Fillmore & Castle: Political Ascendency & the Mirrored Ceiling

The seventh of January is the birthday in 1800 of Millard Fillmore, who in 1850 became the thirteenth President of the United States of America. Fillmore ascended to the Presidency upon the untimely death1 of President Zachary Taylor, the erstwhile Major General "Old Rough and Ready."

A Whig and an anti-slavery moderate, Fillmore nonetheless signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act,2 which lost him the party's nomination when he pursued a second term3 and led to the disintegration of the Whig Party altogether.4 Fillmore is often ranked among the ten worst American Presidents, batting at roughly the Mendoza Line,5 just above George W Bush.

In 1969 and also on this day, Barbara Castle, the second longest-serving Member of Parliament in British history, wrote in her diary

It was nice to see Indira Gandhi again: I warm to her. She is a pleasant, rather shy and unassuming woman and we exchanged notes about the fun of being at the top in politics. When I asked her whether it was hell being Prime Minister she smiled and said, 'It is a challenge.' Oddly enough, I always feel protective towards her.

Every group I spoke to greeted me as the first woman Prime Minister to be. I hate this talk. First I'm never going to be PM and, secondly, I don't think I'm clever enough. Only I know the depth of my limitations: it takes all I've got to survive my present job.6

One wonders what Fillmore thought his place in history would be. And, equally, one wonders whether Castle knew she might have secured a more prominent world historical legacy without necessarily needing to have been particularly competent.7


  1. President Taylor is said to have died of eating cucumbers and contracting Cholera, and from the assiduous ministrations of his physician. Sampas, Jim. "Scandal and the Heat Did Zachary Taylor In." Opinon. The New York Times, 03 July 1991. Web. 06 Jan. 2016.

  2. The Fugtive Slave Act was part of a series of laws known as The Compromise of 1850, which were guided through the United States Senate by Henry Clay, a Northern Whig, and Stephen Douglas, a Southern Democrat. This expedient maneuver ultimately turned out polarizing.

  3. Fillmore, a sitting president, lost the Whig Party nomination in 1852 to General Winfield Scott, "Old Fuss and Feathers".

  4. The Whigs were characterized since their inception as a party of aristocrats. Whatever the truth, Abraham Lincoln, who began as a Whig, left the party at that time.

  5. There are those who would apply the science of statistics to this sort of thing, which leads naturally to sports metaphors. Silver, Nate. "Contemplating Obama's Place in History, Statistically." FiveThirtyEight. The New York Times, 23 Jan. 2013. Web. 06 Jan. 2016.

  6. Castle, Barbara. "January 7." Assassin's Cloak: An Anthology of the World's Greatest Diarists. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2008. 19-20. Print.

  7. Not that she wouldn't have been competent; it's just that it needn't be the prerequisite she believed it was.