The oddly named president whose shortsightedness and stubbornness fractured the nation and sowed the seeds of civil war
In the summer of 1850, America was at a terrible crossroads. Congress was in an uproar over slavery, and it was not clear if a compromise could be found. In the midst of the debate, President Zachary Taylor suddenly took ill and died. The presidency, and the crisis, now fell to the little-known vice president from upstate New York.
In this eye-opening biography, the legal scholar and historian Paul Finkelman reveals how Millard Fillmore's response to the crisis he inherited set the country on a dangerous path that led to the Civil War. He shows how Fillmore stubbornly catered to the South, alienating his fellow Northerners and creating a fatal rift in the Whig Party, which would soon disappear from American politics—as would Fillmore himself, after failing to regain the White House under the banner of the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic "Know Nothing" Party.
Though Fillmore did have an eye toward the future, dispatching Commodore Matthew Perry on the famous voyage that opened Japan to the West and on the central issues of the age—immigration, religious toleration, and most of all slavery—his myopic vision led to the destruction of his presidency, his party, and ultimately, the Union itself.
In this latest addition to the American Presidents series, Finkelman (Dred Scott v. Sanford), a professor at Albany Law School, describes Millard Fillmore's nearly forgotten presidency by rigidly contrasting him with Abraham Lincoln, another self-made man who wrestled with racial and regional tensions as president. Succeeding Zachary Taylor after his death in office in 1850, Fillmore sought to win a presidential election on his own merit. This led the New York native to try to placate the Southern states by implementing the Fugitive Slave Act, a nightmare for free blacks in the Northern states. Oddly, Finkelman fails to draw on evidence of nuance in Fillmore's and Lincoln's positions, instead using blanket statements to describe their political views. Finkelman's Fillmore remains elusive without complex discussions of his evolution during and after his presidency, and focuses primarily on slavery, the major issue Fillmore faced but hardly the only one. The accidental president's achievements in opening diplomatic efforts with Japan and his focus on economic issues (such as the creation of the San Francisco mint) garner little attention as Fillmore's presidency ushers in the inevitable war between the states. This book is an enlightening view into the often overlooked beginnings of the Civil War, which history buffs and students alike will find enjoyable.