10/11/13 - presidents lincoln and fillmore and their fathers

In today's selection - Millard Fillmore and Abraham Lincoln, the 13th and 16th U.S. presidents, were contemporaries in the early 1800s who both came from extreme poverty. However, they had very different relationships with their fathers, and Lincoln's relationship with his tyrannical father turned him into a "little engine of ambition" and influenced his view of slavery:

"[Millard Fillmore's] insecurity reflected his impoverished youth, poor education, and the status decline of his family when they lost their land. He was a poor boy from the sticks. His father was an unsuccessful farmer. He had only a year or two of formal education beyond the rudimentary elementary schools of Cayuga County. He was well read and always striving to appear better read, but his education lacked any intellectual rigor. Throughout his life he was a consumer of books so that he could constantly educate himself. He was always impeccably dressed -- perhaps the sign of a pretender trying to convince those around him that he actually belonged in polite society. He was, and always would be, cautious and conservative in his demeanor and style. Even in his personal life he must have been plagued by insecurities. It is true that he was a very handsome young man, but he was in love with a beautiful woman who came from a prominent, well-educated, and comparatively sophisticated family. He was the son of a dirt farmer, a self-educated factory apprentice who had somehow become a lawyer.

"In many ways Fillmore's life mirrors that of the other famous frontier president of this period, Abraham Lincoln. Both were from poor farm families, were largely self-educated, and became successful lawyers. But their differences and their ideological developments are more important than their similarities. As a boy Fillmore attended local public schools while working on the farm and found time to gain more education while apprenticed at the mill. His father wanted him to succeed, supported his educational strivings, found him his first law clerkship, and encouraged him all along the way. Fillmore had a loving and apparently emotionally comfortable home with two supportive parents. It was a home he could return to throughout his youth and young adulthood, even after he was admitted to the bar. In contrast, Lincoln's mother died when he was a child, and he had to struggle against a tyrannical father to gain an education. Growing up in rural Kentucky and Indiana, he had virtually no formal schooling, and his father discouraged him from getting any. Lincoln's father thought reading was a waste of time and a sign of laziness. While Fillmore returned home after being admitted to the bar, Lincoln could not wait to leave home at age twenty-one, and once gone he never looked back.

Millard Fillmore official portrait
Millard Fillmore Official White House Portrait
Abraham Lincoln official portrait
Abraham Lincoln Official White House Portrait
"The relationship of both men to politics is also revealing. Lincoln -- a 'little engine of ambition,' as his law partner William Herndon called him -- was always engaged in politics. He ran for public office before he married, secured a profession, or had a steady income. He became a lawyer after he was elected to office, and while his legal career made him economically comfortable, politics motivated him. Fillmore's approach to law and politics -- and to life itself -- was more plodding. He came to politics opportunistically, almost by accident, rather than by design. He might have happily remained a successful lawyer and civic leader in Buffalo. Lincoln hungered for more. ...
"The most important contrast between the two concerns how work and servitude as young men affected their views as adults. By age eighteen, Lincoln was ready to strike out on his own, to earn his own living and continue on his lifelong course of reading and self-education. Under the law, he could not leave home until he turned twenty-one without his father's permission, which Thomas Lincoln would not grant. Lincoln always saw these last years of his legal 'childhood' as a kind of indentured servitude that mirrored the bondage of black slaves, which he saw on his famous rafting trip down the Mississippi. At twenty-one the emancipated Lincoln permanently left his father's house. Lincoln's profound antipathy to slavery -- he would famously write, 'if slavery is not wrong then nothing is wrong' -- stemmed in part from his own experience in a kind of temporary bondage from which there was no escape until he came of age. In sharp contrast, Fillmore strongly supported the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which was designed to prevent slaves from gaining their own liberty, even when, through their own ingenuity, they managed the arduous task of escaping to the North.

"Slavery would be the central issue in the political lives of both men, but their responses were dramatically different. In the end, Fillmore was prepared to give the South whatever it wanted to protect slavery, at whatever cost. Lincoln, who never compromised on stopping the spread of slavery before his presidency and never compromised on ending slavery after 1863, was always willing to negotiate with the South, but he never backed away from his core principles. Lincoln never deviated from his 'oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.' Fillmore had no such wish."


Paul Finkelman


Millard Fillmore


Times Books


Copyright 2011 by Paul Finkelman


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