Book: The American Presidents: Millard Fillmore
Author: Paul Finkelman
1. Date- By now you’ve been following the blog so intently (right?) that you are tired of outdated volumes of centuries past. Time to get into the 21st. What better way to ring in 2011 than with the man who is probably most foreign and unknown to the modern reader. There should be no surprise here. It is easy to see why a half century has passed since someone revisited the work of Robert Rayback and other Fillmore revisits. At a time we fondly remember a triumph over secession or dramatic strikers, Finkelman brings us the wallowing and indecisive Fillmore. His legacy is one of deference and inaction, hardly the Lincoln-esque heroes lionized from the antebellum or Civil War era. Make no mistake, giants of this era Grant, Stonewall, Lee etc. are well known even to the casual history fan. Finkelman makes it clear history is not kind to Fillmore. Calling him “thoroughly unsuccessful” and a “failure” Finkelman provides the presidential reader with the perspective of modern distaste. Anyone looking for a revisionist history or apologist for a man that seemed to epitomize a less than glamorous American past will find little in this 2011 work. There are some inherent flaws with such a contemporary look. A very recent perspective can be unduly harsh and too willing to judge with a modern look. Not necessarily a bad thing, though. Fillmore doesn’t exactly having any hope of his stock rising anytime soon. Finkelman backs this brief volume up with a well researched if slightly biased biography. Too soon?
2. Scope- Finkelman, like all authors in the American Presidents project, sticks almost entirely to the cradle to grave model. While the length is much to be desired (more on that later) there is a consistent and dedicated goal of each book in the American Presidents series. The goal is to provide a traditional biography that covers the life of a president and not just an essay on the times or a deep dive into the presidency. Accordingly, this Fillmore work provides a rare straight scope for such an obscure president. Though his presidency is brief, Finkelman does spend a considerable of time in the pre-presidency before briskly rounding out the post-presidency. The scope is total though it does feel like a superficial ride with only minor looks at his family and his political contemporaries. Finkelman at times feels like he is checking boxes along the way and it makes it tough to separate the important from the anecdotal besides obvious benchmarks like his presidency and slavery. Did I mention slavery? Hope you enjoy discussions on the topic because Finkelman does. Though certainly within the bounds of scope Finkelman brings slavery across the entire narrative and chooses to let the topic dominate Fillmore’s life story. Ironically, this was the very issue that Fillmore spent a lifetime trying to keep on the backburner. His failure to do so perhaps makes Finkelman’s razor sharp focus even more profound. Scope is total but scope does not equal depth.
3. Author- Another benefit to having a modern book is that Paul Finkelman is not nearly as obscure as some other authors in the Project. In fact, he is a quite prominent author of many antebellum works including Slave and the Founders and more than 25 works dealing with history and race relations.
As the clip above shows in abundance, Finkelman is one of the most highly respected historians in modern scholarship. In addition to appearing in major American newspapers, he is also a go to for historical documentaries from Ken Burns to films regarding Barry Bonds. Though his academic career has spanned many subjects, the 1850s has always been his specialty which makes his selection as Fillmore’s biographer a tremendously sound choice. Though he has many that disagree with him, his opinion is regarded as sound and respectful and a perfect voice for the complicated time that he has dedicated his career to understanding. His only flaw that comes with being so renown is that his often clear hatred of slavery can cloud his perspective. Instead of tackling slavery as a complex and tragic grey area as many historians tend to do with subjects antebellum, Finkelman gave Fillmore the for/against argument and based his entire criticism on the fact that Fillmore was in the negative. This bias made this work fall from glimpses of greatness.
4. Length- 171 pages of Millard Fillmore. I’d imagine for most, this is 171 pages too many. For the Project, this entry ranks right at the bottom for shortest work allowed to be included. At publication of this post in the Spring of 2015, there seems to be no other choice for a second Fillmore entry. After consulting many other partner blogs and similar projects it was abundantly clear that the cradle to grave narratives so desired by the Project only appeared twice for the 13th President from Buffalo. Not to say that the American Presidents series is anything short of respectable. It is a series that has covered each President entirely and has provided an unprecedented look “compact enough for the busy reader, lucid enough for the student, authoritative enough for a scholar.” As a result there is a begrudging acceptance at the super brief work included here. However, the short length was not an out for Finkelman. As mentioned above, he spends nearly half the book addressing the slavery issue head-on even as his subject does everything possible to sweep it under the rug. With such a precious few pages seemingly available to Finkelman it does seem odd that he doesn’t address other gaps in Fillmore scholarship. For example, it seems there is no work too long or too short to mention either of his wives at length or his children. This possibly could have spotlighted the tragic early deaths so common in the day. Like slavery, these would have been great representative life events of Fillmore to further the story of the 1850s. Though it is a short work to begin with, this feeling of being truncated is all too obvious. So, yes, the busy reader will be thrilled with the compactness, but the students and scholars of Fillmore will finish the book wondering if any new ground was covered at all. Whereas, Rayback’s 470 page work seemed too long at times, this work definitely feels too short. Perhaps Fillmore will one day get the Goldilocks treatment.
5. Mission- It is impossible to analyze the mission of Finkelman’s work without understanding the book within its series. Beginning in 2004, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and Sean Wilentz sought out to recruit a new author for each president. With a varying degree of success they were able to cobble together an authoritative voice. The mission was to put modern eyes to the past. The books could bring a set of short biographies into Presidential scholarship to compliment those that are unwilling to slug through the 500+ page behemoths out there. Overall it is a success and has provided a perfect niche. Their selection of Paul Finkelman is a continuation of that. As mentioned above, he is a well respected scholar of the 1850s era and was able to continue the brisk publication of the works. This process is what has made the project so successful. As with all the works the mission provides a great service for Presidents such as Fillmore. With alluring titans as Jackson and Lincoln sandwiching the era, the string of mediocre (or failures) Presidents leading up to the Civil War rarely get a look. This is mostly because modern eyes go back and find these figures even more insignificant and repugnant than when we left them. However, without series such as these we would never check in and revisit from time to time. In essence we were all given the disheartening update. Fillmore was still a failure and America still teetered along without strong leadership. We are still waiting for their historical liberation. It does not look like it will ever come. Glad we checked up on old Milly.