1800?1874, 13th President of the United States (July, 1850?Mar., 1853), b. Locke (now Summer Hill), N.Y. Because he was compelled to work at odd jobs at an early age to earn a living his education was irregular and incomplete. He read law in his spare time and was admitted (1823) to the bar. After practicing law in East Aurora, N.Y., until 1830, he settled in Buffalo. Thurlow Weed made Fillmore a lieutenant in the Anti-Masonic party, and with Weed's support he served in the New York state assembly (1829?31) and in the U.S. House of Representatives (1833?35). In 1834 he joined the Whig party
and was reelected three times (1836, 1838, 1840) to the House. When the Whigs came into national power in 1840, Fillmore became prominent in his party. As chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, he promoted the high tariff of 1842. He was considered (1844) for the vice presidential candidacy, but instead became Whig candidate for the governorship of New York. His defeat by Silas Wright
in a close contest was caused by the split between proslavery and antislavery Whigs. With Henry Clay's backing, Fillmore was nominated (1848) for Vice President on the Whig ticket with Zachary Taylor
. As Vice President, Fillmore presided with notable fairness over the Senate during the turbulent debates of 1850. Succeeding to the presidency upon Taylor's death, he encouraged and then signed the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act. He tried to enforce the measures despite the criticism his course evoked from the North. Cheaper postal rates were introduced during his administration. He appointed Daniel Webster
Secretary of State, emphasized nonintervention in foreign disputes, and approved the treaty that opened Japan to Western commerce. He unsuccessfully tried to make the Whigs a national party that, by occupying middle ground on the issue of slavery, could conciliate North and South and prevent extremists from gaining power. Neither he nor Webster could win the support of the Whig convention in 1852, and the nomination went to Gen. Winfield Scott
, representative of the more radical antislavery element. With the division of the Whigs over the slavery issue and the party's consequent rapid decline, Fillmore's political career came to an end. He joined the Know-Nothing movement
in the vain hope that it might unite North and South, and he accepted (1856) the nomination of that group for the presidency, being endorsed also by the small remnant of the Whigs. He opposed Lincoln's election and his Civil War administration and supported Andrew Johnson's stand against radical Reconstruction measures, but he took no active part in the controversies over these issues.
See biographies by W. L. Barre (1856, repr. 1971), R. J. Rayback (1959, repr. 1992), and R. Scarry (1965, repr. 1970).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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