focused on creating a new national party because anti-masons were not succeeding at the national level. Fillmore’s first choice was having Supreme Court Justice John McLean head the ticket as a presidential candidate. Once the Whig Party was formed, Fillmore switched to it and immediately and the party immediately became more successful than Anti-Mason party ever was. Fillmore was instrumental in organizing the New York Whigs, however it is not a stretch to say they were the most divided group of Whigs in the country. As the Head of Ways and Means Committee, Fillmore’s biggest victory was the Tariff of 1842 that placed President Tyler in a no-win situation and contributed to his fall from grace in the Whig party. Fillmore lost interest in Congress however and retired to return to Buffalo. At the state level, he shortly thereafter nominated for Governor against his will (he had made a promise to endorse John Collier, and did not want to go back on this). However, Thurlow Weed (the closest thing a biography can have to a villain) didn’t want Fillmore to be Vice President and arranged for support for Fillmore’s gubernatorial run to discourage a run for the national office. Fillmore lost his run for Governor and spent a few years as retired. Two years later he ran for comptroller at party’s urging and won in a landslide, moving his family to Albany. There he started newspapers to help the Whig party, including one in German for immigrants and was repayed by John Collier when Collier recommended him for Vice President to the New York assembly. The author noted this was alleged to be a scam by colleagues, and I certainly picked up on some Clay/J.Q. Adams underhandedness. Weed also managed to get Fillmore to support his guy William Seward for governor over Collier, which of course led to Fillmore’s lack of power over Federal patronage in New York and later difficulties as President. 3/5 Presidential Career – Fillmore didn’t get off to a good start, as he needed to build a cabinet from scratch in a short period while the south was threatening to secede prior due to the national question of how to address slavery in the western territories of Utah, New Mexico and California. Fillmore would have been the tiebreaking vote on Compromise of 1850, and while his personal beliefs made him want to support compromise, political aspirations had him wanting to support Taylor. He told Taylor he would support beliefs but ultimately the situation changed and vote never came to pass. By name recognition, Fillmore created an impressive cabinet, let by Daniel Webster, John Crittenden, and Nathan Hall. As President, Fillmore’s focus was more on preserving the union than being anti-slavery, which turned off many in his party. Fillmore followed the lead of Congress in breaking the agreement up into several sections to make it more palatable to all. In particular, the federal government assuming Texas’s state debt was a novel solution to getting support from a state on that issue. As previously mentioned, Fillmore’s zeal for enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law is a tarnish on his legacy, taking it further than any other president including a well publicized case in Boston. Domestically, Fillmore was also the first president to subsidize railroad. On the international side, Fillmore laid the groundwork for opening trade with Japan a few years later, however this was more a function of Japan being ready to open its borders than any shrewd execution on America’s part. The other notoriety was an international incident when Webster gave permission to private citizens to go get Guano from South America with the promise of Naval support if things went haywire; the citizens had no claim to the Guano and Fillmore had to come up with compromise of paying back involved parties by government to make avoid hostilities. Fillmore also had opportunities to add definitely add Hawaii and probably add Cuba to U.S., but chose against both as he was anti-expansionist/anti-conflict. Per Rayback, Fillmore never intended to run for reelection; he had decided early on to not seek reelection but ended up being roped into it got elected because he was talked out of formally withdrawing and made vague statement about accepting will of people who then nominated him. I don’t buy it as Fillmore would run for president again a few years later, and his shrewdness in the Governor/V.P hustle with Collier earlier shows he valued the appearance of not wanting to appear he was seeking office but doing it for “the will of the people.” Fillmore ended up defeated as nominee by Winfield Scott for reelection, which was considered by Rayback to be death the of Whig party; Scott lost 27 states to 4 but Pierce only got 56% of vote. Southern Whigs supported Fillmore but New Englanders preferred Webster and everybody else wanted Scott. Fillmore’s last attempted act as president was to address the slave issue. He believed shipping blacks to Africa at 100K per year was best solution as it would keep population levels manageable and additional workers could be replaced by Asians. He was talked out of it, so only us real history nerds got to hear his thoughts on it. 1.5/5 Vice President – Like Tyler, it doesn’t seem Fillmore had a Vice President. 0/5 First Lady – Abigail Powers was two years older than Fillmore, and the daughter of a reverend. They were married several years after meeting, once Fillmore was successful enough to propose marriage. She had two children with Millard, Millard Powers and Mary Abigail. By the time Fillmore was president, she was not in great health and Mary Abigail tended to many of the first lady duties. During Franklin Pierce’s inauguration, Abigail Powers got a flu and died shortly afterward. Fillmore’s daughter died shortly thereafter. 1.5/5 Post Presidency – It was a sad time after Abigail’s death. Whigs splintered into Republican (those that were Anti- Kansas/Nebraska act) party and No Nothing Party ( or “American” party, founded on an anti- Catholic and anti-immigrant.stance). Fillmore was concerned about political parties becoming entirely sectional and decided to throw in with the No-Nothing party which allowed him the best option for success after Whigs were no longer effective. He threw his name in for a presidential candidate option, and even seemed to agree that Immigrants were problem and should not be allowed to hold office. Fillmore then traveled the country for several months and Europe for a year to allow others to law groundwork for his nomination. Alas, it was all for naught as Fillmore then lost convincingly to Buchanan (and actually finished in 3rd place overall) which ended his political career. Fillmore’s post political life included remarrying. This time, a very wealthy widow who actually had enough money that Fillmore took a $10,000 income a year to manage her finances while they were married. He also took part in nearly every new organization in Buffalo, including the Y.M.A., Library, Humane Society, Center for Arts and everything else you can think of. He even served as the first Chancellor of Buffalo University, although more in an honorary capacity. When the Civil War began, Fillmore was on board supporting the North. He began an organization called the Union Continentals which was made up of older gentlemen former soldiers. The group helped raise morale and enlistments in the area and was in effect for a few years. Unfortunately, Fillmore’s lasting legacy on the Civil War is a speech he made at a community event in 1864, criticizing Lincoln and the refusal to make concessions for the their southern brothers. Rayback argues that this speech was a significant reason why historians have been so unkind to Fillmore. 2/5 Book itself – In the preface, the author discusses how he originally set out to write a history of the Whig party, which ascended with Fillmore (as he switched from Anti-Mason to Whig) and died with his loss for reelection. This was an interesting period in history that often gets overlooked, but Fillmore himself doesn’t appear to deserve much additional scholarship as his lasting legacy was as one of several who did nothing to solve the major issues facing the country. The book did not spend enough time on his personal life for my taste, and also glossed over several important political times such as Fillmore’s first run for national the House of Representatives. Many authors on these biographies do all they can do to make their subject likeable it’s much rarer that the author can make somebody interesting, likeable and understandable. While I understood many of Fillmore’s decisions, I never cared for the man or found this to be much of a page turner. 2.5/5

