Friday, January 8, 2016

Rambling Thoughts about Millard Fillmore and Random Benefits of Reading History

The presidential biography reading project continues. But please remember as you read my “book reports” or rants as the case may be with our thirteenth president, that I am no scholar. I just want to write a few passing thoughts I have about these historical figures as I go. Plus, I can't help but think that after reading 137 pages about Millard Fillmore I know more than most people in my circles do about this poor excuse for a national leader. 

These days the presidents I'm reading are obscure, basically boring figures in their own right, but the time periods in which they served were anything but boring. They each in their own ways helped create the fertile environment that erupted into the Civil War—decades before the actual violence broke out. Fillmore is in no way an inspiring man about which to read, but I have enjoyed the way his biographer, Paul Finkelman, has written about the times. Finkelman has helped me to absorb the information that I have read multiple times in previous biographies. Reading in chronological order ensures that the same topics and events will be covered by different biographers and from different vantage points. Repetition is an educational tool.

Here's an excerpt about Millard Fillmore. It's really all you need to read to get a flavor for the man. Believe me, the casual reader is not going to be interested in any more than this. 

“Born in poverty, poorly educated, and utterly unsophisticated, Millard Fillmore is one of our most obscure presidents, and one of our worst. In 1848, this virtually unknown former congressman from Buffalo, New York, was elected vice president, and when Zachary Taylor died he became America's second 'accidental president.' He took office at a crossroads in America's history and his failures set the stage for the larger failure of politics that led to the Civil War. Fillmore pushed through the Compromise of 1850, obsessively enforced the oppressive Fugitive Slave Act, and was rejected by his own party, the Whigs, when he sought a full term of his own. Hostile to foreigners, non-Protestants, and abolitionists, he received his only presidential nomination in 1856, from the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party. He opposed Abraham Lincoln and was pro-slavery to the end; his neighbors in Buffalo considered in a traitor in the Civil War.”

I know I've written it before and it bears repeating. If you are feeling squeamish about the state of the country or the world these days, read some history. You'll be equal parts deflated and reassured by pretty much every era known to humankind. Why? Because the tomfoolery we are experiencing today IS NOT NEW. It feels new because we've only lived through this iteration of it. Reading history provides valuable time travel and the benefit of hindsight to understand what generations before us could not appreciate in their own time.

When one reads history, one is reminded that humans are humans are humans. It doesn't matter whether these people wore knee-high knickers and powdered wigs or trousers and tails, very human characteristics—insecurity, greed, selfishness, ignorance, ego—guide us no matter in which period of human history we live. And power or the pursuit of power magnifies these awful traits.

The excerpt above describes a president who both appalls me and helps me keep perspective on our current state of affairs. Whatever you may think of the past few decades' worth of men who have occupied the Oval Office, none could be reasonably described as the worst.

I've read this short volume pretty quickly because I am forcing myself to keep this project moving forward. (I do not want to be still in the midst of this project when I am 50—nine years from now.) But I have to say, besides the dry-ish material these biographers have had to work with, the time period makes me very sad. And sad reading makes for slow, apprehensive progress.

Before this project began, I would have said that everything about slavery was bad and distasteful and the Civil War was an egregious waste of human life for the Union and the Confederacy, but I wouldn't have been able to say much more about it than that.

Now I can tell you a little about the Fugitive Slave Act. It was an awful thing, and Fillmore's full support of it was even worse. It allowed slave hunters to whisk away black men and women who had long escaped captivity and thrust them back into a life of captivity and tortuous servitude without an opportunity to speak in their own defense. They had no chance to argue their cases, much less let their wives or families know what was happening before they were removed to the South. Many of these people had lived in the North for years. They had married, had children, jobs, and upstanding lives.

Northerners opposed the Act. They were affected by it too. They could find themselves in trouble with the law for having any sort of contact with a fugitive, even in cases where they had no idea that the person was a fugitive. 

Millard Fillmore was determined that the Fugitive Slave Act was followed to the letter of the law even though many people balked and asked for reasonable modifications. Nope. He wanted to be elected to his own presidency when Taylor's term was done, and he knew he needed the support of the South. Carrying out the Fugitive Slave Act so stringently was one way to accomplish that. Thank goodness his plans were thwarted and he didn't get the nomination. After he lost the Whig nomination, Fillmore joined the Know-Nothing party. Their platform was anti-Catholic. Fillmore said, “I have for a long time looked with dread and apprehension at the corrupting influence which the contest for the foreign vote is exciting upon our election.” Sound familiar?

I wonder if there's any chance that Millard Fillmore and Donald Trump are distant relatives. Since history has such an uncanny knack of repeating itself, I pray I won't have to one day read HIS presidential biography. There would be no valiant crossing of the Delaware captured in that one. 

To wrap up this post, I just want to say something about how reading history gives context to other reading I do. I am currently listening to the audio version of Elizabeth Gilbert's novel Signature of All Things, which is set during the 18th and 19th centuries. Her novel is a sweeping story that spans generations and happens to discuss the abolitionists of the 1840s and 50s. I can picture this time period and her characters so much more vividly now because of the context I have from these biographies. I love how such different reading materials have the power to inform one another.
I look forward with anticipation to what I'm going to learn or understand better when I read about Franklin Pierce. Stay tuned.

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