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American President Essays: Millard Fillmore

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Millard Fillmore: Life in Brief

Born into desperate poverty at the dawn of the nineteenth century, Millard Fillmore climbed to the highest office in the land—and inherited a nation breaking into fragments over the question of slavery. Despite his best efforts, the lines of the future battles of the Civil War were drawn, and Fillmore found himself rejected by his own dying party and denied renomination. After almost a quarter of a century out of the White House, he died in New York state in 1874.

Fillmore, the second of eight children, was born into an impoverished family on January 7, 1800. His family's small farm in upstate Cayuga County, New York, could not support them, and Fillmore's father apprenticed his son to a clothmaker, a brutal apprenticeship that stopped just short of slavery. Fillmore taught himself to read, stealing books on occasion, and finally managed to borrow thirty dollars and pay his obligation to the clothmaker. Free, he walked one hundred miles to get back home to his family.

He was obsessed with educating himself. He pored over every book he could get his hands on and attended school in a nearby town for six months. His teacher, Abigail Powers, encouraged and helped him. She would prove to be the most influential person in his life. She was only nineteen—not even two years older than her pupil. After Fillmore received a clerkship with a local judge, he began to court Abigail Powers. The couple married in 1826.

Anti-Jackson Politics

As a young lawyer, Fillmore was approached by a fledgling political party and asked to run for the New York State Assembly. In 1829, he began the first of three terms in the assembly, where he sponsored a substantial amount of legislation. In 1832, Millard Fillmore was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

At that time, Andrew Jackson was President. Jackson's repeated clashes with Congress and his ambitious attempts to expand presidential power united several parties against him. Fillmore's own Anti-Masonic Party merged with the Whigs, which represented the older, more entrenched power structure and opposed everything that Jackson and the Democrats represented. In 1843, at the end of four terms in Congress, which were interrupted by one defeat, Fillmore resigned from the legislature. After unsuccessfully lobbying for the vice presidential nomination on the Whig ticket with Henry Clay and losing an election for governor of New York, both in 1844, Fillmore was elected New York state comptroller, or chief financial officer, in 1847. He won this election by such a wide margin that he was immediately considered a prospect for national office.

The Whigs selected the military hero General Zachary Taylor as their presidential nominee for the election of 1848. The nomination of a slave owner who held property in Louisiana, Kentucky, and Mississippi infuriated abolitionist Whigs from the North. The party decided to balance the ticket by putting a Northerner in the vice presidential slot. Hence, Fillmore was chosen. The Taylor-Fillmore ticket won a bitterly fought election over the Democratic ticket led by Michigan senator Lewis Cass. Taylor and Fillmore were an odd match -- the products of very different backgrounds and educations and far apart on the issues of the day. The two men did not meet until after the election and did not hit it off when they did. In a short time, Fillmore found himself excluded from the councils of power, relegated to his role as president of the Senate.

Slavery and the Compromise of 1850

The critical issue facing President Taylor was slavery. Henry Clay had crafted a series of proposals into an omnibus bill that became known as the Compromise of 1850, a patchwork of legislation that would admit California as a new free state; organize New Mexico and Utah, the remainder of the Mexican Cession, as territories on the basis of popular sovereignty; and readjust the disputed boundary between Texas and New Mexico. The compromise also established a fugitive slave law that guaranteed that runaway slaves apprehended anywhere in the United States would be returned to their owners. Taylor refused to take a stand, and the compromise bill was stalled in endless debates in the Senate by mid-1850. But then the unthinkable happened: the President died, possibly of cholera.

As President, Fillmore strongly supported the compromise. Allying himself with the Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas and appointing the pro-compromise Whig Daniel Webster as his secretary of state, Fillmore engineered its passage. By forcing these issues, Fillmore believed he had helped to safeguard the Union, but it soon became clear that the compromise, rather than satisfying anyone, gave everyone something to hate. Under the strains of the failed agreement, the Whig Party began to come apart at the seams.

On the international stage, Fillmore dispatched Commodore Perry to "open" Japan to Western trade and worked to keep the Hawaiian Islands out of European hands. He refused to back an invasion of Cuba by a group of Southern adventurers who wanted to expand the South into a slave-based Caribbean empire. This "filibustering" expedition failed, and Fillmore took the blame from Southerners. At the same time, he offended Northerners by enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law in their region. Weary and dispirited, he tried to decline to run again but was prevailed upon to allow his name to be put forward—only to lose the nomination to General Winfield Scott. Shortly thereafter, his beloved Abigail died, followed by his twenty-two-year-old daughter Mary.

