Book: Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President
Author: Robert J. Rayback
1. Date-Let’s go back in time. The 1950s were coming to a close and America was on the cusp of turning to a New Frontier. Perhaps this backdrop inspired Robert J. Rayback to publish a Millard Fillmore biography in 1959. A look at the 13th president was surely not overkill in scholarly circles. There was no drought in general. The centennial of the Civil War was fast approaching and biographies were aplenty for the common topics such as Lincoln and Grant. However, Rayback was not interested in the Greatest Hits. Instead, in this backdrop, Rayback published the first biography of Fillmore in decades and probably the most comprehensive work on the man since his death in the 1870s. It was not an easy choice. Fillmore lived through the Civil War, not as a heroic figure, but a complicated politician reacting to the revolutionary events of his lifetime. It may surprise readers to realize that becoming president does not guarantee scholarship. In fact, before Rayback’s work, the only full scale biography of Fillmore is a 1915 work that is repudiated by all standards of modern scholarship. It was also largely out of print by the 1950s. So the dust settles on this work that stands alone. For the full scale researchers, this is the latest and greatest. There really isn’t much other competition. Other works have appeared but none come close to a full scale cradle to grave narrative that Rayback provides in this volume and works that are sought for this Project. Facts are facts though. His work is outdated but still takes the top prize for Fillmore by default.
2. Scope- Rayback, knowing his role as having a blank slate, does a nice job of touching on the entire life of Fillmore. The need to go cradle to grave was certainly apparent. Though he may be obscure in many areas, Fillmore is well known in his native Buffalo for example. Knowing this, Rayback takes his time in the beginning of his work to show Fillmore’s upbringing in the emerging city. This is in addition to Buffalo as emerging in prominence in the nation he was destined to lead. The scope gingerly touches on the complicated pre-presidency though there could have been more discussion on political mentors or his emergence of thought. The skin deep approach can make Fillmore rather bland as opposed to tracking his steady but impressive rise to the top. The scope maintains a largely chronological scheme once Fillmore becomes president (not typical for this period of presidential biography) allowing his presidency to emerge along a logical timeline. Rayback also wisely focuses most of the discussion on the presidency on domestic policy. This (correctly) shows that while his foreign policy was indeed involved, it was the explosive 1850s domestic issues that dominated Fillmore’s reign as President. The solid scope continues after the presidency with an excellent and thorough discussion on the 20+ years of Fillmore’s post presidency. Overall, Rayback wisely uses the scope of his work to show how complex and complicated America had become where no easy answers were readily emerging to address unprecedented challenges.
3. Author- Maybe someplace somewhere Rayback and Fillmore are conversing. They can talk about how they tremendously contributed to their fields and now languish in anonymity and obscurity. As a professor at Syracuse University after decades of scholarship, Rayback attempted to academically tackle the unknown Millard Fillmore. Though his task of elevating Fillmore was somewhat successful, Rayback was not able to raise his own or Fillmore’s profile. Further information on his brief career as an author seems wanting and can only be found on friendly blogs. What little is known seems to heighten the credibility of Rayback as Fillmore’s preeminent historian and biographer. He came from a family of writers including his scholarly brother, Joseph Rayback, who was writing a biography on fellow New Yorker Van Buren upon his death in 1983. Both scholars valued the 19th Century antebellum actions of New Yorkers on the complex issues of slavery, immigration and America at mid-century. He would publish many articles, but this work on Fillmore would be Rayback’s only biographical work.
4. Length- At 470 pages, Rayback’s 1959 work on Fillmore definitely clears the hurdle of a canned short biography or flimsy middle biography. It covers much more of his subject’s life than Fillmore’s narrow life events. The story breathes into the surroundings of Fillmore’s America. However, there are definitely moments when the work feels constrained and incomplete. For example, there is little research or discussion into Fillmore’s family. Though typical of the era, Rayback chooses not to delve into his two wives or his two children. This would not be odd but Rayback himself calls one of his goals in this work is a “portrait” of Fillmore. Modern insinuation of a “portrait” pushes a work like this to go deeper than just a rough sketch of his personal aspects. Instead of Fillmore’s real family, Rayback chronicles Fillmore’s New York enemies and friends as the human connection in the subject’s life. In place of his wives there is extended discussion on New York titans Weed and Seward. Again, the mid-length biography only creates an extended narrative and not necessarily a deeper examination on how they made Fillmore into the man he became. Perhaps the maybe-never-produced larger Fillmore sketch is borne out of a deeper look at letters, stories and contemporary accounts that may bubble to the surface. I wouldn’t hold your breath.
Ho hum. Yet another forgotten and largely unknown president entered into the President’s Project. Like Fillmore’s predecessors, Taylor, Tyler and Harrison we again see that the presidency alone may not be enough to get a gigantic tome or scholarly gold. Rayback’s work is a prime example that the dull often get tossed aside for their dynamic and explosive contemporaries. There is no address or crowning moment of Fillmore’s or controversial moments that changed the tide of history. Quite simply, Rayback picked a man who was not decisive in his actions and a perfect manifestation of the wallowing of his times. He creates a portrait of a man who barely sought re-election, became president upon a sudden death and never led a charge into a brave new world. Instead, Rayback’s mission is to show that America was not all Lincolns and Grants, but full of Fillmores who were weary of new immigrants, bit the bullet of slavery to save the union and otherwise clung to the hope that radicals would lose and reason would win. It is a tall task and given the subject matter, Rayback does an impressive job of actually couching Fillmore’s anti-Catholic visions and his concessions to slavery. Rayback understands that the negative should not be whitewashed and that a true historian should read his work. Yet, all criticisms considered, Fillmore was president. That meant something to Rayback and he wants to tell (or gently remind) his audience that that will always be true. Sure, Fillmore was never elected. However, he was only 60 days shy of Kennedy’s tenure and outlasted Ford, Harding, Taylor, Garfield and Harrison. He was the last Whig president. All of these are stubborn facts and Rayback makes it his mission to make sure it is not forgotten. Sadly for Rayback’s legacy, there is little to no proof that Fillmore’s stock is rising to any sight of prominence. Truth be told, Rayback had a tall task but there is no sign that his work had any effect. I’ll update this if Speilberg buys the script based on his work. Must it be said again? Don’t hold your breath.