April 4, 2007


Giving Millard Fillmore His Due: a review of The Remarkable Millard Fillmore by George Pendle (CARL ROLLYSON, April 4, 2007, NY Sun)

Millard Fillmore (1800-74), 13th president of the United States, a lawyer, and a Whig, lost a race for New York governor in 1844, ran as Zachary Taylor's vice president in 1848, and became president in 1850 after Taylor died. Ridiculed as a bumbling figure and denied re-nomination in 1852, he ran for president on the Know-Nothing Party ticket in 1856, carrying only the state of Maryland.

When George Pendle announced at the Biographer's Club in Washington, D.C., that he had decided to write about Fillmore, Carl Sandburg snorted, "You idiot, that pecker never did a damn thing in his life!" The normally well-behaved Arthur Schlesinger Jr. cut off Mr. Pendle's retreat to the club door, grabbing the top of his underpants and hoisting them halfway up the biographer's back.

Undeterred, Mr. Pendle discovered that his subject led an adventurous life; stowing away on a battleship bound for Japan; befriending a Native American tribe who in turn adopted him; discovering gold in California; daring to correct Queen Victoria's English; fighting at the Alamo; and shepherding slaves to freedom along the underground railroad.

"The Remarkable Millard Fillmore" is documented in Fillmore's journals (volumes 1-53, another of Mr. Pendle's discoveries), in addition to a cache of unpublished letters -- and perhaps most important of all, a collection of Fillmore's napkin doodles. With so much new primary material, no wonder, as Mr. Pendle's publisher notes, historians have been in an uproar, contesting this radically revisionist history.

Does Fillmore merit all the ridicule?: 13th U.S. president has often been the target of mockery (Thomas Vinciguerra, 3/18/07, New York Times)

So why does everyone beat up on Millard?

"I'm not sure," said Michael F. Holt, professor of American history at the University of Virginia and author of "The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party." "I think he's gotten a bum rap. At least no one accused him of being an alcoholic like Franklin Pierce."

The most obvious explanation was his first name, said Tyler Anbinder, chairman of the George Washington University history department and author of "Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s." It didn't help, he added, that Fillmore was the 1856 presidential nominee of the American Party, a k a the Know Nothings.

"Combine his name with that name and he's doomed," Anbinder said.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 4, 2007 12:01 AM

"Fighting at the Alamo?" Didn't all those people get killed?

Posted by: Brandon at April 4, 2007 11:08 AM

"Napkin doodles" as primary source material? I need a rollieyes icon please.

Posted by: Dave W at April 4, 2007 4:51 PM

"Napkin doodles" as primary source material? I need a rollie-eyes icon please.

Posted by: Dave W at April 4, 2007 4:53 PM