In 1856, he ran for election as the presidential candidate of the Whig-American Party, a fusion of the remaining Whigs and the anti-immigrant American (nicknamed "Know-Nothing") Party. He won the electoral college votes of Maryland and 21 percent of the popular vote. But the newly organized Republican Party, even in defeat, eclipsed Fillmore and the Whigs, winning 33 percent of the vote, and Fillmore's poor performance marked the end of his party. Millard Fillmore died of a stroke in March of 1874.

Millard Fillmore: Life Before the Presidency

Millard Fillmore came into the world just one week into the nineteenth century. His large, desperately poor family knew little but struggle and failure. Nathaniel and Phoebe Fillmore had originally lived in Vermont, but by the time of Millard's birth on January 7, 1800, they had settled in upstate New York on a farm between Syracuse and Ithaca. The boy was the second of eight children and the eldest son. Farming the lean, rocky soil of Cayuga County proved to be a losing proposition, and the family often went hungry. While Millard had very little schooling as a young child due to the demands of the farm, he displayed both curiosity and ambition.

Thinking his son needed a trade and perhaps relishing the prospect of one fewer mouth to feed, Nathaniel Fillmore arranged an apprenticeship for Millard when the boy became a teenager. A clothmaker paid the family a small sum, took the boy to another town, and worked him nearly to an early grave. Millard detested the drudgery of the cloth trade. Barely able to read, he used his meager funds to buy a dictionary, stealing looks at it when the clothmaker's attentions were elsewhere. The apprenticeship amounted to little more than slavery, and the experience no doubt had considerable impact on an issue that would dominate Fillmore's political life. The young man borrowed thirty dollars and used it to buy his freedom from the apprenticeship. Millard then walked home to the family farm, which was one hundred miles away.

Escape From Poverty

Back home, Millard resolved to somehow gain an education. He pored over any book he could get his hands on and attended school in a nearby town. The teacher there, a highly intelligent, well-read young woman named Abigail Powers, would be the greatest influence on his life. Just nineteen, not even two years older than Millard, Abigail was probably the first person to encourage his ambition to become anything but a farmer or a tradesman. She loaned him books, challenged him to study difficult subjects, and cheered him on. Nathaniel Fillmore, meanwhile, finally saw that his son might have meant what he said about wanting to become a lawyer and arranged a clerkship with a local judge that would also allow Millard to study law. The teenager attacked the difficult bookwork with untiring relish, teaching school to support himself. He also began courting Abigail Powers. Impressed with his work ethic and aspirations, she accepted his engagement proposal in 1819.

About this time, Fillmore's family gave up their troubled farm and moved to East Aurora, a town near Buffalo. The young man moved with them, taught school and clerked, and gained admission to the New York bar in 1823. He opened a law practice in East Aurora and married Abigail Powers in early 1826. She counseled and advised her husband in his career, and the young lawyer prospered. The couple would have two children—a boy, also named Millard, in 1828, and a girl named Mary four years later.

The Gateway to Politics

A few months after the marriage, a strange incident catapulted Fillmore into politics. Many of the era's ruling politicians were Freemasons, including General Andrew Jackson, the most popular man in America at the time. A man named William Morgan, a disaffected Mason evidently readying an exposé of the organization, was allegedly kidnapped and never seen again. Widespread suspicion arose that Masonic interests were behind Morgan's disappearance, and soon an Anti-Masonic Party arose to combat the fraternal order's political influence. One hotbed of the new party lay in western New York, and Fillmore joined it.

Not even thirty years old, articulate, tall and stately, Fillmore had already become a highly respectable figure in his area, and the fledgling party's leadership approached him about running for the New York state legislature. In 1829, he began his first of three terms in the state assembly. The driving force behind considerable legislation, he focused particular energy on the issue of debtor imprisonment. In that era, it was common to throw people who were unable to pay debts into prison. No doubt remembering the poverty he had so recently escaped, Fillmore worked hard to pass laws forbidding such incarcerations. Such policies played well with citizens in his district, and they elected Fillmore to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1832.

At that time, Andrew Jackson was President. Anyone who saw Jackson as power hungry and abhorred the policies he pursued gravitated toward the Whig Party. By 1834, Fillmore's increasingly marginalized Anti-Masonic Party had merged with the Whigs. One of its leaders in New York was newspaper publisher Thurlow Weed, who had been an Anti-Masonic leader and had helped with Fillmore's political climb. Joining the Whigs before Fillmore, Weed quickly took over the New York organization of the new party. Weed, who was deeply opposed to slavery, supported an agenda that was increasingly at odds with Fillmore's. Fillmore was also opposed to slavery in principle but thought that compromise was essential to resolving the issue.

