A President Is Born: Millard Fillmore

On January 7, 1800, in a log cabin in Moravia, New York, Millard Fillmore was born. He was the second of nine children and would one day become the 13th President of the United States.

He became an apprentice cloth-maker to a man in Sparta, New York at the age of 14, and although he only stayed for months at that time, he went back to the trade later on with another cloth-maker in New Hope, New York.  At the age of 19, he became a law clerk in Montville, New York, for Judge Walter Wood, and during that time began to study the law.

Millard moved to Buffalo and continued his law study there. He was admitted to the bar and began practicing in East Aurora, where he built a home for the woman he was to marry. At the age of 26, he married a woman named Abigail Powers, who bore him two children.

In 1828, as a member of the Anti-Masonic Party, he was elected to the New York State Assembly. The Anti-Masonic Party was America’s first official third party, and its only issue was the opposition of Freemasonry. Although you may not have heard of that party, you likely have heard of some of the concepts they introduced to politics, including party platforms and nominating conventions.

Fillmore served three terms, from 1829 to 1831, and during this time, chaired the legislative committee which eliminated debtors’ prisons.

Several years later, in 1834, he partnered with his friend Nathan Hall, and together they formed a law practice called Fillmore and Hall.  The practice was soon known as one of New York’s most prestigious law firms.

He joined the Whig Party and was elected four terms the Congress before finally declining re-nomination in 1842. During his tenure there, he repeatedly proved himself to be against slavery.

In 1846, Millard Fillmore founded the University at Buffalo, a private school which eventually became the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, which is commonly known simply as SUNY Buffalo.

He was elected to the Vice Presidency with Zachary Taylor at the top of the ticket in 1948, and when Taylor died in July of 1950, Fillmore assumed the office of the President even as Congress was battling over the Compromise of 1850. Although he was personally against slavery, he believed that the only way to avoid the secession of the south and the eventual War Between the States was through that Compromise.

His stance on the Compromise of 1850 was the opposite of the position President Taylor had espoused, and the enmity was so great that when the entire cabinet resigned, he accepted all but the Secretary of the Treasury, Thomas Corwin, who was the only one in the cabinet who was in favor of the Compromise of 1950.

The terms of the Compromise included :

  • admission of California into the union as a free state;
  • abolition of the slave trade, though not slavery itself, in the District of Columbia;
  • organization of the territories of Utah and New Mexico -- which included what we know today as Arizona -- under the rule of popular sovereignty; and
  • establishment of a harsher version of the 1793 the Fugitive Slave Act, which mandated that runaway slaves who made it to free states would be returned to their masters.

President Fillmore supported and enforced the Fugitive Slave Act while President, which further alienated citizens in the North, and he could not win the Whig nomination in 1852.

In 1956, he ran for the presidency again. The Whig Party had collapsed in 1856, mostly over the issue of slavery, and while many Whigs fled to the new Republican Party, Fillmore joined instead the “American Party,” which eventually morphed into the "Know-Nothing Party." That party was decidedly anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant.

In that election, he won 22% of the popular vote, but carried only Maryland, which gave him a grand total of eight electoral votes.

For the duration of the Civil War, Fillmore was in vocal opposition of Abraham Lincoln.

He died on March 8, 1874 after suffering a stroke.