Millard Fillmore is perhaps the most obscure and least well-known former US president. So much so that his anonymity has become one of the defining features of his presidency, not to mention a common joke among historians. And yet, surprisingly, President Fillmore actually has a lot in common with the current occupant of the White House, Donald Trump. Rather ironically, Trump is now poised to become one of the most famous presidents of them all, in stark contrast to Fillmore’s obscurity.
Millard Fillmore served as the 13th President of the United States from 1850 to 1853. A member of the Whig Party, he is the last President to be neither a Republican or a Democrat. At first glance, the early life of Fillmore - born into poverty as the son of tenant farmers - is radically different to the privileged youth enjoyed by Donald Trump. The early days of his presidency, however, will sound far more familiar to the modern reader.
Upon the death of Zachary Taylor in 1850, Millard Fillmore ascended to the presidency. Immediately his administration fell into turmoil; feeling they had largely ignored and undermined him during his vice presidency, Fillmore dismissed each and every member of Taylor’s Cabinet. This caused huge divisions in the Whig party, who were forced to scramble to put together a new Cabinet as quickly as possible, and this echoes the polarisation of the Republican Party under the erratic guidance of Donald Trump.
In 1844, Fillmore ran for governor of New York, a state with a strong and growing antislavery sentiment. In theory, Fillmore is believed to have been opposed to slavery, with some historians suggesting he considered it ‘evil’. It is therefore curious that Fillmore’s campaign for the governorship almost entirely avoided confronting the issue of slavery, which was by far the most pressing moral issue facing American leaders at the time. I can’t help but think this reminds me, to some extent, of the way in which Trump handled the issue of Charlottesville in 2017, during which he shunned the responsibility of his office by refusing to properly confront a controversial subject. Both men thus appear, quite clearly, on the wrong side of history.
Unsurprisingly, Fillmore was not elected governor. In part, his lack of a clear position on slavery actually earned Millard Fillmore the vice presidency. He was chosen to balance Taylor’s ticket largely because he was seen as agreeable to both sides on the topic. As President, Fillmore signed The Compromise of 1850, undoing prior legislation which had banned slavery from taking place north of Missouri’s southernmost border. This also led to the Fugitive Slave Act, which gave law enforcement the mission to hunt and round up escaped slaves. Many northern communities attempted to resist this law, only to be criticised directly by the White House, in a manner eerily similar to Trump’s war on so-called ‘sanctuary cities’.
The best US Presidents have been unifiers. They have brought people together, for the good not only of America, but for the free world as a whole. Like Fillmore, Trump is a divider.
How will the Trump story end?
Well, at the end of Fillmore’s partial term as President, his party was fractured beyond repair, resigned permanently to the history books following a landslide defeat to the Democrats. From the ashes of the Whig Party there came a new, staunchly abolitionist Republican Party, led by the unifier Abraham Lincoln. As Lincoln led America through a devastating Civil War, caused in part by men like Fillmore and during which the union faced its toughest tests, all that was left for Fillmore to do was to shout from the sidelines.
If that’s not a role tailor made for 45, I don’t know what is.