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Millard Fillmore: Forgotten

15/05/2017

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[00:05.97]
  • VOA Learning English presents America’s Presidents.
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  • Today we are talking about Millard Fillmore, the 13th president of the United States.
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  • Fillmore is also likely the least remembered president.
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  • He has been called “uninspiring” and having only “some competence.”
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  • But Fillmore provided an example of the American dream come true.
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  • He rose from a poor family to become a wealthy man.
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  • He was elected to Congress four times and nominated for vice president under Zachary Taylor.
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  • When Taylor unexpectedly died in office in 1850, Fillmore took his place.
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  • Other presidents’ campaigns, such as Andrew Jackson’s, had spoken proudly of their candidates’ modest beginnings.
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  • William Henry Harrison’s supporters especially linked him with the image of a simple house called a log cabin – even though William Henry Harrison was a wealthy man.
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  • But Millard Fillmore really was born in a log cabin. His family was poor.
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  • They raised him and his seven brothers and sisters in a rural part of New York State.
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  • Fillmore did not receive much education as a child.
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  • However, he was very interested in learning – so interested that he fell in love with his teacher, Abigail Powers.
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  • The two married after he launched his career as a lawyer.
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  • They had two children, a son and a daughter.
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  • Millard Fillmore soon entered politics.
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  • He won elections to the New York State Assembly, and then to the U.S. House of Representatives.
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  • After eight years in Washington, DC, Fillmore returned to New York.
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  • He failed to be elected governor, but succeeded to become comptroller of New York.
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  • In other words, he oversaw the state’s finances.
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  • At that time, Americans were preparing for another presidential election.
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  • President James Polk was retiring from the White House after only one term, as he had promised.
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  • The opposition party, the Whigs, nominated Zachary Taylor as their presidential candidate.
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  • Taylor, a popular war hero from the South, owned slaves.
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  • But the Whigs realized that many anti-slavery voters in the North would not support Taylor.
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  • Party leaders were looking for someone to balance the ticket – a Northerner voters would consider a friend of business.
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  • They found Millard Fillmore.
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  • In 1847, the Whigs nominated Fillmore as Taylor’s vice president.
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  • The two men had never met.
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  • And, when they did meet, they did not like each other very much.
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  • Taylor was short-legged, poorly educated, and rarely seemed concerned about his physical appearance.
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  • Fillmore was taller, learned, and elegant.
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  • Their personalities did not fit together any better than their appearances did.
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  • But a majority of voters liked them.
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  • The Whigs won the election, and Fillmore returned to Washington.
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  • As vice president, Millard Fillmore was the leader of the Senate.
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  • But President Taylor did not seek his advice on the major political issue of the day.
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  • At the time, both lawmakers and the public were debating whether the government should – and could – ban slavery in the territories the U.S. had gained after the war with Mexico.
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  • In general, Northerners did not want to permit slavery in new states.
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  • But many Southerners did.
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  • The debate was so heated that one of the Southern states, South Carolina, threatened to leave the Union.
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  • President Taylor did not want to expand slavery.
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  • To restrict it, he proposed a change to the rules so California and New Mexico could enter the Union quickly as slave-free states.
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  • But before Taylor’s idea could get too far, he became sick.
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  • Fillmore learned the president was not well and prepared for the worst. It came.
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  • Taylor died after being in office for only 16 months.
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  • The following day, Fillmore was sworn-in as president.
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  • One of Fillmore’s first acts as president was to show where he stood on the slavery issue.
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  • He appointed a man who opposed Taylor to secretary of state.
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  • That man, Daniel Webster – and others – wanted to pass a compromise bill on slavery.
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  • With Fillmore’s support, they succeeded.
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  • The Compromise of 1850 included several measures related to slavery.
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  • Two measures limited it: California was admitted as a free state, and the slave trade in Washington, DC ended.
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  • On the other hand, New Mexico and Utah were left open to slavery,
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  • and both the federal government and ordinary citizens were required to return suspected escaped slaves to their owners.
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  • That last measure, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, targeted even free African-Americans and enslaved people who had escaped to free states.
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  • The Compromise aimed to end the conflict between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces.
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  • But neither side was really satisfied.
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  • And President Fillmore did not help matters.
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  • He was personally opposed to slavery.
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  • However, he did not act on his beliefs.
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  • Instead, he tried to keep the South in the Union by strongly enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act.
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  • By the end of Fillmore’s three years in the White House, many members of his Whig party were angry with him.
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  • Party leaders did not nominate him again for the next election.
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  • But their chosen candidate was not successful either. Fillmore turned out to be the last Whig president.
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  • The end of Fillmore’s presidency included difficulty in his private life, too.
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  • His wife, Abigail, became sick on the day the next president was sworn-in.
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  • She died within a month.
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  • Soon after, Fillmore’s daughter died, too.
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  • To help deal with their loss, Fillmore tried to stay active in politics.
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  • In the presidential election of 1856, Fillmore served as the candidate for a new party -- the Know-Nothing Party.
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  • The Know-Nothings were strongly opposed to immigration.
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  • They especially wanted to limit the number of Irish Catholics who could come to the United States.
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  • Fillmore did not agree with the party’s anti-immigration policies.
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  • But he did not have a chance to put his opinions into policy.
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  • Fillmore finished third out of the three major candidates in the election.
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  • After that loss, he finally retired to the city of Buffalo, New York.
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  • There, Fillmore married a second time -- to a wealthy widow named Caroline McIntosh.
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  • He remained an important figure in the city’s charities and other causes.
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  • But the political situation in the country grew only more intense.
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  • Americans continued to be divided over the issue of slavery.
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  • Fillmore’s time in office and his compromise bill may have delayed but did not stop the American Civil War.
  • [10:53.62]
  • I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.
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