Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Millard Fillmore by Paul Finkelman another fine entry in the American Presidents series

Book 61: Millard Fillmore by Paul Finkelman

Sadly, the American Presidents series from Times Books is coming to an end. Less than a handful of books remain to be issued. 

The most recent in the series is Millard Fillmore by Paul Finkelman.  To me, this book encompasses all that has been good about the series.

First, the series provides us with brief biographies on each of the Presidents. The books are small, generally running less than 200 pages.  Second, while providing an overview of each man's life, the books focus on their tenure as President.

Third, the books are uniformly well written and impeccably researched. There have been stand-outs such as Elizabeth Drew on Richard Nixon, but all of the books have met a high mark; erudite, but not plodding; balanced rather than tendentious.

Finally, and here is where Millard Fillmore is a fine example, the books have featured ALL the presidents and not merely Washington or Lincoln, Adams or Jefferson or Kennedy.  Martin Van Buren, Warren G. Harding, John Tyler and, of course, Millard Fillmore.

Fillmore is what Finkelman calls an "accidental president." Zachary Taylor dies in office and Fillmore, an obscure politician from New York, ascends to the presidency.  He was also a terrible president, generally deserving the anonymity with which history greets him.

Fillmore was a doughface, a Northern who sympathized with Southern causes, especially slavery.  He was stubborn, vindictive and a bigot. The 1856 Presidential nominee of the Know Nothings, he opposed Catholics, immigrants and foreigners of every stripe. While President his support for the Fugitive Slave Act and its aggressive enforcement helped escort this nation into civil war.

"In retirement, Fillmore opposed emancipation and campaigned for a peace that would have left millions of African Americans in chains," Finkelman concludes. "In the end, Fillmore was always on the wrong side of the great moral and political issues of the age: immigration, religious toleration, equality, and, most of all, slavery."

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