Millard Fillmore (1850 – 1853): The 13th Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
Millard Fillmore did not meet Zachary Taylor until after they were elected as he was picked to balance the ticket geographically and politically. After being ignored by them, Fillmore fired all of Taylor’s cabinet. Subsequently, he reversed Taylor and signed the Compromise of 1850 into law.
Fillmore was a northern, hands off manager who believed in compromise. He often deferred to congressional leadership.
When Millard Fillmore took office in 1850, he was the first non-slaveholding president aside from John Adams and his son. In a speech on March 15, 1854, Fillmore said that he “had cherished from his youth up a feeling, even a prejudice, against slavery.”
Yet this antislavery feeling was not apparent in his record on slavery. Fillmore referred to antislavery advocates as “Philistines” and the antislavery movement as a “trivial” cause. During his first year of office, Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act, calling for the return of escaped slaves without permitting a jury trial for fugitives.
Weeks later, Fillmore wrote to Daniel Webster:
God knows that I detest Slavery, but it is an existing evil, for which we are not responsible, and we must endure it, and give it such protection as is guaranteed by the Constitution.
In a suppressed portion of his 1852 Annual Message to Congress (later published in a pamphlet), Fillmore went even further:
I see no remedy but by colonizing the free blacks, either in Africa or the West Indies, or both …. the bare removal of the free blacks would be a blessing to them, and would relieve the slave and free states from a wretched population …. There can be no well-grounded hope for the improvement of either their moral or social condition, until they are removed from a humiliating sense of inferiority in the presence of a superior race.”
In a letter to Dorothy Dix on March 5, 1860, Fillmore also made one of the most indefensible statements on slavery ever penned by a president:
The slaves themselves do not regard their condition as so bad that they have any strong desire to change it …. [Northern] demagogues … have raised up a party, fired with a fanatical zeal against the imaginary wrongs of slavery.”
States Admitted Into The Union
California became the 31st state on September 9, 1850 admitted partially from the Mexican Cession and unorganized territory.
Compromise of 1850
The Compromise of 1850 was a package of five separate bills passed by the United States Congress in September 1850 that defused a political confrontation between slave and free states on the status of territories acquired in the Mexican–American War. It also set Texas’s western and northern borders and included provisions addressing fugitive slaves and the slave trade. The compromise was brokered by Whig senator Henry Clay and Democratic senator Stephen Douglas with the support of President Millard Fillmore.
A debate over slavery in the territories had erupted during the Mexican–American War, as many Southerners sought to expand slavery to the newly-acquired lands and many Northerners opposed any such expansion. The debate was further complicated by Texas’s claim to all former Mexican territory north and east of the Rio Grande, including areas it had never effectively controlled. These issues prevented the passage of organic acts to create organized territorial governments for the land acquired in the Mexican–American War.
In early 1850, Clay proposed a package of bills that would settle most of the pressing issues before Congress. Clay’s proposal was opposed by President Zachary Taylor, anti-slavery Whigs like William Seward, and pro-slavery Democrats like John C. Calhoun, and congressional debate over the territories continued.
After Taylor died and was succeeded by Fillmore, Douglas took the lead in passing Clay’s compromise through Congress as five separate bills. Under the compromise:
- California was admitted to the Union as a free state.
- The remainder of the Mexican cession was divided into the two territories of New Mexico and Utah and organized without mention of slavery
- The claim of Texas to a portion of New Mexico was satisfied by a payment of $10 million
- New legislation (the Fugitive Slave Act) was passed to apprehend runaway slaves and return them to their masters
- The buying and selling of slaves (but not slavery) was abolished in the District of Columbia.
The issue of slavery in the territories would be re-opened by the Kansas–Nebraska Act, but many historians argue that the Compromise of 1850 played a major role in postponing the American Civil War.
Fugitive Slave Act
The Fugitive Slave Act or Fugitive Slave Law was passed by the United States Congress on September 18, 1850, as part of the Compromise of 1850 between Southern interests in slavery and Northern Free-Soilers. The Act was one of the most controversial elements of the 1850 compromise and heightened Northern fears of a slave power conspiracy.
It required that all escaped slaves, upon capture, be returned to the slaver and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate. Abolitionists nicknamed it the “Bloodhound Bill”, after the dogs that were used to track down fugitives from slavery.
The Act contributed to the growing polarization of the country over the issue of slavery, and is considered one of the causes of the Civil War. It is arguably the most hated and openly violated piece of federal legislation in the nation’s history.
Here we see that both sides can not be appeased when it comes to a so called moral issue. Leaving the states to decide on their own only emboldens opponents and supporters of said issue. Citizens on both sides of said moral issue are not content to just “live and let live”. We will see this with several so called “moral issues” (prohibition, segregation, abortion, gay marriage) as we go forward. The moaning reaches a fever pitch, and then a cathartic event legislatively, militarily, or socially settles the matter amongst the citizenry.
- Millard Fillmore. (n.d.). UnderstandingPrejudice.org. https://secure.understandingprejudice.org/draft/slavery/presinfo.php?president=13
- NCpedia | NCpedia. (n.d.). NCpedia NCpedia. https://www.ncpedia.org/anchor/compromise-1850
- William Henry Seward. (n.d.). Seward House Museum. https://www.sewardhouse.org/history/william-henry-seward
Franklin Pierce (1853 – 1857) would follow Millard Fillmore
Zachary Taylor (1849 – 1850) preceded Millard Fillmore.
John Quincy Adams (1825 – 1829) was the first President who wasn’t a founding father and preceded the influential Andrew Jackson (1829 – 1837)
It all started with George Washington (1789 – 1797).
Andrew Johnson (1865 – 1869) would assume the presidency after the assassination Abraham Lincoln (1861 – 1865)
Grover Cleveland (1885 – 1889) and would assume the presidency again from 1893-1897
Woodrow Wilson (1913 – 1921) would guide the United States through World War I.
Harry Truman (1945 – 1953) would assume the presidency after the death of the iconic FDR (1933 – 1945)
Jimmy Carter (1977 – 1981) would be the only Democratic President for 25 years post Civil Rights.
George W. Bush (2000 – 2008) is the final President in our series.