Millard Fillmore: “The Accidental President”

January 7, 2019 — Leave a comment

The 13th President of the United States, Millard Fillmore, was born in Locke, NY on January 7, 1800, to Nathaniel and Phoebe Fillmore. He was the second of eight children and the eldest son who experienced poverty growing up in a log cabin. The name ‘Millard’ originates from his mother’s maiden name.

When he was 15, his father apprenticed him to a cloth maker because the family needed money. He was taken to another town, and the apprenticeship was more like slavery, he was almost worked to an early grave. In order to learn how to read better he purchased a dictionary with the little money he had and read it whenever he had a chance. After two years Millard borrowed thirty dollars and bought his freedom from the apprenticeship. He walked one hundred miles home to the family farm.

Millard read any book he could get his hands on and started to attend school. The teacher, Abigail Powers, was only two years older than Millard and would be the greatest influence on his life. She loaned him books, challenged him to study difficult subjects, and encouraged him to become anything but a farmer or a tradesman. Millard’s father saw that he could become a lawyer and arranged a clerkship with a local judge which allowed him to study law. He also started teaching school to support himself and began courting Abigail Powers, she accepted his engagement proposal in 1819.

In 1823 he was admitted to the bar and opened a law practice in East Aurora, NY. Three years later, on February 5, 1826, he married Abigail Powers. The couple would have a son, also named Millard, and a daughter named Mary.

During this time there was a movement against Freemasons called the Anti-Masonic Party which Millard joined. In 1829, he began serving three terms in the New York State Assembly where he worked on legislation involving the issue of debtor imprisonment. It was common to throw people who were unable to pay debts into prison and I’m sure he saw how this impacted families since he also grew up in extreme poverty. He was elected in 1832 to the U.S. House of Representatives as part of the Whig Party and served in that capacity until 1843. He also served as the Chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee from 1841 to 1842. He was against slavery but believed that in order to keep the union together slavery should be a state’s decision.

He resigned from the House in 1843 hoping to become the governor of New York, but he lost the election. He helped to establish the University at Buffalo in 1846, and served as its first chancellor. In 1847, Millard was elected as the New York comptroller, or chief financial officer, and a year later the Whig Party asked him to run as vice president with presidential candidate “Old Rough and Ready,” Zachary Taylor, a Mexican War hero from the south.

In 1848 they won the election and the new Vice President and President finally met, and they didn’t like each other. President Taylor shut Millard out of his administration and he had virtually no role in Taylor’s presidency.

President Taylor consumed large amounts of cherries and cold drinks at a Fourth of July celebration in 1850 and began to experience intestinal cramps. Its unknown what caused the stomach issues but the likely cause of death was the medical treatment which consisted of being force fed calomel (a mercury chloride solution to induce vomiting), quinine, and opium, along with prescribed bleedings. Within five days, Zachary Taylor was dead and Millard became the 13th President of the United States.

Since the Constitution did not originally include a provision for replacing vice presidents, he had no second-in-command for his entire term. Now the 25th Amendment, ratified in 1967, allows the President to appoint a Vice President, subject to the approval of the U.S. Congress. Millard immediately replaced Taylor’s cabinet, mainly due to all of them resigning.

Abigail was often unwell and the social occasions at the Fillmore White House were not very common. The family preferred to stay upstairs, where Mary would play the piano and the others read or worked, Mary also served as the White House hostess. The White House itself was in poor condition and uncomfortable to live in, Abigail had the first “running-water bathtub” installed in the White House.

Sometimes one of the best compromises is one that pleases none of the compromisers. Millard championed the Compromise of 1850, which can be credited for keeping America from civil war for more than a decade, but it also extended slavery. Millard showed little enthusiasm for serving another term, he didn’t campaign or even disclose his intentions to run again. In March of 1851, Millard planted a report in a newspaper that he was retiring from office.

Millard was a bibliophile, (he loved books), he and Abigail founded the first permanent White House library. He also helped fight a fire at the Library of Congress in December 1851, and then signed a bill to fund the replacement of all the books that had been destroyed.

