Millard Fillmore’s forgotten role in the slavery debate

Most of us don’t know all that much about Millard Fillmore beyond the fact that he was President of the United States.

I came across this post on his birthday, January 7.

Like William H. Seward, Fillmore “was a protégé of the state Whig party leader, Thurlow Weed.” He was Zachary Taylor’s vice president in 1849. “At the time, Congress was involved in a heated debate about the future of slavery in newly acquired territories and states, and it was Fillmore who presided over the debates in the Senate. President Taylor defied expectations and didn’t endorse the expansion of slavery. Taylor specifically wanted California admitted as a free state.” Taylor died the following year, without a compromise in the argument, and Fillmore took office as President of the United States.

“Fillmore worked with a rising Senator, Stephen Douglas, from the rival Democratic Party on a package of laws that admitted California as a free state, but granted some important concessions to pro-slavery forces. Fillmore was conflicted over parts of the Compromise, especially because his personal experiences. But as he told Daniel Webster in a letter, he felt it was his constitutional duty to enforce the law. ‘God knows 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, till we get rid of it without destroying the last hope of free government in the world,’ Fillmore said. The result was that Fillmore had greatly upset members of the Democrats and the Whigs with the Compromise. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act angered Northerners, who saw that President Fillmore would act to compel federal marshals to track down slaves to had escaped to the north. Fillmore also sent government troops to the South to act against rumors of a secession by South Carolina. Pro-slavery forces were also unhappy that slavery had been barred in California. The Compromise of 1850 also dealt a fatal blow to the Whig Party, which had divided into an anti-slavery northern section and a pro-slavery southern section. At the 1852 Whig convention, Fillmore couldn’t gain support for the presidential nomination he sought at the last moment; General Winfield Scott became a candidate who stood little chance against the Democratic Party.”

So Millard Fillmore played a key role in the Compromise of 1850, acted against secession, and staved off civil war for another decade.

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9 comments

  1. Mark Mitchell · · Reply

    I think you meant the “1852” Whig Convention not the “1952” Whig Convention. I guess when Fillmore couldn’t get support Ike got nominated . . .

    1. Thanks. I made the change. The error was in the original blog post from which I copied and pasted, and I didn’t notice the error.

  2. Pat Young · · Reply

    My Alma was founded by Millard Fillmore. There was an annual ceremony honoring him which no one attended. He was mostly remembered as a Know Nothing bigot who hated the types of folks who filled the University of Buffalo.

    After doing some research I learned that he was a hypocrite.

    1. That’s the thing with historical figures. They all have their bad points as well as their good points.

      1. To finish up on the hypocrite designation, Fillmore was the 1856 Know Nothing candidate for president. Right before he accepted the nomination of the anti-Catholic party he had traveled through Europe. While there he sought and obtained an audience with the Pope.

        Also, his daughter had gone to a Catholic school!

        1. Isn’t “hypocrite” a synonym for “politician?” 🙂

  3. Kurt Guelde · · Reply

    On a positive note he was responsible for allowing the Native Americans of the Upper Great Lakes to remain in their historic homeland and not be shipped off to “Indian Territory.”

  4. I find there to be interesting parallels between what Fillmore faced in 1850 and what occurred 10 years later.

    Immediately after becoming President he faced a controversy over the boundary between Texas and New Mexico (which was partially a dispute over the extent of slavery). Fillmore sent troops to New Mexico and made a proclamation to Congress in which he stated that “if the laws of the United States are opposed or obstructed, in any State or Territory, by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the judicial or civil authorities, it becomes a case in which it is the duty of the President, either to call out the militia or to employ the military and naval force of the United States, or to do both, if in his judgment the exigency of the occasion shall so require, for the purpose of suppressing such combination.” He was prepared to use the same authority Lincoln used a decade later to suppress the Confederacy.

    Later in the year he learned that there might be an attempt to seize US property in South Carolina. He moved additional troops to South Carolina and had Gen Scott go on an “inspection” tour” in the south. When the South Carolina governor demanded an explanation, Fillmore responded that he was the commander-in-chief and could re-position troops within the US where he wanted without having to check with anyone.

    I speculate that the secessionists were more prepared and rushed to act in 1860-61 because of their experience dealing with the President when they were unprepared and half-hearted in 1850.

    1. Excellent information, Ned. Thanks.

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