Millard Fillmore Essay, Research Paper
Fillmore, Millard (1800-1874), 13th president
of the United States (1850-1853) and the second vice president to finish
the term of a deceased president. He succeeded Zachary Taylor at a critical
moment in United States history. The Mexican War (1846-1848) had renewed
the conflict between the Northern and Southern states over slavery, since
it had added new territories to the United States. The debate over whether
these territories should be admitted as free or slave states precipitated
a crisis that threatened civil war. Much to the relief of Northern and
Southern politicians, Fillmore pursued a moderate and conciliatory policy.
He signed into law the Compromise of 1850, which admitted one territory
as a free state and allowed slave owners to settle in the others. This
compromise did not solve the basic problem of slavery but did preserve
peace for nearly eleven years. During that time the North gained the industrial
power that enabled it to defeat the South when civil war eventually came.
Fillmore was born in upstate New York in
1800. He was the second child and eldest son in a family of nine. His parents,
Nathaniel and Phoebe Millard Fillmore, had moved from Vermont to New York
several years before his birth. Young Fillmore did chores on his father’s
farm, worked as an apprentice in the clothier’s trade, and attended local
schools irregularly until he was 17. Although the only books in his home
were the Bible, an almanac, and a hymnbook, Fillmore managed to educate
himself with the help of a village schoolteacher, Abigail Powers.
When he was 19, Fillmore began to study
law with Judge Walter Wood of Cayuga County. He supported himself by teaching
school. When his family moved to East Aurora, near Buffalo, New York, Fillmore
continued his study of law and his teaching. In 1823 he opened a law office
in East Aurora. Three years later he married Abigail Powers. The couple
had two children, Mary Abigail and Millard Powers. In the early years of
their marriage, Mrs. Fillmore continued to teach school and to help her
husband with his law studies.
In 1826, the year Fillmore was married,
an incident in western New York set him on the road to the presidency.
When William Morgan, a former member of the Masonic fraternal order who
had written a book that claimed to expose the order’s secrets, disappeared,
the rumor spread that he had been murdered by avenging Masons. Thurlow
Weed, a newspaper publisher and politician, seized on the incident to arouse
public feeling against all secret organizations and helped to organize
the Anti-Masonic Party. Meanwhile, Millard Fillmore had been winning respect
and popularity in East Aurora. People admired his professional ethics,
temperate habits, careful speech and dress, and good looks. These qualities
caught the attention of the Anti-Masonic politicians, who were looking
for vote-winning candidates. In 1828, Weed and his group ran Fillmore for
a seat in the New York state legislature, and he was elected. Four years
later, again with Weed’s backing, Fillmore was elected to the House of
Representatives in the Congress of the United States.
When the Anti-Masonic Party merged with
the new Whig Party in the mid-1830s, Fillmore became a Whig. In Congress
he was a strong supporter of Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, the leader
of the Whigs. The two men agreed that compromise on the slavery issue was
necessary to preserve peace between the North and South.
In the important position of chairman of
the House Ways and Means Committee, Fillmore took a leading part in framing
the protective tariff (tax on imports) of 1842. The tariff raised rates
to about the high level of the tariff of 1833. That tariff was opposed
by the South and had provoked the state of South Carolina to pass its Ordinance
of Nullification, declaring the tariff void within its borders.
Fillmore did not run for reelection in
1842. He hoped for the vice presidential nomination on Clay’s Whig presidential
ticket, but the party’s national convention of 1844 gave that spot to Theodore
Frelinghuysen of New Jersey. Fillmore then accepted the Whig nomination
for governor of New York. In the election, however, Fillmore was beaten
by his Democratic Party opponent, Silas Wright, and Clay lost the decisive
New York vote.
The Whigs nominated Fillmore for state
comptroller in 1847. This office was second in power after the governor’s
and supervised public finances and superintended the banks. Fillmore defeated
his Democratic opponent by 30,000 votes, the largest margin ever gained
by any Whig over a Democrat in New York. The victory established Fillmore
as a vote getter and put him in competition with former Governor William
Henry Seward for the position of New York’s leading Whig.
The presidential election of 1848 was dominated
by the recently ended Mexican War and by the Wilmot Proviso of 1846, which
had been inspired by the war. The proviso specified that slavery should
not be introduced into any territory acquired by the United States from
Mexico as a result of the war. Although the proviso was defeated in Congress,
it raised the political issue of whether slavery should be extended beyond
its prewar limits.
