Is Millard Fillmore, the 13th President of the United States, the least significant of all the commanders in chief? Or the most underestimated? Jared Cohen, author of Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America, has the answer.
No one was more surprised than Millard Fillmore when the Whig Party chose him to be Zachary Taylor’s running mate in the 1848 election.
Working as the comptroller (essentially the treasurer) of New York State at the time, Fillmore was well known in Washington. He had been a New York congressman for a decade. But the VP slot? Fillmore didn’t see it coming.
And he didn’t hesitate to say yes when offered the job.
On the surface, Taylor and Fillmore seemed to be a good fit.
Taylor had never run for elective office. He was the great hero of the Mexican-American War. When he wasn’t soldiering, he lived on a plantation in the Deep South.
Fillmore, a northerner, spent his professional life in politics.
Both had grown up on the edge of the frontier. Both were entirely self-made.
It was a marriage made in machine-politics heaven.
And it worked.
Well, to be more accurate, it worked for Taylor.
It didn’t work for Fillmore.
When they won the 1848 election, Fillmore figured that as Vice President he could dispense lucrative federal jobs to his supporters, securing his future as a major force in New York and maybe even national politics.
He also figured that with his knowledge of Congress and his vast experience in the political arena, he would be a trusted Taylor advisor.
He figured wrong on both counts.
Taylor gave him no access to patronage. He wasn’t interested in boosting Fillmore’s career in New York or anywhere else.
And Taylor did not bring Fillmore into his inner circle. The two men didn’t even meet until after the election. And when they did, they didn’t much like each other. It seems that their many differences on political issues, though assets during the campaign, were detriments after it. For example, Taylor, the Southerner, accepted slavery (though, to his credit, he did oppose its spread to new states), while Fillmore, the Northerner, opposed slavery.
Fillmore made one more miscalculation.
He never thought Taylor would die in office.
After dedicating the base of the Washington Monument on a very hot, humid day, Taylor returned to the White House with heat exhaustion. Then, the doctors got a hold of him. In the mid-19th century, this was not necessarily a good thing. Over the next few days, Taylor’s health got worse. He died on July 9, 1850. The doctors, trying all manner of nostrums, including bleeding him from the wrist, effectively cured him to death.
Fillmore—thanks to the precedent John Tyler established ten years before—suddenly found himself the thirteenth President of the United States.
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