Millard Fillmore was born in a frontier cabin in Cayuga county, New York, on Jan. 7, 1800. He was the second child and the first of five sons of Nathaniel and Phoebe Millard Fillmore. The family was miserably poor, and Fillmore was almost entirely self-educated. Deeply wanting an education, Millard Fillmore, enrolled in an academy at New Hope, New York, where he met his future wife, Abigail Powers. In that same year Fillmores father obtained a clerkship for him in the office of Judge Walter Wood in Montville, NY, where he began the study of law.
During the next few years Fillmore taught school from time to time and also clerked in a Buffalo law firm. He was admitted to the bar in 1823. After setting up a law office in East Aurora near Buffalo, he married Miss Powers in1826. As his legal business expanded he took on a student clerk in his office, his future law partner and political associate, Nathan Kelsey Hall.
In 1830 the Fillmors moved to Buffalo, where a year or two later they joined the Unitarian Church. Fillmore formed a law partnership with Hall and developed a thriving practice. His massive frame, benign air, dignified mien, and conciliatory temper commanded respect and admiration. His popularity in Erie County marked him as one of the outstanding political leaders in western New York, and in 1832 he won election to Congress on the Anti-Masonic ticket.
During the 1840’s Weed led the New York Whig party’s liberal wing, which was hostile to slavery. Fillmore disliked slavery but disapprove of attacks on it. For he regarded the South’s peculiar institution as untouchable in the states where it existed. The influx of foreigners into New York State posed another political issue, and Fillmore sympathized with those who were hostile to the recently naturalized citizens. Here, too, he differed from Weed and Seward, who hoped to attract the newcomers into the Whig party.
Fillmore wished to be Henry Clay’s running mate in the presidential election of 1844, but reluctantly yielded to Weed’s desire that he accept the Whig nomination for governor instead. In the election he ran ahead of Clay by some 3,000 votes in the state, but lost the governorship to Democrat Silas Wright. He attributed his defeat to the Abolitionists and foreign Catholics, but he also felt that Weed and Seward had maneuvered him into a hopeless race. In the ensuing national election the Whigs won a narrow victory. Throughout the country controversy was rising over slavery in the new territories and in the District of Columbia.
As vice president, Fillmore presided over the SENATE in capable fashion. The senators generally bowed to his admonitions, but Seward, who had been elected to the Senate in January 1849, regarded him with unrelenting hostility. A bitter struggle over patronage in New York State developed between the two men. Seward won President Taylor’s confidence, and his control over the New York State appointments became virtually complete. Seward and Fillmore also differed over the proper method of dealing with the slavery crisis.
The Compromise made little progress during the spring and early summer of 1850, but on July 9, Taylor died, and Fillmore became president of the United States. His choice of Daniel Webster as secretary of state and John J. Crittenden as attorney general indicated his pro-Compromise stand, and his message to Congress proposed indemnification of Texas for surrendering its claim to New Mexican territory. The support Fillmore and his cabinet gave to the Compromise helped to ensure the passage of its various bills, including the stringent fugitive slave law, which the President strove wholeheartedly to enforce. His first annual message on December 2, 1850 contained an affirmation of states rights.
Aside from its stand on the Compromise, Fillmores administration was chiefly noteworthy for its interest in the nations economic development. Fillmore had earlier cooperated with Senator Stephen A. Douglas in arranging the first federal land grants for railroad construction, and as president he encouraged internal improvements and the expansion of foreign commerce. His administration authorized Commodore Matthew C. Perrys expedition to Japan in 1852-1854. In the distribution of patronage, Fillmore strongly favored conservative Whigs and, prodded by his friend Hall, whom he made postmaster general, he did what he could to weaken the power of Weed and Seward in New York State.
Fillmore was a candidate for the Whig presidential nomination in 1852. He had strong Southern support, and the dying Clay advocated his nomination. However, as Webster also was put forward, the conservative and moderate Whigs were divided, and Gen. Winfield Scott, the candidate of the antislavery faction, became the Whig standard-bearer.
Suave, courteous, and handsome in a rather stodgy fashion, Fillmore was by nature a kindly and modest individual. Characteristically, while traveling in Europe in 1855, he declined an honorary degree offered by Oxford University. He did so partly because he was reluctant to accept a degree in Latin, which he could not read, and partly because he feared that the Oxford students would make jokes at his expense. He was an omnivorous reader, but in the field of politics his talents were limited.
As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and as comptroller of New York, he displayed real ability, but he was unfortunately shortsighted on the major issues of his time, most notably on slavery and nativism. His general tendency to take the path of least resistance showed a lack of self-confidence, a characteristic in which he differed markedly from his rival, Seward.
At the close of his term of office Fillmore retired to Buffalo, but he still had political aspirations. Accompanied by Hall, he made political tours of the South and West in the spring of 1854. His reception on these journeys, together with the swift rise of the nativist know-nothing party, kept his presidential hopes alive. He received the know-nothing presidential nomination in 1856, but ran a poor third to Democrat James Buchanan and Republican John C. Frmont, carrying only the state of Maryland. This catastrophic defeat ended his pretensions to a further political career.
Fillmore was distrustful of the new Republican Party and its leaders and had little hope of abating the crisis that came with the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Late that year he refused the plea of New York merchants that he got to South Carolina to urge temperate action, saying that the trip would do no good. Although he supported the national government during the Civil War, he felt that the conflict was unnecessary and was highly critical of the Lincoln administration. In the 1864 presidential election he supported Democrat George B. McClellan. During the Reconstruction period his sympathies were with President Andrew Johnson.
In private life Fillmore devoted much of his time to civic activities. He was the first chancellor of the University of Buffalo, serving in an honorary capacity from 1846 until his death. Before 1856 he had accumulated a competence probably in the neighborhood of $100,000, the income from which was scarcely adequate to maintain him in the style he felt suitable for an ex-president. His wife having died in 1853, he married a wealthy Albany widow, Caroline Carmichael McIntosh, in 1858. The income from her estate, added to his own, enabled them to purchase a huge, ornate Gothic mansion on Niagara Square in Buffalo. Mrs. Fillmore embellished this with numerous portraits and busts of her husband, and, as long as her health permitted, it was a center of generous hospitality. She became a chronic invalid in the 1860s, but her husbands health remained good until a paralytic stroke, on Feb. 13, 1874, gave warning of the end. Following a second stroke, death came on March 8, 1874.