Humble beginnings marked the life of the 13th president of the United States. Born in 1800 in a log cabin in the wilderness of Cayuga County, N.Y., Millard Fillmore’s nearest neighbor lived four miles distant.
Books in the Fillmore household consisted of an almanac, Bible and hymnal — the lot representative of many poor, rural families of the era. Religion, however, played no discernible role in the Fillmore family.
The son of a hardscrabble farmer, a young Millard sought a better life. Lacking education, at the age of 17 he obtained a dictionary, reading it eagerly. In 1819 he attended a nearby academy, where he fell in love with his teacher, Abigail Powers, two years his elder.
Ambitious and determined, Fillmore soon apprenticed as a lawyer. Admitted to the bar in 1823, he set up practice in East Aurora. Millard and Abigail married in 1826, followed by Fillmore’s election as an attorney for the state’s supreme court and his entry into local politics.
An elected member of the New York State Assembly from 1828 to 1831, Fillmore wrote and secured passage of a state law abolishing imprisonment for debt.
He also sought to repeal a colonial-era law requiring state court witnesses to swear belief in God and the afterlife. Proclaiming the law “absurd” and based upon “the narrow feeling of prejudice and bigotry,” Fillmore nonetheless failed in his quest to separate religion from state in the court system.
Moving to Buffalo in 1830, he became a charter member of the city’s new First Unitarian Society, evidencing his religiously liberal and tolerant bent. Abigail, raised a Baptist, declined to join the Society.
A rising political star, Fillmore won election to and served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1833 to 1835 as a National Republican. Declining to run for re-election, he switched loyalties to the Whig Party, the short-lived National Republican Party having dissolved. New Yorkers returned Fillmore to the House from 1837 to 1843 as a northern, moderately anti-slavery Whig.
During his six-year stint as a Whig congressman, Fillmore supported Morse’s telegraph, cutting-edge technology of the day. Slavery, a centuries-old practice from colonial days, he opposed.
Fillmore opposed efforts to annex Texas as a slave territory, allied with John Quincy Adams (then a congressman) in an unsuccessful attempt to allow congressional anti-slavery petitions, opposed slave trade between states, and sought the eradication of slavery in the nation’s capital.
Although supported by many northern abolitionists, Fillmore failed to secure the Whig nomination for the presidency in 1844, the party’s southern wing being pro-slavery. Returning to New York, he served as the first chancellor of Buffalo University and comptroller of New York.
National affairs turned his way in 1848 as Whigs, nominating the southern slaveholder and war hero Zachary Taylor as president, selected Fillmore as their vice-presidential candidate to placate anti-slavery northerners. The Taylor-Fillmore ticket won the 1848 election.
Upon the sudden death of Taylor on July 9, 1850, Fillmore ascended to the presidency, the second from New York to attain the office.
Hoping to position the Whig Party in the political center of the national slavery controversy, President Fillmore backed a series of proposals, known as the Compromise of 1850, designed to reduce friction between northern and southern states.
The five parts of the Compromise consisted of: 1) admission of California into the Union as a free (non-slave) state; 2) abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia; 3) organization of Utah Territory under popular sovereignty, thus allowing citizens to vote on slavery within the territory; 4) an expanded Fugitive Slave Act requiring federal officials to arrest escaped slaves and return them to their owners; and 5) the selling of some Texas lands in order to pay off the state’s debts.
Of the Compromise, Fillmore said: “God knows that I detest slavery, but it is an existing evil, for which we are not responsible, and we must endure it, and give it such protection as is guaranteed by the Constitution, till we can get rid of it without destroying the last hope of free government in the world.”
Yet, rather than ushering in a truce regarding slavery, the Compromise angered both North and South. During the 1852 presidential campaign, Fillmore’s unpopularity with northern Whigs for having signed the Fugitive Slave Act prevented his nomination as the party’s candidate.
The Whigs subsequently lost the election to Democrat Franklin Pierce. In addition, Fillmore suffered personal loss in the death of his wife Abigail in late 1852 and his daughter Mary Abigail shortly thereafter.
Following defeat in 1852, the Whig Party, unable to project a coherent position on slavery, dissolved. Nominated for the presidency in 1856 by the American Party, Fillmore ran a passive campaign. Ignoring the party’s Nativist platform, he nonetheless lost in resounding fashion.
The last Whig president and the only American Party presidential candidate, Fillmore retired from national politics. Returning to Buffalo, he expressed relief to be “no more harassed with the cares of state.”
Religiously, Fillmore remained an enigma. In an 1849 letter declining an invitation to speak at a Boston Unitarian church meeting, he declared: “I sympathize with those who enhance liberal Christianity. But yet I am not a member of the Unitarian church.”
Nonetheless, as president he sometimes attended Washington’s Unitarian Society. During an 1855-56 tour of Europe, the former president allegedly told an Englishwoman, “The more we forget station in religion, the nearer we are to Christianity.”
In 1861 Fillmore accompanied president-elect Abraham Lincoln for a visit to Buffalo’s Unitarian church. Yet in his extensive writings Fillmore rarely referred to God, and never in a personal manner.
Regardless of his personal religious views or lack thereof, during the 1856 presidential campaign Millard Fillmore expressed unequivocal support for America’s heritage of church-state separation, repeatedly declaring, “In my opinion, Church and State should be separate, not only in form, but fact — religion and politics should not be mingled.”
On the political front, a post-presidential Fillmore opposed Lincoln’s anti-slavery Republican Party and the Emancipation Proclamation. After the war he supported Andrew Jackson’s conservative Reconstruction policies. Moderately anti-slavery as president, in later life he could not accept racial equality.
No final religious words attended Fillmore’s deathbed. But upon his passing on March 8, 1874, Buffalo’s Unitarian minister claimed that in a letter the newly-elected president had indicated “how deep he felt his dependence on God, and with all his heart sought his guidance.”
Future generations were left to struggle with the religious enigma of Millard Fillmore. NFJ
By Bruce Gourley
These are the 13th and 14th in a series of articles by historian Bruce Gourley on the religious faith of U.S. presidents. Gourley is online editor and contributing writer for Nurturing Faith Journal and executive director of the Baptist History & Heritage Society. His latest book, Baptists and the American Civil War: Crucible of Faith and Freedom, a compilation of articles from the recent series on Baptists and the American Civil War, is available from Nurturing Faith.