One of my most strongly held beliefs is that if you commit to something and keep working towards it then eventually you will achieve it. More than seven years ago I decided I wanted to read a biography of each American president. I created an index listing each book I had read. Now each time I read a new presidential biography I write a blog post about it and add it to my summary list. For over a year I have been bogged down on Millard Fillmore. I finally finished his biography last week. Even though it took a long time to cross another president off my list I am making progress.
Millard Fillmore was our 13th President. He was John Taylor’s Vice President and became President when Taylor died on July 9, 1850, less than six months after taking office. In my blog post about Zachary Taylor’s biography I commented that Fillmore is often on lists of worst Presidents. I must say that after reading Raybacks’s biography of Fillmore I would not rate him as a bad President.
More than anything he wanted to preserve the union and avoid a civil war. The compromise that he helped put in place brought the country back from the brink of civil war in 1850. The choice between the horrific institution of slavery and the equally horrific human cost of the civil war, was an awful choice. I don’t know where I would have stood.
In any case Millard Fillmore as portrayed by Robert Rayback is an interesting man who I couldn’t help but like and admire.
My biggest complaint about the book is the same as I have had about other presidential biographies. There is almost no discussion of Fillmore’s private life, his wife, or his children. Rayback intentionally used the Fillmore biography as a vehicle to tell the story of the end of the Whig party and the birth of the Republican party. Rayback says in his introduction that “Curiosity about the Whig party, rather than admiration for Fillmore” started him on the research that led to this book. In fact Fillmore’s enemies worked to trash his memory and his legacy. All that people knew about him for many years was from a book written ten years after his death by his bitterest political enemy.
The first paragraph of Rayback’s introduction sum’s up well my experience learning about Fillmore.
“As I began my research for this book, I expected to find that Millard Fillmore was a weak and pompous President, for tradition had painted that portrait of him. When, instead, my investigations revealed that he possessed extraordinary strength of character and an enviable tenacity of purpose — as well as an admirable personality — I was startled.”
Fillmore was a self made man who had a clear set of personal principals that he followed with unswerving focus. He preferred to avoid a fight but he stood up for what he believed in. I couldn’t help but like and admire him.