Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President — Robert J. Rayback

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With Harrison’s death a mere 8 years before Taylor assumed office, Millard Fillmore must have been blind-sided by Taylor’s death in 1850. That is remarkably unfortunate, and doubly so for the country who were landed in the position of having two highly underwhelming leaders in the form of Tyler and Fillmore thrust upon them, more as a consequence of the political manoeuvrings of party politics than any popular mandate. Wikipedia tells me that Millard Fillmore was “the only Whig president who did not die in office or get expelled from the party”, which I hadn’t considered until now. I’m not sure if that says more about Fillmore or the Whigs.

Fillmore found himself in the unfortunate position of becoming president just as the Compromise of 1850 was being discussed, and the slavery issue desperately needed tackling. He wasn’t the right man for the job. In his defence though, it’s not at all clear that Taylor would have fared better, and Pierce and Buchanan did a lousy job too. Fillmore was in a position he hadn’t wanted or expected, and did what he thought best to try to save the union. And you have to give him some credit for that. I think. He also had a good handle on foreign affairs, but beyond this I get little impression that there’s much to say about Fillmore.

Rayback’s biography suffered from a handful of problems. Firstly, his subject is relatively uninteresting, and the length of the book highlighted that. I think he could have lost at least 100 pages and the account would not have suffered. Secondly, the account itself is dry and technical which sits somewhat at odds with Rayback’s high opinion of Fillmore. If I had got a sense of Rayback’s enthusiasm for the man through the writing, this would have been a much better read. As it was, Rayback’s opinion seemed less merited than it should have. Finally, I don’t think Rayback prioritises material well. I prefer when biographers explicitly link episodes to character or build a clear chain of reasoning to help me understand the subject or a decision made in the moment, but I felt this biography left much of that work to the reader. In short, I suppose, this seemed more scholarly than I might have liked about someone in whom I have no scholarly interest.

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