By Jim O’Neal
Millard Fillmore, the 13th president, was the last not affiliated with either the Democrat or Republican parties. Born in a log cabin, he developed slowly since he did not read well and was apprenticed when he was 14 years old. After several years, he bought out his indenture for $30, but never saw a map of the United States until he was 19.
However, he learned to love books and spent a lot of time just reading.
Later, his entry into politics was through the New York State Assembly as an anti-Mormon candidate. Eventually, he made it into the U.S. House by following Whig Party policies. He even made a run at being the Whig Party VP candidate in 1844, but finished a weak third. Then, to top it off, he was defeated for governor of New York that same year.
It looked like his career had peaked.
However, his luck changed in 1848 when the Whigs picked General Zachary Taylor to run for president. Taylor was a slaveholder from Louisiana, had never run for office, and had never even voted.
Taylor and Fillmore had also never met, but the Whigs hoped Fillmore would help balance the ticket … a strategy that worked!
Vice President Fillmore was largely ignored when the administration finally took office. That is until President Taylor died unexpectedly and Fillmore was thrust into the Oval Office.
Alas, he gradually lost support of the Whig Party and was unable to generate a lot of support for reelection. One major cause was signing and then enforcing the proslavery Fugitive Slave Law, which alienated Northern Whigs.
During the 1852 convention, Fillmore made a valiant effort, but on the 53rd ballot, Winfield Scott finally prevailed as the Whig Party candidate. He would go on to lose the general election to Democrat Franklin Pierce.
In 1856, the American Party (“Know Nothings”) convinced Fillmore to make another run for the presidency; he won a single state. Curiously, many historians argue that Fillmore was never an actual American Party member, never attended a single meeting, and was even out of the country when all this happened.
All of this is true, but they overlook the fact that he did mail a letter affirming his acceptance of the nomination. So, I say he was an official candidate despite the unusual circumstances and the rather obvious lack of any real interest.
Fillmore often makes the “Forgettable Presidents” club … but we remember him because he was the first president to turn down an Honorary Degree … a Doctor of Civil Law from Oxford. His reason was a little hokey (he could not read or understand it since it was in Latin), but that only makes him more qualified for our club.
Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].