  10. 4 out of 5

    Regina Lindsey

    Rayback sets up a promising premsie for the book. One in which the traditional view of Fillmore as a "weak and pompous president" is challenged and a more fully explored Whig party is presented. Rayback asserts that Fillmore's was truly a statesman and the popular view held is manipulated by his enemies, Thurlow Weed and William Seward. However, his arguments fall flat, the work comes across as a biased account of the presidency, and Fillmore, in my opinion, still comes across as a very weak lea Rayback sets up a promising premsie for the book. One in which the traditional view of Fillmore as a "weak and pompous president" is challenged and a more fully explored Whig party is presented. Rayback asserts that Fillmore's was truly a statesman and the popular view held is manipulated by his enemies, Thurlow Weed and William Seward. However, his arguments fall flat, the work comes across as a biased account of the presidency, and Fillmore, in my opinion, still comes across as a very weak leader. What I think Raback does do successfully, however, is relate the circumstances that caused the disintegration of the Whig Party and ushered in the Republican Party. Additionally, Rayback does explore some interesting aspects of Fillmore's career: his role in the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, the inner-party fighting between Fillmore and Weed, the exploration of a canal through Latin America, shortening travel between Asia and America, and what may be the turning point of separation of Church in State as we know it today. The reader can't help but understand a little more why we are marching towards the Civil War as well. Rayback's writing style is descriptive and he certainly has a good command of the Enghlish languate. However, I felt each chapter was about 10 pages too long. Overall, I think this contributes to our exercise of building our knowledge of American history but would not recommend this to the casual reader, as it took quite a bit of focus for me to finish.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    Rayback's biography of Millard Fillmore offers a full-throated defense of America's 13th president. Using Fillmore's letters and other documents, the author presents Fillmore as a principled and decent person who as president worked to bring about sectional peace during a tumultuous time. In doing this, however, Rayback distorts his subject's positions and leaves out key details, exaggerating Fillmore's opposition to slavery and downplaying his support for nativism rather than attempting to expl Rayback's biography of Millard Fillmore offers a full-throated defense of America's 13th president. Using Fillmore's letters and other documents, the author presents Fillmore as a principled and decent person who as president worked to bring about sectional peace during a tumultuous time. In doing this, however, Rayback distorts his subject's positions and leaves out key details, exaggerating Fillmore's opposition to slavery and downplaying his support for nativism rather than attempting to explain his true positions on these controversial subjects. Because of this, his book is best read in conjunction with a more critical work, such as Paul Finkelman's short study of Fillmore's presidency for "The American Presidents" series, in order to provide a balanced and complete assessment of Fillmore and his impact on American history.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Gene McAvoy

