Review of Robert J Rayback’s Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President

Published for the Buffalo Historical Society, this 1972 edition sheds a positive and honest light on our 13th President, who, as stated in the preface, “possessed extra-ordinary strength of character and an enviable tenacity of purpose –as well as an admirable character…” Starting with his humble and hard beginnings in New York state, Rayback, resurrects the life and work of a President whose public profile, again according to the preface, “was the product of the reports of his enemies” rather than the challenging and essential work of good scholarship and writing.

Of note to this reader, were the back cover comments of the 33rd President Harry S Truman who stated, “in my studies of the Presidency, I found that Millard Fillmore’s papers were almost completely destroyed by his son…” And, as a result the challenge to Rayback to find legitimate sources to tell Fillmore’s story. He notes Truman’s claim of destruction but goes on to note that in 1911 approximately “8,500 pieces – mostly incoming correspondence during the Presidential years – were discovered in a Buffalo attic.”

The second Vice-President, within less than a decade, to ascend to the White House upon the death of the President, Zachary Taylor, Fillmore suddenly finds himself as President having to decide which way he would go regarding the great debate on the Compromise of 1850. Rayback traces the winding path Fillmore would take to keep the Unites States together while attempting to satisfy the increasingly sectional partisanship that would eventually overcome all “national” views and lead to civil war. He would take the path of keeping the Union together and support the Compromise.

The book also provides a wonderful look at the emerging and transitional shape of the American Political Party system. Rayback’s original intention was a study of the Whig party and this is given focus in the book because of Fillmore’s desire to maintain party unity at all costs.

A well-documented book with numerous footnotes and written in a very engaging style, Rayback’ biography of the 13th President, who decides not to run in 1852, but again in 1856, is a very good look at a very tumultuous period in American life, the two decades leading up the American Civil War. His treatment of Fillmore’s early life, and his rise to not power, but service for the Union, is well documented.

A book worthy to be a part of your Presidential reading.

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