Besides signing the Compromise act Millard refused to back an invasion of Cuba by Southerners who wanted to expand slavery into the Caribbean. He supported the Fugitive Slave Act, which stated that if the Army captured runaway slaves they would be returned to their owners. Because it appeared he supported slavery, but not the expansion of it, he lost support from both the north and south.

He wasn’t re-nominated for president by the Whig Party in 1852, but as previously mentioned he had no intention to run for president again. Franklin Pierce was elected the 14th President of the United States and the Fillmore family welcomed the escape from Washington, a city they never really liked. Unfortunately, Abigail sat outside for hours on Pierce’s cold, wet inauguration day, caught pneumonia and died on March 30, 1852. The following year on July 26, 1854, Mary died of cholera, Millard was devastated by the two loses.

After the Whig Party disintegrated Millard joined the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know Nothing, or American Party, and in 1856 he accepted the nomination for President. He carried just one state, Maryland, and only received 21 percent of the vote, it did prevent John C. Frémont of the new Republican Party from winning. Democrat James Buchanan became the 15th President of the United States.

Millard officially retired from politics but still criticized President James Buchanan for not taking immediate action when South Carolina seceded from the Union in 1860, but he opposed President Lincoln’s unconditional policies toward the South during the Civil War. He later supported President Andrew Johnson’s more conciliatory approach during Reconstruction, he shared Johnson’s belief to allow each state decide on slavery or not.

On February 10, 1858, five years after the death of his wife Abigail, he married Caroline Carmichael McIntosh, a wealthy Albany widow who required Millard to sign a prenuptial agreement.​ When the Civil War started Millard became a staunch Unionist, helping to organize enlistment and war-financing drives. Many people didn’t forget about him signing the Fugitive Slave Law and after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, a mob descended on his house and smudged black paint on the building since Millard hadn’t drawn his drapes do to the President’s death, which was the custom. Millard was out of town at the time and did “darken” his windows in remembrance of Abraham Lincoln when he returned.

Millard suffered a series of strokes and died on March 8, 1874 at the age of 74, he was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, New York. Millard’s second wife Caroline passed away on August 11, 1881 at 67 years old.​

Almost every time modern historians rank U.S. presidents in order of greatness, Millard’s name appears near the bottom of the list. Even the White House’s official website calls him “uninspiring.”


“It is not strange… to mistake change for progress.”

“May God save the country, for it is evident that the people will not.”

“Let us remember that revolutions do not always establish freedom.”

“God knows that I detest slavery, but it is an existing evil, for which we are not responsible, and we must endure it, till we can get rid of it without destroying the last hope of free government in the world.”

“The law is the only sure protection of the weak, and the only efficient restraint upon the strong.”

“Church and state should be separate, not only in form, but fact – religion and politics should not be mingled.”

“I am tolerant of all creeds. Yet if any sect suffered itself to be used for political objects I would meet it by political opposition. In my view church and state should be separate, not only in form, but fact. Religion and politics should not be mingled.”

“Nations, like individuals in a state of nature, are equal and independent, possessing certain rights and owing certain duties to each other.”

“The man who can look upon a crisis without being willing to offer himself upon the altar of his country is not for public trust.”

“The ability to produce every necessity of life renders us independent in war as well as in peace.”

“The Masonic fraternity tramples upon our rights, defeats the administration of justice, and bids defiance to every government which it cannot control.”

“God knows that I detest slavery, but it is an existing evil … and we must endure it and give it such protection as is guaranteed by the Constitution.”

“Let us remember that revolutions do not always establish freedom. Our own free institutions were not the offspring of our revolution. They existed before.”

“The nourishment from barbecue is palatable.”

“It would be judicious to act with magnanimity towards a prostrate foe.”

“The nourishment is palatable.”


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Millard Fillmore: The American Presidents Series: The 13th President, 1850-1853

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Millard Fillmore’s Grave – Buffalo, NY

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