    This was another interesting pres. biography. It provided nice coverage of most of the Whig Party history. I can't quite agree with the author's pronouncement that Fillmore was a president who accomplished nothing. I would say his really big accomplishment was the signing of the Compromise of 1850. Perhaps it was only forestalling the inevitable Civil War but I believe that it was Fillmore's efforts to try and provide balance between Northern and Southern factions that kept the country out of wa This was another interesting pres. biography. It provided nice coverage of most of the Whig Party history. I can't quite agree with the author's pronouncement that Fillmore was a president who accomplished nothing. I would say his really big accomplishment was the signing of the Compromise of 1850. Perhaps it was only forestalling the inevitable Civil War but I believe that it was Fillmore's efforts to try and provide balance between Northern and Southern factions that kept the country out of war for at least 4 years. It is a good bio...glad I read it. Now on the Franklin Pearce!

  13. 5 out of 5

    Clem

    Millard Fillmore, the U.S.A.’s 13th president, is generally viewed by many historians as one the all-time worst. Curiously, you would never have fathomed that after reading this biography. Interestingly, the author alludes to this fact in this book’s introduction. He claims that whatever history has taught us about this man, more scrutiny is required. He then paints a very flattering portrait of the man throughout the entire book. For someone like me who doesn’t know much about Millard Fillmore Millard Fillmore, the U.S.A.’s 13th president, is generally viewed by many historians as one the all-time worst. Curiously, you would never have fathomed that after reading this biography. Interestingly, the author alludes to this fact in this book’s introduction. He claims that whatever history has taught us about this man, more scrutiny is required. He then paints a very flattering portrait of the man throughout the entire book. For someone like me who doesn’t know much about Millard Fillmore, who should I believe? The author? Or the masses? Whoever the masses may be. So it’s very easy to be critical based on the author’s treatment of his subject matter. But before anyone judges, they should do their own homework and not frame their opinion based on what others have told us. What is undeniable to me, is that this is a very well-written book that held my interest throughout. I admit I was a bit skeptical since (according to Amazon) the author doesn’t have any other published works. I’ve also learned that ‘older’ books tend to hold my interest less. Perhaps that’s an unfair generalization, but most biographies older than 50 years are a bit of a challenge for me when it comes to holding my interest (this book was written in 1959). This book seemed to be the perfect length. Being that Millard Filmore served as president for less than one term (he succeeded Zachary Taylor after his death and was never elected again), one shouldn’t expect too lengthy of a narrative. Conversely, this isn’t a carelessly written volume designed to fill a gap that can be digested over a weekend. We read just enough about his youth, his early law career, his political beginnings, his ‘accidental’ presidency, and his waning years. To be honest, I would have liked to have read a tad more about his life after the presidency, but perhaps sources for the author were rare and/or unavailable. I’m learning that any biography of any United States president focuses heavily on slavery, discrimination, Jim Crow, or Civil Rights. This is good since these issues should have always been a focus in our country’s somewhat flawed history. It’s always a bit sad, though, when we read how slow progress has always been. With Millard Fillmore being President during the controversial decade of the 1850s, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the slavery topic is a very hot one in this bio. To cut to the chase, Fillmore was like many of his counterparts: he was against slavery but didn’t want to rock the boat too hard as to alienate roughly half of the country. The biggest topic of his presidency, The Compromise of 1850 (actually initiated by his predecessor) can be looked at in one of two ways. One spin is that it ‘delayed’ the Civil War by about 10 years, but the upshot of this is that slavery was in place for that much longer. Could the Civil War ever have been prevented? Some might think so, but as bloody as it was, it achieved the goal (in a roundabout way) to finally end slavery. So the fact that Fillmore was able to postpone such an event might not necessarily be viewed as a good thing in hindsight. Perhaps the biggest strike against Fillmore was in his post-presidency days, he was a big advocate of what was known as ‘Nativism’. This essentially was a movement to restrict the rights of foreigners and recent immigrants (strangely, Catholics in particular). Again, history isn’t pretty in many places, so one probably shouldn’t be too judgmental of such sentiments, but in hindsight, such feelings are a bit distressing. I also enjoyed this book because it gives a good overview of why and how the Whig political party came into existence. Since Fillmore was right in the middle of this particular era, the author does his due diligence to educate his readers on the key players and their motivations for this new faction. We then read about how the short-lived Whig party eventually morphed, to a degree, to the new Republican party that appeared around the late 1850s. The main lesson is that having at least two political parties with different views is often inevitable, but also necessary. There was also a very enjoyable chapter on the country’s desire to bridge the two oceans via a canal to aid in travel and trade. History shows us that this wasn’t accomplished until the 1910s, but it was still very interesting to read the initial thoughts, plans, and obstacles of the originators of the idea. So in conclusion, I would advise one not to wholly trust what they read in these pages about the man nor the times because of its obvious conflicts with the most accepted theories and recollections. On that note, however, I’m interested to find the opposing view that is presented as well and as interesting as what Rayback has done here. Based on that, I’d have to give this retrospective 5 stars out of 5 stars.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Mary

