A NATION did not mourn him. History has not restored him. His picture will never adorn an ad for a President’s Day sale. When death claimed Millard Fillmore, the unlucky 13th president of the United States, on a bitterly cold March day in 1874, few but his family cared about his passing.
Newspapers attempted to eulogize Fillmore, but aside from pursuing the blandest of political careers, what had he accomplished? He had been president for three years, from 1850 to 1853, but he seemed little more than a cipher. “Could it be possible,” asked one newspaper in his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., “that living thus near to him, we failed to adequately appreciate his greatness?”
The answer is a resounding “no.” Fillmore reminds us that the platitude that “anyone can be president” is as much a threat as a promise.
Few figures in American history have aroused such overwhelming indifference as Millard Fillmore. Ascending to the presidency following the death of Zachary Taylor, Fillmore was dubbed an “accidental” president. But before long he would gain more colorful tags, such as “inept,” “vacuous” and “doughface.” Indeed, no sooner had he clambered into his new position as head of state than he seemed to let drop the reins of power. “He was content to let chance and other persons direct his course,” sniffed one of his contemporaries.
Even when Fillmore was finally bullied and cowed into making a decision, it was inevitably for the worse. His support for the Compromise of 1850 may have helped stave off the Civil War for another decade, but its inclusion of the Fugitive Slave Law -- which allowed escaped slaves in the North to be forcibly returned to the South and slavery -- was a disastrous miscalculation.
Despised by the North and discarded by the South, Fillmore was as dead a duck as the White House has ever accommodated. When it came time for the next election, he was rejected by his beloved Whig party, despite being the incumbent, and when he ran for the presidency again four years later, it was at the head of the rabidly anti-Catholic Know Nothing party. Cartoonists rejoiced. He received “a very light vote.” Fillmore spent the last 20 years of his life in self-imposed exile from public life. In 1860, he wrote that he was “the world forgetting; and by the world forgot.”
In his time, some praised his good-natured demeanor -- “the best loser of the day,” opined one friend. “No citizen ever bore defeat, disappointment and disillusionment with more dignity and equanimity.” The problem, stated the New York Times in his obituary, lay in the president’s “mental constitution rather than his lack of moral principles.”
Posterity, when it has deigned to remember him, has been even harsher toward Fillmore than his peers. American History Review declared that he had “neither brains nor gall.” American Heritage magazine said that “to discuss Millard Fillmore is to overrate him.” Even the White House’s official website (www.whitehouse.gov) damns him with the faintest of faint praise: “Millard Fillmore demonstrated that through methodical industry and some competence an uninspiring man could make the American dream come true.”
Historians looking to unearth behavioral quirks to help illuminate his presidential failings have searched in vain. Rarely has a president’s life been so devoid of intrigue or gossip. He engaged in none of the sexual escapades of Thomas Jefferson, nor suffered from the depression of John Adams. He never smoked or chewed tobacco, gambled only once and was fond of boasting that he “never knew intoxication.” By comparison, Fillmore makes Jimmy Carter look like Richard Nixon.
On Presidents’ Day we are so used to praising the wisdom and courage of Washington, Lincoln, a Roosevelt or two, that we expect their qualities to go hand in hand with the office itself. However, the office can’t transform its occupant into a great leader. Rather than alter character, the presidency tends to magnify it: the good become great; the bad become wicked, and the venial flaws of the mediocre swell and bloat to become moral and political catastrophes. Being a likable, blundering, normal guy, with a good head of hair (and Fillmore had one of the best in White House history) is simply not enough.
Of course, Fillmore isn’t the only bumbler we’ve elected president. After all, it is statistically improbable that all presidents will be good, and because we must resign ourselves to the fact that mediocre presidents are a natural occurrence, we really ought to celebrate Fillmore today.
As underwhelming as it is, his story shows us that while the office of the presidency is surprisingly indiscriminate, it remains -- despite the best efforts of some of its occupants -- remarkably indestructible.