Profiles in Vacuity
Let’s wish a perfunctory birthday to Millard Fillmore, born this day in 1800. His name sounds ridiculous and he certainly lived up to it. He had six months of formal schooling but somehow that qualified him to be a lawyer in upstate New York. (Be fair; George Bush had less than six months of education in his four years at Yale.) Nonetheless, no one wanted to trust Attorney Fillmore with a will or a land deed, so he had to go into politics.
He won election to the state assembly in 1828 running as an Anti-Mason. Apparently, the Freemasons were considered a danger in his district, lurking under beds and quoting Isaac Newton and Thomas Jefferson while one slept. Perhaps the voters there had just seen an awful performance of “The Magic Flute”; otherwise there is no reason to dislike the Freemasons. Fillmore’s next phobia was Andrew Jackson, who also happened to be a Freemason; running in 1833 on a platform of being Anti-Jackson, Fillmore was elected to the U.S. Congress. Being his own party, with a one plank platform, was somewhat limiting; so in 1837, Congressman Fillmore joined the Whigs. The Whig leadership of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster was illustrious but tottering toward ancient; the 37 year-old Fillmore was new blood, and the party elders may have mistaken his ambition for intelligence. Fillmore soon became a leader of the congressional Whigs.
In 1848, the Whigs nominated Zachary Taylor as their presidential candidate and Fillmore as his running mate. Taylor was a Southerner, an aristocrat and a war hero; Fillmore balanced the ticket. The contrast also included lifespans. Taylor was 63 when elected and died after 16 months in office. At the time of his death, Congress was roiling over the issue of extending slavery into the territories that Mexico had just “donated” to the United States. Of course, the South wanted every acre to be open to slavery; Colorado and Nevada apparently were perfect for cotton plantations. Ironically, Zachary Taylor of Louisiana opposed the full extension of slavery in the new territories, and the old warhorse was not one to be bullied by John Calhoun and the other Southern fire-eaters. Just as ironically, Millard Fillmore of New York was quite prepared to let the South have its way; slavery evidently was not as bad as Freemasonry.
With President Fillmore undermining northern opposition, the Compromise of 1850 was reached. California would be a free state, Texas a slave state, and everything in between could be decided later. The Compromise also included the Fugitive Slave Act, which guaranteed federal assistance in capturing and returning escaped slaves. The Compromise was more of a capitulation, and no one was impressed with Fillmore. The North despised him, and even the South dismissed him. In 1852, the Whigs refused to nominate him for another term.
But Millard Fillmore was not through with politics yet. There was a new phobia for him to exploit: Anti-Catholicism. The Irish Potato Famine had led to the migration of one million Irish to our shores, and now some Protestant paranoids feared a Papal conspiracy to seize America. These “nativists” organized their own political party, now remembered as the Know-Nothings, and guess whom they chose to be their presidential candidate in 1856? Fillmore came in third but still won 23 percent of the popular votes.
But Anti-Catholicism did not prove a lasting issue. The Irish were needed to build railroads and fight our Civil War. Furthermore, the Irish did not like immigrants either–at least the ones who came next. So Millard Fillmore spent the remaining two decades of his life in comfortable oblivion, fancying himself the great statesman of Buffalo, New York.