    Exhaustively footnoted, but frustratingly without an index, this is a largely sympathetic portrait of Millard Fillmore, who served as vice president under Zachary Taylor in 1848. In 1850, Taylor died and Fillmore became president. Fillmore is best remembered for signing into law the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act, and for running for president in 1856 as a “Know-Nothing,” a nativist and anti-Catholic political party. In Rayback’s telling, the Compromise of 1850 was not Exhaustively footnoted, but frustratingly without an index, this is a largely sympathetic portrait of Millard Fillmore, who served as vice president under Zachary Taylor in 1848. In 1850, Taylor died and Fillmore became president. Fillmore is best remembered for signing into law the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act, and for running for president in 1856 as a “Know-Nothing,” a nativist and anti-Catholic political party. In Rayback’s telling, the Compromise of 1850 was not just Fillmore’s work. It was the product of years of passionate abolitionist activity and equally passionate pro-slavery activity, and it involved the expansion of the U.S. into the west. It was, Rayback suggests, Fillmore’s desire to avoid the dissolution of the United States and a civil war between the “sections,” the North and the South, that led him to sign the Compromise acts. Rayback emphasizes that this was a constitutionally sound position—slavery had, after all, been accepted by the Constitution—and Fillmore based his own actions to avoid a civil war on the Constitution. But. This book was published in 1959, when it was apparently possible for an academic to write a book largely about pro- and anti-slavery forces without considering the actual people who were slaves. It’s hard to imagine an equally unapologetic book being written or published today. Still, the complexity of the Compromise at the time it was passed clarifies the position of its supporters—the U.S. senators who passed it and Fillmore, who signed it into law. Nothing makes it OK except precedence: slavery had been legal in America for more than 200 years before the Compromise. I was surprised to learn that the constitution provides for the return of escaped slaves. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 beefed the clause up considerably by determining a way to enforce it, but it was not the first such act, any more than the Compromise of 1850 was the first compromise to try to accommodate slavery while limiting it. Rayback led me to an uneasy understanding of Fillmore’s support of the Compromise, but he was much less convincing in describing Fillmore’s run for the presidency in 1856 as benign and disinterested. As Rayback describes it—and this is a sympathetic portrayal, remember—Fillmore just used the Know-Nothing party to make another run for the White House. Fillmore himself, Rayback argues, had no particularly strong nativistic or anti-Catholic feelings. But Fillmore’s operatives infiltrated the Know-Nothing party and Fillmore himself took its oath, which included a commitment to vote only for native-born citizens and specifically exclude from office all foreigners “and Roman Catholics in particular.” In his 1856 run, he was supported only by Southerners, and the only state he carried was Maryland; Rayback points out that Fillmore almost won Kentucky, Tennessee, and Louisiana as if it were something to be proud of. Overall, the book is masterful. It’s often a slog to get through, but that’s due more, I think, to its effort to delineate all the political forces at play during Fillmore’s time on the national stage than to Rayback’s writing. As a Buffalonian, I ended up wishing that Fillmore had limited his ambitions to public office in New York State, where he’d been successful. (New York City welcomed his return from Europe in the 1850s with fireworks from the Battery!) There is no doubt that he was deeply committed to public service locally: our library, first (non-Catholic) hospital, university, YMCA and various other civic institutions were supported and often led by him. But his legacy is irrevocably stained by the fact that his hope for avoiding the Civil War depended entirely on countenancing the practice of slavery.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Gary

