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Author labels Fillmore a failure

Professor Paul Finkelman makes no excuses for Millard Fillmore or his presidency in his biography for the "American Presidents" series for Times Books. He readily describes the legacy of the 13th president of the United States as "disastrous and truly oppressive."

The reason can be summed up in just a few words: The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

Fillmore advocated passage of the law -- "truly evil" in its purpose, Finkelman says, "which he then aggressively enforces by demanding that people who don't support it are charged with treason."

In his book and in an interview, Finkelman doesn't equivocate about his views. He concludes "Millard Fillmore" (171 pages, $23) with "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."

He will be talking more about it Thursday at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society (founded -- some irony here -- by Fillmore after his retirement to his adopted hometown of Buffalo). The free event will run from 5 to 7 p.m. at the society's museum at 25 Nottingham Court.

Defenders of Fillmore contend he was a good man who meant well and was a product of his times, a man who professed to dislike slavery while constitutionally required to protect it.

Finkelman also sees Fillmore as a product of his times -- one who pandered to the most insular aspects of the changing nation, catering to a South intent on maintaining and spreading slavery into new U.S. territories, and to the fear of immigrants from other European countries.

His failed presidency resonates today.

"If you look at the hallmarks of Fillmore's life," Finkelman says, "he is constantly hostile to immigration; he is hostile to what would then be a threatening minority for the establishment, which was Catholics. If Catholics were a race, you would say he was a racist against Catholics. When he ran for president [in 1856] as candidate for the 'Know-nothing Party,' he advocated for laws that no Roman Catholic should ever hold public office in the United States."

Fillmore also hoped to require that immigrants live in the United States for 21 years before being able to become citizens and that only native-born U.S. citizens could ever hold public office.

"You could say that Fillmore was our first Tea Party presidential candidate," Finkelman says.

"In fact, you could easily compare something like the [2010] Arizona immigration law to the fugitive slave law, setting up a system of law where people are arbitrarily seized and there's a presumption of their guilt -- if you could even call it guilt -- based on external factors."

Fillmore was an unlikely candidate to become such a vehement defender of the "right" of Southern slave owners. His family was relatively poor and he was self-educated, eventually going into law -- an early life roughly similar to that of Abraham Lincoln, Finkelman points out. He grew up in upstate New York, and lived most of his life outside of Washington in East Aurora and Buffalo.

After three unexceptional terms in Congress and a brief hiatus, Fillmore returned to Washington in 1849 as vice president and neglected subordinate to war hero President Zachary Taylor.

A year later, on July 10, 1850, Fillmore was sworn in as president after Taylor's unexpected death. He immediately fired all of Taylor's Cabinet and embarked on an administration defined by issues of expansion, immigration and slavery.

Fillmore was ill-prepared to deal with any of it, Finkelman contends. "Everyone assumes Fillmore was mayor of Buffalo," he says. "Had he been mayor of Buffalo, he might have been a better president."

Instead, Fillmore comes in for a scathing assessment of his administration and as a top candidate for the title "worst president ever."

"He was deeply hostile to blacks," Finkelman says, "and he never understands why his fellow New Yorkers are upset with him about the fugitive slave law."

And while his actions can't be blamed for the Civil War, they did "encourage extreme Southerners into thinking that they could get away with anything they want -- that Northerners would do the bidding of the South."

As part of a series about the presidency, Finkelman's book dwells little on Fillmore's comfortable retirement in Buffalo, where he played host at one time to President Abraham Lincoln and his wife, was chancellor for the new University of Buffalo and did, indeed, help start the historical society.

Also, while president, Finkelman says, "He does have some interesting ideas about opening trade with Japan and building a transcontinental railroad, but there's no execution on his part."

Fillmore served only through the end of Taylor's term. His obsession with slavery helped destroy the Whig Party and "Democrats swept into office," Finkelman says.

As Finkelman put it, "If there is a historical message in the presidency of Fillmore it's that people should take the office of vice president very seriously, and that if [candidates] care about the nation -- and they should -- and if they get elected, they ought to choose people who could step in and take over."

Finkelman is the President William McKinley Distinguished Professor at Albany Law School. McKinley, whose presidency ended with his assassination in Buffalo, was succeeded by his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, to better result.

e-mail: mmiller@buffnews.com

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