Millard Fillmore was born in a log cabin in Moravia, Cayuga County, in the Finger Lakes region of New York State, on January 7, 1800, to Nathaniel Fillmore and Phoebe Millard, as the second of nine children and the eldest son. He later lived in East Aurora, New York in the southtowns region, south of Buffalo. Though Fillmore's ancestors were Scottish Presbyterians on his father's side and English dissenters on his mother's, he became a Unitarian in later life.
Thinking his son needed a trade and perhaps relishing the prospect of one fewer mouth to feed, Nathaniel Fillmore arranged an apprenticeship for Millard when the boy became a teenager. A clothmaker paid the family a small sum, took the boy to another town, and worked him nearly to an early grave. Millard detested the drudgery of the cloth trade. Barely able to read, he used his meager funds to buy a dictionary, stealing looks at it when the clothmaker's attentions were elsewhere. The apprenticeship amounted to little more than slavery, and the experience no doubt had considerable impact on an issue that would dominate Fillmore's political life. The young man borrowed thirty dollars and used it to buy his freedom from the apprenticeship. Millard then walked home to the family farm, which was one hundred miles away.
Millard Fillmore struggled to obtain an education living on the frontier and attended New Hope Academy for six months in 1819. Later that year, he began to clerk for Judge Walter Wood of Montville, New York, under whom Fillmore began to study law. He fell in love with Abigail Powers, whom he met while at New Hope Academy and later married on February 5, 1826. The couple had two children, Millard Powers Fillmore and Mary Abigail Fillmore. After leaving Wood and buying out his apprenticeship, Fillmore moved to Buffalo, where he continued his studies in the law office of Asa Rice and Joseph Clary.
Millard Fillmore was admitted to the bar in 1823 and began his law practice in East Aurora where, in 1825, he built a house for his new bride. In 1834, he formed a law partnership, Fillmore and Hall (becoming Fillmore, Hall and Haven in 1836), with close friend Nathan K. Hall. In 1846, Millard Fillmore founded the private University at Buffalo, which today is the public University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, the largest school in the New York state university system. He served in the New York militia during the Mexican–American War.
In 1828, Fillmore was elected to the New York State Assembly on the Anti-Masonic ticket, serving three one-year terms, from 1829 to 1831. In his final term he chaired a special legislative committee to enact a new bankruptcy law that eliminated debtors' prison. As the measure had support among some Democrats, he maneuvered the law into place by taking a nonpartisan approach and allowing the Democrats to take credit for the bill. This kind of inconspicuousness and avoiding the limelight would later characterize Fillmore's approach to politics on the national stage.
Millard Fillmore later won election as a Whig to the 23rd Congress in 1832, serving from 1833 to 1835. He was reelected in 1836 to the 25th Congress, to the 26th and to the 27th Congresses serving from 1837 to 1843, declining to be a candidate for re-nomination in 1842. In Congress, he opposed admitting Texas as a slave territory, he advocated internal improvements and a protective tariff, he supported John Quincy Adams by voting to receive anti-slavery petitions, he advocated the prohibition by Congress of the slave trade between the states, and he favored the exclusion of slavery from the District of Columbia.
Fillmorecame in second place in the bid for Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1841. He served as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee from 1841 to 1843 and was an author of the Tariff of 1842, as well as two other bills that President John Tyler vetoed. After leaving Congress, Fillmore was the unsuccessful Whig candidate for Governor of New York in 1844. He was the first New York State Comptroller elected by general ballot, defeating Orville Hungerford 174,756 to 136,027 votes, and was in office from 1848 to 1849. As state comptroller, he revised New York's banking system, making it a model for the future National Banking System.
The Whigs selected the military hero General Zachary Taylor as their presidential nominee for the election of 1848. The nomination of a slave owner who held property in Louisiana, Kentucky, and Mississippi infuriated abolitionist Whigs from the North. The party decided to balance the ticket by putting a Northerner in the vice presidential slot. Hence, Fillmore was chosen.
The Taylor-Fillmore ticket won a bitterly fought election over the Democratic ticket led by Michigan senator Lewis Cass. Taylor and Fillmore were an odd match -- the products of very different backgrounds and educations and far apart on the issues of the day. The two men did not meet until after the election and did not hit it off when they did. In a short time, Fillmore found himself excluded from the councils of power, relegated to his role as president of the Senate.On July 4, 1850, after attending celebrations in Washington, D.C., Taylor contracted a virulent stomach ailment that may have been cholera. He died on July 9, and more than 100,000 people lined the funeral route to see the hero laid to rest. He left behind a country sharply divided and a vice president, Millard Fillmore, who supported the Compromise of 1850. In the end, Taylor had limited personal impact on the presidency, and his months in office did little to slow the approach of the great national tragedy of the Civil War.
As President, Fillmore strongly supported the compromise of 1850, a patchwork of legislation that would admit California as a new free state; organize New Mexico and Utah, the remainder of the Mexican Cession, as territories on the basis of popular sovereignty; and readjust the disputed boundary between Texas and New Mexico. The compromise also established a fugitive slave law that guaranteed that runaway slaves apprehended anywhere in the United States would be returned to their owners. Allying himself with the Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas and appointing the pro-compromise Whig Daniel Webster as his secretary of state, Fillmore engineered its passage. By forcing these issues, Fillmore believed he had helped to safeguard the Union, but it soon became clear that the compromise, rather than satisfying anyone, gave everyone something to hate. Under the strains of the failed agreement, the Whig Party began to come apart at the seams.
On the international stage, Fillmore dispatched Commodore Perry to "open" Japan to Western trade and worked to keep the Hawaiian Islands out of European hands. He refused to back an invasion of Cuba by a group of Southern adventurers who wanted to expand the South into a slave-based Caribbean empire. This "filibustering" expedition failed, and Fillmore took the blame from Southerners. At the same time, he offended Northerners by enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law in their region. Weary and dispirited, he tried to decline to run again but was prevailed upon to allow his name to be put forward—only to lose the nomination to General Winfield Scott. Shortly thereafter, his beloved Abigail died, followed by his twenty-two-year-old daughter Mary.
In 1856, he ran for election as the presidential candidate of the Whig-American Party, a fusion of the remaining Whigs and the anti-immigrant American (nicknamed "Know-Nothing") Party. He won the electoral college votes of Maryland and 21 percent of the popular vote. But the newly organized Republican Party, even in defeat, eclipsed Fillmore and the Whigs, winning 33 percent of the vote, and Fillmore's poor performance marked the end of his party. Millard Fillmore died of a stroke in March of 1874.