    This book could have been titled "Fillmore was not as Bad as his Reputation Implies". Unlike many past biographers, the author, Rayback, highlights many Fillmore's positive traits. When comparing Fillmore to other presidents that top the worst U.S. president list, Fillmore seems to be league ahead of the likes of James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson. It seems Fillmore’s reputation has been colored by ... 1. His compromise legislation when bring new states into the union. The new law was driven by a This book could have been titled "Fillmore was not as Bad as his Reputation Implies". Unlike many past biographers, the author, Rayback, highlights many Fillmore's positive traits. When comparing Fillmore to other presidents that top the worst U.S. president list, Fillmore seems to be league ahead of the likes of James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson. It seems Fillmore’s reputation has been colored by ... 1. His compromise legislation when bring new states into the union. The new law was driven by an attempt to avoid a civil war and to hold the country together as long as possible). 2. For his negative comments during the Civil War against Lincoln's war strategy (during a low point of the conflict). 3. His enemies in the no-holds-barred New York politics world Fillmore lived in. I am sure Fillmore does not deserve to be a top or even mid-ranked president, however, his reputation has been distorted by aberration that were not fair. The extenuating circumstances that had me come to the conclusion that time has judged Fillmore too harshly, including … 1. His good faith efforts in assisting with the compromise legislation of 1850 when several new territories were bring brought into U.S. (Texas, California, New Mexico and Utah) was admirable for its goal of keeping the union together. Most agreed this was a win for anti-slavery, but it was clear under the new law that likely most of these sates would end-up as non-slave states. Also, slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia. However, the main offering to the south was the promise of enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act (returning escaped slave to the south). Likely without the commitment on the Fugitive Slave Act the legislation would have failed and the civil war would have started 8 or so years before it did. This would have meant no Lincoln to run the country and thus likely there would be no United States of American today (or at least as we know it). 2. Fillmore’s negative comments about how Lincoln was handling the war, need to be seen on the context of the day. This comment was made at a low point of the civil war, when 100,000s had died and Union victory seemed remote and unlikely. Also, when the war first broken out, Fillmore was a central leader in recruiting Union soldiers to defend the Union. 3. Lastly, Fillmore’s main New York rival, was the cunning and ruthless Thurlow Weed. Before Fillmore’s death, Weed and Fillmore made-up, however, after Fillmore has passed, Weed sharpened his sword and spent considerable effort making sure Fillmore was portrayed in history as a total failure. If you enjoy U.S. history, you I recommend this book.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Mark Wigert

    Who would have thought I’d just finished a biography on our 13th President of the United States, Millard Fillmore, at this point in my life? But that is the case. Robert J. Rayback’s, Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President is the second presidential biography I’ve read after reading Jack Goldsmith’s “Will Donald Trump Destroy the Presidency?” in the October issue of The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/... Goldsmtih says that Fillmore’s worst attribute as compared to Trump was hi Who would have thought I’d just finished a biography on our 13th President of the United States, Millard Fillmore, at this point in my life? But that is the case. Robert J. Rayback’s, Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President is the second presidential biography I’ve read after reading Jack Goldsmith’s “Will Donald Trump Destroy the Presidency?” in the October issue of The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/... Goldsmtih says that Fillmore’s worst attribute as compared to Trump was his “bigotry”. And certainly there was the blight and stain of prejudice during Fillmore’s political career and presidency. (Rayback does not really focus on such matters to any degree.) It was a fault of the time, but one that pervaded the United States, North and South, as an economic and common convention. Trump has no excuse for his prejudices. But Fillmore was a legislator, vice president and president who worked with all due credit and diligence to keep the Union together in the 1840s thru the 1860s despite the evils of slavery. He had to find ways to cross over to the other side in order to keep the secessionist and the anti-slavery spirits of the time from getting out of control and destroying the Union. Compromise and conciliation are probably two words I would most closely associate with Fillmore. Fillmore, from my point of view, had an interesting career. He began his adulthood as a pioneer attorney in a fledgling Buffalo, New York. He worked all the major issues of the 1840s and 1850s: Fugitive Slave Act; Compromise of 1850; Kansas – Nebraska, etc. Witnessed the initial evolution of the Texas, New Mexico and California territories. Saw the opening up of China and Japan. It was a time of political parties that crossed over from issue to issue in order to stay in power. There is an interesting sub-plot in the book that features Fillmore and his sometime nemesis the political advisor/editor Thurlow Weed. I thought their relationship would make a good play. Rayback’s biography is mostly sympathetic without much, if any, critical analysis. But it’s a pretty good read of the times and I’m not looking for a lot of criticism. Next biography may be James Buchanan our 15th president, whose worst characteristics according to Goldsmith as compared to Trump were his incompetence and spite. But I don’t know what I’ll read next…until tomorrow.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Dick

