The First Act of Millard Fillmore’s Unexpected Presidency
By Ken Zurski
On July 10, 1850, MILLARD FILLMORE unexpectedly became the Thirteenth President of the United States.
No one saw it coming, not the least of which was Fillmore, who had been vice president to Zachery Taylor at the time, a job he sought but ultimately didn’t think he would get.
Even Taylor, a popular military general, had reservations about running for president. But duty called. “If my friends deem it good for the country that I be a candidate,” Taylor obliged. “so be it.” Fillmore, not known as politically savvy or ambitious, was picked as Taylor’s running mate because he was more of a Whig, especially on slavery.
Once in the White House, however, Fillmore had little to do. The job held no great power or influence and only one vice president, John Tyler, had ever assumed the presidency unexpectedly, when the ninth president William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia just 31 days into his term of office.
In similar unexpectedness, just sixteen months into his own presidential term, Taylor was dead.
A bad stomachache and poor medical care did him in. A Stunned Fillmore took the oath of office and set the stage for what is considered to be one of the worst presidencies in history.
An attribution that was set with Fillmore’s first act as president.
As the story goes, immediately after Taylor’s death, the members of his cabinet, in ceremonial unity and respect, turned in resignation letters. They fully expected Fillmore to deny their requests. Their thinking was two-fold. For one, Fillmore was inexperienced. In another sentiment, he surely needed their help. Plus, Fillmore and Taylor were associates, not adversaries. Politically speaking, and in technicality too, they were all on the same team. Whether they personally liked the vice president or not, and most did not, a nation’s stability and Taylor’s legacy was at stake.
Clearly, Fillmore could grasp that, they thought.
They were wrong.
Fillmore accepted their resignation letters and in effect fired them all. But, he asked, could they stay on a month so he could appoint a new team.
Each one refused.