At the Whig convention of 1848 in Philadelphia,
Fillmore’s friend Henry Clay lost the presidential nomination to General
Zachary Taylor. Clay’s policy of compromise on the slavery issue was well
known, whereas Taylor, a hero of the Mexican War, was associated with no
particular point of view. He won the nomination largely through the efforts
of Weed and Southern leaders. After Taylor was nominated, John A. Collier,
a Whig delegate from New York and a political ally of Fillmore’s, suggested
to the convention that it lessen the disappointment of the Clay supporters
by naming Fillmore as the vice presidential candidate. His plea was successful,
and Fillmore was nominated. To avoid further controversy over slavery or
any other issue, the national convention adopted no platform. At its national
convention the Democratic Party also avoided making an issue of slavery.
It nominated US Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan for president and William
O. Butler of Kentucky for vice president. Cass favored having the settlers
of new territories decide for themselves whether they would allow slavery
or not, a policy later called popular sovereignty. A third party took part
in the election of 1848. Called the Free-Soil Party, it included Democrats
and Whigs who disagreed with their parties, and abolitionists, who wanted
an immediate end to slavery. The Free-Soil Party nominated former president
Martin Van Buren of New York for president and Massachusetts legislator
Charles Francis Adams for vice president. In the election, Van Buren took
enough Democratic votes from Cass in New York to give the state to Taylor,
the Whig. The electoral vote was 163 for Taylor, 127 for Cass. In the New
York state popular vote, Taylor got 219,000, Cass got 114,000, and Van
Buren got 120,000.
During the first half of 1850, Fillmore
as vice president presided over the United States Senate (the upper chamber
of Congress) as angry debates raged between Northern and Southern sectionalists
over the status of slavery in the recently acquired lands. His fairness
and sense of humor in the chair were not enough to restore peace among
the contending senators. The antislavery faction, led by Senator Seward
(the former governor of New York) and Senator Salmon P. Chase of Ohio,
clashed with the Southerners, led by Senator James M. Mason of Virginia,
Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, and Senator John C. Calhoun of
South Carolina. Angry words figuratively rocked the Senate hall, as they
did the chamber of the House of Representatives.
Although President Taylor was a Louisiana
slaveholder, he leaned more toward Seward’s antislavery views. Determined
to uphold the Constitution of the United States, the president threatened
to send federal troops to protect disputed New Mexico territory from an
invasion by proslavery Texans. Southerners countered that, if Taylor followed
through with his threat, the act would be the signal for an armed Southern
rebellion against federal power. Mississippi called for a convention to
meet in June 1850 at Nashville, Tennessee, to consider secession.
The best hope of compromise seemed to lie
in a series of resolutions drawn up by Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky and
based on measures proposed by representatives from both parties and both
sections. These resolutions were referred to a select committee of 13,
headed by Clay. The committee recommended an omnibus bill, based on Clay’s
resolutions. According to the recommended compromise, California was to
be admitted as a free state, while the Utah and New Mexico territories
were to be organized without mentioning slavery. This meant the territories
were open to all settlers, including slaveholders. The bill also included
a new, tougher Fugitive Slave Law, which required that runaway slaves be
returned to their owners. The new law had severe penalties for nonenforcement.
A chief grievance of Southerners against the old law was that Northerners
would not enforce it. Other sections of the bill abolished slavery in the
District of Columbia and settled a boundary dispute between Texas and New
Mexico. President Taylor did not share the fear, held by Clay, Fillmore,
and others who favored compromise, that the Union was threatened. He insisted
on the admission of California as a free state, and he encouraged New Mexico
to adopt a free status. Taylor’s opposition hindered those who favored
the compromise. However, he died suddenly on July 9, 1850, and Fillmore
took the oath as president.
President Fillmore’s choice of a Cabinet
showed unmistakably that, as a moderate Whig and a foe of sectionalism,
he favored compromise to avoid a national crisis. As his secretary of state,
Fillmore appointed Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, who had appealed
for compromise in a celebrated speech on March 7, 1850. Another significant
Cabinet appointment was Governor John J. Crittenden of Kentucky, also a
well-known conciliatory Whig, as attorney general.