    Rayback set out to write about the history of the Whig party, which existed in the early to mid 19th century of American politics. At the end of his studies in 1959 he turns out this biography on Millard Fillmore. Before I read it, two items grabbed my attention: the date his was written, and where he wrote it. Rayback was a professor at Syracuse, 2 hours away from the city of Buffalo where Fillmore most made his impact. The year of 1959 shows that Rayback was writing this in the midst of the Ci Rayback set out to write about the history of the Whig party, which existed in the early to mid 19th century of American politics. At the end of his studies in 1959 he turns out this biography on Millard Fillmore. Before I read it, two items grabbed my attention: the date his was written, and where he wrote it. Rayback was a professor at Syracuse, 2 hours away from the city of Buffalo where Fillmore most made his impact. The year of 1959 shows that Rayback was writing this in the midst of the Civil Rights movement and five years before the Great Society was passed. The edition of the book that I read came from an independent publisher, working with Amazon. The editing is sloppy, but am grateful for access to the hard copy of this book. Rayback is very detail oriented to the strategy and politics of the time, mainly detailing the relationship of Thurlow Weed, William Seward and Fillmore. Rayback does do a great job with squeezing out as much information on Fillmore from the limit sources history has left us. Though, his writing is very academic and can become dry. Fillmore's presidency resided on encouraging commerce and protecting the union. In encouraging commerce, he was trying to open up business with other countries, but were timid in doing business with us after what they saw in the Manifest Destiny agenda of Polk just years before. His best accomplishments in this seemed to have happened during his time in Congress. In protecting the Union, Rayback paints him as the savior of the Compromise of 1850 (which the succeeding president dismantles), which kept the sectional peace in America. Though from a 2019 mindset, it is nauseating to see this pragmatic politician not publicly speak out against slavery. He quietly states that he does not like slavery, but does not do anything about it. Towards the end of his political career (with the "Know-Nothing" party) he goes as far as opposing the anti-slavery Republicans and stand with a party that was anti-Catholic. I give this book 4 stars due to the amount of research Rayback gave to this, but cannot give it 5 stars due to the dryness of his writing at certain points.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Judy Baker

    R Rayback's Millard Fillmore is a particularly clear and easy-to-read biography about a president who generally figures at the end of the pack. He was a hayseed from western NY who had no college education, but was smart enough not to accept an honorary degree from Oxford, knowing the grief he would receive from it. He is generally considered one of the 10 worst presidents (Truman characterized him as a thumb-twaddler who would do nothing to offend anyone.) In his defense, he was suddenly thrust R Rayback's Millard Fillmore is a particularly clear and easy-to-read biography about a president who generally figures at the end of the pack. He was a hayseed from western NY who had no college education, but was smart enough not to accept an honorary degree from Oxford, knowing the grief he would receive from it. He is generally considered one of the 10 worst presidents (Truman characterized him as a thumb-twaddler who would do nothing to offend anyone.) In his defense, he was suddenly thrust into the presidency by the unexpected death of Zachary Taylor and a bit of an outsider to the political workings of the cabinet he inherited just at a time when the seams of the country were about to be ripped apart by the Compromise of 1850. He firmly believed in the Union and his goal was to hold the states together, using a non-sectional approach to compromise, and in this he was successful. Of course, it did not solve the growing problem of the polarization of the nation over slavery, but it took a bloody civil war to accomplish that. He failed in two subsequent bids for the Presidency, partly due to the death throes of the Whig party and to D Webster's insistence that his years of service to his country should have resulted in his decent showing in the 1852 convention, and partly because of his alignment with the Know-Nothings at a time when the Republican Party that would eventually promote A Lincoln was on the rise. Had I a lifetime to ready multiple biographies of each president I would consider reading Paul Finkelman's biography of Fillmore, a vitriolic view that would definitely give a different slant to Fillmore (he was not fit to be a dog catcher?!?!) As an aside, my husband has in his family tree an uncle born in 1898 name Millard Fillmore Baker and his younger brother, Grover Cleveland Baker. Why his ancestors chose those two particular presidents to honor in such a fashion is quite a mystery, but then, families are truly funny things!

