Millard Fillmore: Life Before the Presidency

Millard Fillmore: Life Before the Presidency

Millard Fillmore came into the world just one week into the nineteenth century. His large, desperately poor family knew little but struggle and failure. Nathaniel and Phoebe Fillmore had originally lived in Vermont, but by the time of Millard's birth on January 7, 1800, they had settled in upstate New York on a farm between Syracuse and Ithaca. The boy was the second of eight children and the eldest son. Farming the lean, rocky soil of Cayuga County proved to be a losing proposition, and the family often went hungry. While Millard had very little schooling as a young child due to the demands of the farm, he displayed both curiosity and ambition.

Thinking his son needed a trade and perhaps relishing the prospect of one fewer mouth to feed, Nathaniel Fillmore arranged an apprenticeship for Millard when the boy became a teenager. A cloth maker paid the family a small sum, took the boy to another town, and worked him nearly to an early grave. Millard detested the drudgery of the cloth trade. Barely able to read, he used his meager funds to buy a dictionary, stealing looks at it when the cloth maker's attentions were elsewhere. The apprenticeship amounted to little more than slavery, and the experience no doubt had considerable impact on an issue that would dominate Fillmore's political life. The young man borrowed thirty dollars and used it to buy his freedom from the apprenticeship. Millard then walked home to the family farm, which was one hundred miles away.

Escape from Poverty

Back home, Millard resolved to somehow gain an education. He pored over any book he could get his hands on and attended school in a nearby town. The teacher there, a highly intelligent, well-read young woman named Abigail Powers, would be the greatest influence on his life. Just nineteen, not even two years older than Millard, Abigail was probably the first person to encourage his ambition to become anything but a farmer or a tradesman. She loaned him books, challenged him to study difficult subjects, and cheered him on. Nathaniel Fillmore, meanwhile, finally saw that his son might have meant what he said about wanting to become a lawyer and arranged a clerkship with a local judge that would also allow Millard to study law. The teenager attacked the difficult bookwork with untiring relish, teaching school to support himself. He also began courting Abigail Powers. Impressed with his work ethic and aspirations, she accepted his engagement proposal in 1819.

About this time, Fillmore's family gave up their troubled farm and moved to East Aurora, a town near Buffalo. The young man moved with them, taught school and clerked, and gained admission to the New York bar in 1823. He opened a law practice in East Aurora and married Abigail Powers in early 1826. She counseled and advised her husband in his career, and the young lawyer prospered. The couple would have two children—a boy, also named Millard, in 1828, and a girl named Mary four years later.

The Gateway to Politics

A few months after the marriage, a strange incident catapulted Fillmore into politics. Many of the era's ruling politicians were Freemasons, including General Andrew Jackson, the most popular man in America at the time. A man named William Morgan, a disaffected Mason evidently readying an exposé of the organization, was allegedly kidnapped and never seen again. Widespread suspicion arose that Masonic interests were behind Morgan's disappearance, and soon an Anti-Masonic Party arose to combat the fraternal order's political influence. One hotbed of the new party lay in western New York, and Fillmore joined it.

Not even thirty years old, articulate, tall and stately, Fillmore had already become a highly respectable figure in his area, and the fledgling party's leadership approached him about running for the New York state legislature. In 1829, he began his first of three terms in the state assembly. The driving force behind considerable legislation, he focused particular energy on the issue of debtor imprisonment. In that era, it was common to throw people who were unable to pay debts into prison. No doubt remembering the poverty he had so recently escaped, Fillmore worked hard to pass laws forbidding such incarcerations. Such policies played well with citizens in his district, and they elected Fillmore to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1832.

At that time, Andrew Jackson was President. Anyone who saw Jackson as power hungry and abhorred the policies he pursued gravitated toward the Whig Party. By 1834, Fillmore's increasingly marginalized Anti-Masonic Party had merged with the Whigs. One of its leaders in New York was newspaper publisher Thurlow Weed, who had been an Anti-Masonic leader and had helped with Fillmore's political climb. Joining the Whigs before Fillmore, Weed quickly took over the New York organization of the new party. Weed, who was deeply opposed to slavery, supported an agenda that was increasingly at odds with Fillmore's. Fillmore was also opposed to slavery in principle but thought that compromise was essential to resolving the issue.

Fillmore was reelected to Congress three times between 1837 and 1843. During his last term, which spanned from 1841 to 1843, he was named chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which dealt with tax and financial issues. He was aligned with the beliefs of Whig Party leader Henry Clay on the one issue eclipsing all others in that day—slavery. Both Fillmore and Clay were convinced that only compromise could keep the nation whole. Late in this congressional term, Fillmore also oversaw implementation of a high tariff intended to protect imports.

In 1843, Fillmore left the House in hopes of gaining the Whig vice presidential nomination for 1844 and joining Henry Clay on the ticket. Thurlow Weed convinced—or, more accurately, ordered— Fillmore to run for governor of New York instead. In a close race, Fillmore lost, a defeat he blamed on abolitionists, recent Catholic immigrants, and Thurlow Weed. Feeling that Weed had undermined his candidacy, Fillmore broke with the party boss. In the end, Clay lost the presidential election to Democrat James Polk. Being out of a job, Fillmore looked for an opportunity that would keep him in politics. In 1847, he won election as New York's comptroller, or chief financial overseer. Fillmore's winning margin over his Democratic rival was so wide that he was instantly seen as a leading Whig candidate for the upcoming 1848 national campaign.