Fillmore made plain his desire for peace
in a message to Congress on August 6, 1850. It was hailed by influential
congressional leaders as a masterstroke of timing and persuasive moderation.
Aided by the full power and support of Fillmore’s administration, Clay’s
omnibus bill, known as the Compromise of 1850, was split into five separate
measures, all of which were passed by Congress and signed into law by Fillmore.
Meanwhile, the Nashville convention adjourned without taking any action
against the Union.
One of the five measures was the new Fugitive
Slave Law. Fillmore signed and, more important, enforced the Fugitive Slave
Law, actions that were completely in keeping with his conciliatory policy.
As a result, he won the hatred of the more radical antislavery group. Seward
and Weed, the antislavery Whig leaders of New York, opposed Fillmore vehemently,
and the president countered by removing pro-Seward people from federal
office. At a Whig convention in Syracuse, New York, resolutions were passed
approving Seward’s radical position. Thereupon a contingent of Fillmore
conservatives walked out, led by Francis Granger, whose gray hair gave
the name “Silver Gray Whigs” to that faction. This act widened the breach
in the Whig Party, which was also disintegrating in other parts of the
country on the issue of slavery.
The most important aspect of Fillmore’s
foreign policy was his sanction of a plan to open Japan to world commerce,
which had been largely prohibited there for more than 200 years. Influenced
by petitions to Congress and other evidences of public interest, he approved
an expedition to open the “sealed” empire. In January 1852 a naval expedition
was entrusted to Commodore Matthew C. Perry. In July 1853, four months
after Fillmore left the presidency, Perry arrived in Japan with four men-of-war.
That visit and another visit the following year culminated in a commercial
treaty between the United States and Japan.
Fillmore was reluctant to serve a second
term, but participated in the Whig national convention of 1852 because
he wanted to ensure that the party platform supported the Compromise of
1850. After securing that, he asked that his name be withdrawn at an opportune
moment and his delegates transferred to Daniel Webster, another contender
for the Whig presidential nomination. However, Fillmore’s Southern Whig
supporters, who believed he would win, backed him vigorously and never
did withdraw his name. They held out for Webster to release his delegates.
By the time Webster did that, it was too late. The antislavery Whigs had
secured control of the convention and, mindful of Fillmore’s enforcement
of the Fugitive Slave Law, they succeeded in having General Winfield Scott
named the party’s candidate. In November, Scott was decisively defeated
by his Democratic opponent, Franklin Pierce. After the 1852 election the
Whig Party broke up over the slavery issue. By 1856 its place had been
taken by the Republican Party, led by Seward and Weed.
Fillmore turned over the presidential office
to Pierce in March 1853. His wife died less than a month later, and the
former president returned to his home in Buffalo.
In 1856, Fillmore accepted the presidential
nomination of the American Party, a coalition of Silver Gray Whigs and
Know-Nothings, a secretive political group opposed to immigration. In the
1856 national election, contested by the Democrat James Buchanan, the Republican
John C. Frémont, and the American Fillmore, Buchanan triumphed by
a small margin. Fillmore carried only the eight electoral votes of Maryland,
a border slave state. The popular vote was 1,838,169 for Buchanan, 1,341,264
for Frémont, and 874,534 for Fillmore.
Fillmore returned permanently to private
life, but he continued to regard the political scene with interest and
anxiety. Critical events?the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and the
secession of the Southern states in 1860 and 1861 that led to the outbreak
of the Civil War?induced Fillmore to take the platform to plead against
secession and disunion. Always for conciliation rather than coercion, Fillmore
opposed some of President Lincoln’s measures. In 1864, when Lincoln ran
for reelection, Fillmore supported General George B. McClellan, the Democratic
candidate and a conservative. After the war, Fillmore’s sympathies were
with President Andrew Johnson in opposition to the Radical Republicans
in Congress, who inflicted their drastic, punitive Reconstruction policy
on the defeated secessionist states.
In 1858, Fillmore remarried. His second
wife was Mrs. Caroline C. McIntosh of Albany, New York. He continued his
law practice in Buffalo, interrupting it to make two trips to Europe. His
civic interests included the University of Buffalo, now SUNY Buffalo, and
he was its first chancellor. He was a founder of the Buffalo Historical
Society and the Buffalo General Hospital, and he was active in other community
projects, such as the Natural Science Society. He died in 1874.