  19. 5 out of 5

    Ocean Gebhardt

    This was actually a pretty enlightening book. I knew nothing about Millard Fillmore, but had the general impression that he was a failure as a president. He pretty much was a failure, but then again he's one of those people who had been successful until becoming Vice President and then, when Zachary Taylor died, was thrust into the presidency. To his credit he had no intention of ever running for another term. To his discredit, he got bullied into doing it anyway, and in a pretty hopeless situat This was actually a pretty enlightening book. I knew nothing about Millard Fillmore, but had the general impression that he was a failure as a president. He pretty much was a failure, but then again he's one of those people who had been successful until becoming Vice President and then, when Zachary Taylor died, was thrust into the presidency. To his credit he had no intention of ever running for another term. To his discredit, he got bullied into doing it anyway, and in a pretty hopeless situation to be used as a pawn. Having said that, however, I imagine all presidents will be mediocre until Lincoln comes around. Slavery is obviously a pressure cooker waiting to explode (if that's an expression), and all these presidents keep trying to compromise and, frankly, pass on the buck. Fillmore certainly compromised, and I don't think it's wrong to judge him unfavorably for not taking a stand. People knew slavery was wrong and counter to everything the United States stood for, but they also were political, to the point of literally approving slavery (not sure how to make that point more obvious). Anyway, aside from this, kudos to Fillmore for being against the annexation of Hawaii or Cuba (suddenly he had morals here). The book also mentions some apparently embarrassingly bad correspondence sent to the emperor of Japan, but doesn't say what was so embarrassing about it, which is a bit disappointing. I got the impression from this book that the skills that landed Fillmore the Vice presidency are the same skills that made him a bad president and made him lose reelection. He was good at working with others and tried to mediate and compromise, without being boastful or showy or really making a stand for anything. 3.5 stars rounded up because I doubt a 5 star biography could ever be written for this president.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Ocean Gebhardt

    This was actually a pretty enlightening book. I knew nothing about Millard Fillmore, but had the general impression that he was a failure as a president. He pretty much was a failure, but then again he's one of those people who had been successful until becoming Vice President and then, when Zachary Taylor died, was thrust into the presidency. To his credit he had no intention of ever running for another term. To his discredit, he got bullied into doing it anyway, and in a pretty hopeless situat This was actually a pretty enlightening book. I knew nothing about Millard Fillmore, but had the general impression that he was a failure as a president. He pretty much was a failure, but then again he's one of those people who had been successful until becoming Vice President and then, when Zachary Taylor died, was thrust into the presidency. To his credit he had no intention of ever running for another term. To his discredit, he got bullied into doing it anyway, and in a pretty hopeless situation to be used as a pawn. Having said that, however, I imagine all presidents will be mediocre until Lincoln comes around. Slavery is obviously a pressure cooker waiting to explode (if that's an expression), and all these presidents keep trying to compromise and, frankly, pass on the buck. Fillmore certainly compromised, and I don't think it's wrong to judge him unfavorably for not taking a stand. People knew slavery was wrong and counter to everything the United States stood for, but they also were political, to the point of literally approving slavery (not sure how to make that point more obvious). Anyway, aside from this, kudos to Fillmore for being against the annexation of Hawaii or Cuba (suddenly he had morals here). The book also mentions some apparently embarrassingly bad correspondence sent to the emperor of Japan, but doesn't say what was so embarrassing about it, which is a bit disappointing. I got the impression from this book that the skills that landed Fillmore the Vice presidency are the same skills that made him a bad president and made him lose reelection. He was good at working with others and tried to mediate and compromise, without being boastful or showy or really making a stand for anything. 3.5 stars rounded up because I doubt a 5 star biography could ever be written for this president.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Steven

    It took me two tries to get through the book. It is more about the history of the Whig party then about Millard Fillmore. I could not even tell you how many children he had or what his marriages were like. It was so light on personal information I have a hard time with it being considered a biography. I will say that the author did a nice job of presenting how much time and energy Presidents of that era spent in trying to keep the Union together. The only time in the book that you got a sense of It took me two tries to get through the book. It is more about the history of the Whig party then about Millard Fillmore. I could not even tell you how many children he had or what his marriages were like. It was so light on personal information I have a hard time with it being considered a biography. I will say that the author did a nice job of presenting how much time and energy Presidents of that era spent in trying to keep the Union together. The only time in the book that you got a sense of who Fillmore was, was at the end, when it talked about all the things Fillmore did after he left office. He became a real leader, sitting on or chairing numerous organization like University of Buffalo, the Historical Society etc.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Eric

