Miller Center

Millard Fillmore: Impact and Legacy

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It is often said that the best compromise is the type that pleases none of the compromisers. By the end of his presidency, Millard Fillmore knew this all too well. By championing the Compromise of 1850, he can be credited for keeping America from civil war for more than a decade. The political cost to himself, however, was total. Slavery was, like abortion today, the type of moral issue that terrifies politicians because it offers no easy middle ground. Debate in Congress over the issue during the Taylor-Fillmore term was so intense that fistfights were common in Congress, and many of its members carried pistols into the House and Senate chambers. With this in mind, it is far from surprising that there were no Presidents elected to a second term between those of Jackson and Lincoln. In fairness to men like Fillmore, they were simply prey for the most heated American social debate of the nineteenth century.

From the modern perspective, Fillmore seems almost an invisible man among Presidents. Books on him are all but nonexistent. But his accomplishments, while not great, were nonetheless substantial. In addition to the fine legislative engineering that passed the compromise, Fillmore also conducted a disciplined, principled foreign policy. He handled flash points in Cuba, Hawaii, Eastern Europe, and Central America very well.

On the other hand, it should be noted that for his entire political career, Millard Fillmore was vulnerable to fringe causes. Falling for the old American fear of secret organizations, his first party was the distrustful Anti-Masonic movement, and he blamed his loss in the New York governor's race on "foreign Catholics." Moreover, Fillmore ended his career heading the Know-Nothings, a party formed to oppose immigration. These are not, it may be argued, the choices of an exemplary mind. When he died, he had been utterly forgotten by the American people: President Grant issued only a perfunctory statement on his death, and there was no mourning by the American people.

Any assessment of a President who served a century and a half ago must be refracted through a consideration of the interesting times in which he lived. Fillmore's political career encompassed the tortuous course toward the two-party system that we know today. The Whigs were not cohesive enough to survive the slavery imbroglio, while parties like the Anti-Masonics and Know-Nothings were too extremist. When, as President, Fillmore sided with proslavery elements in ordering enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, he all but guaranteed that he would be the last Whig President. The first modern two-party system of Whigs and Democrats had succeeded only in dividing the nation in two by the 1850s, and seven years later, the election of the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, would guarantee civil war.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Michael F. Holt

Professor Holt is the Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History at the University of Virginia. His writings include:

The Civil War and Reconstruction (Co-authored with Jean H. Baker and David Herbert Donald, W.W. Norton, 2001)

The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1999)

Political Parties and American Political Development from the age of Jackson to the age of Lincoln (Louisiana State University Press, 1992)