Being in the right place at the right time applies to no one better than it does our 13th president Millard Fillmore. Yep, Millard Fillmore. Quite the name, right? He was also referred to as an “accidental president” and, sadly, one of our most “forgettable.”
I’ll let you decide if that label is fair or not.
If you’ve never heard of Millard Fillmore, don’t worry, you’re not alone. He’s hardly ever mentioned in history classes anymore and a recent poll showed only 8% of students even knew he was a former president.
It’s actually a shame. For a man from such a humble and tragic beginning, that he rose to the top as president is actually quite remarkable. Accidental or not.
He’s our president of the week. He may not be our most memorable president but he sure got more than he bargained for when he signed on to be Zachary Taylor’s VP.
In many ways he was seen as Taylor’s opposite (think the opposite of Donald Trump) and only nominated as the VP candidate to balance the ticket geographically. Taylor and Fillmore never even met until after they were elected and didn’t seem to interact too much even after they were sworn in.
Just as well, since they only had a year together anyway. When President Taylor passed away unexpectedly, Millard Fillmore found himself our next president.
His upbringing is heartbreaking. He was born into a family that was dirt poor. Maybe even poorer than dirt poor. His tragic upbringing includes things like being born in a log cabin to failed farmer parents who often couldn’t feed him. Therefore, he was apprenticed to a cloth maker as a teenager, who paid the family a small sum for him.
Under his two year apprenticeship, he was severely abused and worked nearly to death–ironically, resembling the life of a slave. He bought himself his freedom and walked 100 miles back to his family farm where he vowed to educate himself and even resorted to stealing books to do so.
Life was rough.
Such hard times didn’t stop him though and only made him more determined to succeed in life. He fought his way through studying law (largely self-taught), and became a successful lawyer. Eventually he became both a state legislator and a congressman.
Millard Fillmore served as our “accidental president” from July 10, 1850 – March 3, 1853. He was our nation’s second president from New York.
Unfortunately, in his short two-and-a-half-year stint as president, he wasn’t known for much. Fillmore’s first act as president though was basically to pick a new cabinet since President Taylor’s all resigned (though some historians say he fired them all) when Fillmore succeeded.
One thing he did “accomplish,” was signing into law the Compromise of 1850 that his predecessor had vowed to hang people over if it ever was signed into law. All it seemed to accomplish though was delaying the Civil War by another decade.
The Compromise did several things: it admitted California as a free (non-slave) state, which made the North happy. It also established boundaries between Texas and New Mexico and basically said whether they were free or “slave holding” states was up to their state constitutions, not up to the federal government–the same with Utah. And, it enacted harsher slave laws, which made the South happy.
See, a compromise? The only problem was that it didn’t really make anyone happy for long and ultimately may have created more of a division.
The Fugitive Slave Act (the harsher slave law portion of the compromise) Fillmore signed was another sore spot of his presidency. The Act prohibited anyone from helping or harboring a runaway slave in any way (the punishment would be imprisonment). It denied slaves any due process and demanded that they be returned to slave territory whether they were guilty or not.
Fillmore wasn’t in favor of slavery exactly, but he signed it for fear of what the South would do if he didn’t. This made a lot of Northerners pretty upset, naturally.
Ultimately, it led to his downfall for re-election and the end of the Whig party (yes, it’s still around at this point). Fillmore had hoped it would unite the Whig party. It had the opposite effect and there went the Whig party. Darn.
Whig. He was the last of the Whig presidents and the last president not to be affiliated with the Democrat or Republican Party.
Abigail Fillmore. This probably wouldn’t go over too well today, but her husband had been one of her students. She was 19 and he was 17 when they met. He was her oldest pupil, her most determined, and he fell head over heals for his teacher.
The road to him becoming a lawyer apparently set their marriage back until he could afford it. Since they were so poor off financially after they were married, she continued working. She’s the first First Lady to have held a job after marriage. Shocking, right? It just wasn’t common back then. Also, he built Abigail a little cottage, that still stands today, with his own hands. This makes him, some say, the only president to build and live in his own house.
You can still visit the house in Aurora, New York, now a museum, and walk on the same floors that Millard Fillmore built.
The Fillmores had two children, a son and a daughter. Due to “delicate” health, she had her daughter serve as hostess for a lot of the White House functions. It’s said that Abigail spent most of her time reading. In fact, it was Abigail who is said to have selected a large number of the books that would be housed in the new White House library.
Sad story, after her husband lost his bid for re-election, she stood with him outside in a snowstorm during Franklin Pierce’s inauguration. She ended up catching pneumonia, going back to the Willard Hotel where they were staying, and dying just days later from it in the Willard Hotel (a beautiful, historic place I highly recommend staying at if you find yourself in the Washington, D.C. area).
President Fillmore had no vice president. Until the 25th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1967, there was no stipulation in place to who would serve as vice president should the office become vacant. So, when a president died in office and the vice president replaced him, there was usually no one to replace the vice president, which may not have bothered former President John Adams since he thought the office was pointless.
Why Millard Fillmore Is Cool
He may not be well-known as far as presidents go, but to rise to the top like he did is pretty cool, in my opinion.
Queen Victoria called him the most handsome man she had ever met, so at least he had that going for him. Also, take a good look at his face. Does he look familiar? Maybe a bit Alec Baldwinish? There’s quite the Internet buzz about it over the years.
Also, he was a big time introverted book worm. When he came into office, there wasn’t a permanent collection of books in the White House, so he had an official White House library set up.
At the time of his presidency, Utah (my home state) was just a territory. He made Brigham Young the first governor of the territory. I had no idea. Shows how much I know about my own state’s history. Also, anyone out there from Fillmore, Utah? It’s the county seat of Millard County. Apparently that was the capital of Utah for awhile (from 1851-1856). Take a guess who both the city and county were named after.
Lastly, his hometown of Buffalo, New York holds an annual tribute of sorts to him. He may not be memorable to the rest of the country, but his hometown loves him. Hospitals and colleges are named after him and they resent his somewhat forgettable status.
In our country’s 240 year history, nine vice presidents have unexpectedly taken over the office of president. Millard Fillmore, the “accidental president,” was the second vice president to do so (John Tyler was the first). Can you count the other seven without looking them up? Talk to your kids about the 25th Amendment and the succession to the presidency and how much different it was back when our country was still so new.
Next up: Franklin Pierce
I have this really awesome book I love that I bought in the Mount Rushmore gift shop. It’s a small, easy to read book aptly titled The Presidents of the United States of America. Find it here. It probably has the most thorough, in-depth summary of each president all neatly packaged into a single page for each. I love it!
Also, like I’ve mentioned before, the History Channel has an amazing documentary on the lives of each of our presidents. I’ve been watching it every single week. It is seriously fascinating. You can find it here. It’s a great watch for younger kids and especially any older kids who are learning about our American history. They also have a more condensed and less expensive version that you can find here. Both versions are great because they both have different information about each president.
*If anyone out there is still reading my list of sources, here’s an entertaining one. CBS did a profile on each president a few years back and they are gems and will make you laugh out loud. Here’s Fillmore’s.
Other sources are referenced throughout.
Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.