    Biographies on Millard Fillmore are few and far between, so I selected Robert J. Rayback’s. While this is a good book for getting additional information on both the period and politics, it is so woefully skewed to make Fillmore into something he wasn’t a 'good' President. He started politics in the Anti-Masonic (Anti Freemason) Party and ended with the American/Know-Nothing (anti Catholic) Party. Sandwich in between doing everything within his power to maintain the Whig Party (including the Comp Biographies on Millard Fillmore are few and far between, so I selected Robert J. Rayback’s. While this is a good book for getting additional information on both the period and politics, it is so woefully skewed to make Fillmore into something he wasn’t a 'good' President. He started politics in the Anti-Masonic (Anti Freemason) Party and ended with the American/Know-Nothing (anti Catholic) Party. Sandwich in between doing everything within his power to maintain the Whig Party (including the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act, although he was ‘against’ slavery) and you have a bookmark of President.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Darcy

    The problem with this book is that it was just too crammed with information. What I wanted was a biography of one of our lesser known presidents, and what I got was a treatise on the whole of American politics from his birth until his death. At times it was even hard to see Fillmore anywhere in it. This is what I came away with as regards this American President: He was an upright, moral man. He worked tirelessly to preserve the Union, even making compromises that today seem unworthy. His policies n The problem with this book is that it was just too crammed with information. What I wanted was a biography of one of our lesser known presidents, and what I got was a treatise on the whole of American politics from his birth until his death. At times it was even hard to see Fillmore anywhere in it. This is what I came away with as regards this American President: He was an upright, moral man. He worked tirelessly to preserve the Union, even making compromises that today seem unworthy. His policies need to be seen in the light of the era in order to understand what was in his mind. America was a little crazy (maybe no more than we are now!) during his lifetime.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Josh

    A surprisingly readable biography for the period when it was written (1953). Praising of Fillmore and a touch biased when recounting his presidential run for the nativist Know-Nothing Party (who knew that 1856 was 160 years too early to win on an anti-immigrant platform?) and his blaming of the Republican Party for the start, and continuation, of the Civil War. Generally though Fillmore is given a justifiable rehabilitation and shown to be a generous citizen of Buffalo, a politician who tried to A surprisingly readable biography for the period when it was written (1953). Praising of Fillmore and a touch biased when recounting his presidential run for the nativist Know-Nothing Party (who knew that 1856 was 160 years too early to win on an anti-immigrant platform?) and his blaming of the Republican Party for the start, and continuation, of the Civil War. Generally though Fillmore is given a justifiable rehabilitation and shown to be a generous citizen of Buffalo, a politician who tried to hold the country together in 1850, and a man of integrity.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Erik

    Interesting take on a pretty uninteresting life, mostly because Fillmore's political rise and fall matched that of the Whig party. Rayback is extremely sympathetic to Fillmore and repeatedly tries to make his readers reevaluate him as an underrated hero of the Union, but I still came away with the impression that he was a mediocre compromiser unwilling to stand for what he believed in lest it pissed off someone else.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Kmkoppy

    A somewhat dated biography of the 13th president. It was an excellent resource to explain the rise and fall of the Whig party. Fillmore seemed to have good intentions but lacked the ability to confront difficult situations head on, especially in regards to slavery. He chose to let things play out - wasn't proactive. He preferred to follow the constitution to the letter as an excuse not to pursue ending slavery. He seemed to be a nice man but not a creative thinker or leader.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Kevin

    Before I read this book, I was under the impression that Millard Fillmore was one of the worst presidents in American history. He took office at a tough time and managed to keep the country from splitting in two. Unfortunately, his successors failed to keep the union together, leading to the Civil War. Masterful job in telling the story of a man that few Americans know about

  28. 5 out of 5

    Leon O'Flynn

    An older biography but worth the read. An interesting time period to read about. Fillmore was a President during a tough time of history. Many of his papers were burnt after his death so he is a hard person to get to.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Sharron

    I found the exhaustive history of the Whig party contained in this biography to be surplus to my requirements. Dry as toast as well. But this laudatory account of President Fillmore’s life does provide a needed contrast to the highly critical one given by Paul Finkelman.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Diller

    Interesting read about a President I knew little about. Suspect editing process.

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