Fillmore was reelected to Congress three times between 1837 and 1843. During his last term, which spanned from 1841 to 1843, he was named chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which dealt with tax and financial issues. He was aligned with the beliefs of Whig Party leader Henry Clay on the one issue eclipsing all others in that day—slavery. Both Fillmore and Clay were convinced that only compromise could keep the nation whole. Late in this congressional term, Fillmore also oversaw implementation of a high tariff intended to protect imports.

In 1843, Fillmore left the House in hopes of gaining the Whig vice presidential nomination for 1844 and joining Henry Clay on the ticket. Thurlow Weed convinced—or, more accurately, ordered— Fillmore to run for governor of New York instead. In a close race, Fillmore lost, a defeat he blamed on abolitionists, recent Catholic immigrants, and Thurlow Weed. Feeling that Weed had undermined his candidacy, Fillmore broke with the party boss. In the end, Clay lost the presidential election to Democrat James Polk. Being out of a job, Fillmore looked for an opportunity that would keep him in politics. In 1847, he won election as New York's comptroller, or chief financial overseer. Fillmore's winning margin over his Democratic rival was so wide that he was instantly seen as a leading Whig candidate for the upcoming 1848 national campaign.

Millard Fillmore: Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1848:

Millard Fillmore remained loyal to Henry Clay heading into the Whig nominating convention, but the presidency would elude Clay yet again. Southern proslavery forces in the party mistrusted his compromise policies. Meanwhile, the recent Mexican War had made heroes of two generals, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. Both were courted by the Whigs. Their nicknames spoke of the contrast in their styles: Taylor, an unsophisticated man of little education who had never voted, was called "Old Rough and Ready"; Scott, refined and pompous, "Old Fuss and Feathers."

Since Andrew Jackson's election to the presidency in 1828, military leaders with a rough-hewn public persona— whether genuine or not -- had been popular with voters. Helped largely by the behind-the-scenes negotiations of Thurlow Weed, Taylor led on the first ballot and clinched the nomination on the fourth. The selection of the general, a slave owner from Louisiana, enraged antislavery Whigs from the North. For a few hours it looked like the party would split between its "cotton" and "conscience" wings. As a consolation prize to slavery opponents, the party searched for a vice presidential nominee who was more aligned with their views. Daniel Webster was offered the spot but refused, growling that Taylor was nothing but "an illiterate frontier colonel." A New York ally of Millard Fillmore's brought up his name, and the Whigs selected him as their candidate. As with so many other tickets, it was hoped that Fillmore's contrast in beliefs, style, and geographic origin with the presidential nominee would broaden the ticket's appeal.

Both major parties—the Whigs and the Democrats—avoided a platform statement on the contentious slavery-extension issue in order to preserve their national unity. But the issue hung over the campaign like a great, low cloud. The United States had made massive territorial gains in the wake of the Mexican War, and an argument raged over whether slavery should be allowed in these new territories. The Wilmot Proviso, which would have forbidden it, had been defeated in the Senate two years earlier. A third party added to the turbulence. A coalition of abolitionists, "Barn Burners," Conscience Whigs, and others had formed the Free-Soil Party led by former President Martin Van Buren.

It proved to be a close, bitter race between Zachary Taylor and Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan, the Democratic candidate. Charges and countercharges flew on each man's stand on slavery. Both struggled to neutralize the hopelessly divisive issue. Van Buren siphoned off enough votes in his native New York to hand the critical state to Taylor. Farmers and other working-class voters saw in Old Rough and Ready much of what they had liked in Andrew Jackson. It proved to be just enough. Zachary Taylor won with a 5 percent margin in the popular vote and a four-to-three ratio in the electoral college.

In retrospect, the Whigs of 1848 repeated the mistake they had made with William Henry Harrison eight years earlier. They had gained the White House by running a colorful but politically undistinguished war hero, distinctly showing his age by election day. Within a year and a half, the Whigs would see the same unfortunate result with Zachary Taylor.

An Odd Match: Taylor and Fillmore

The new vice president and President were an odd match. The tall, gentlemanly, well-dressed Millard Fillmore looked every bit the statesman. Zachary Taylor stood on unusually short legs—during the Mexican War, he needed help climbing onto his horse, which he rode sidesaddle into battle; Old Rough and Ready was craggy, unkempt, and unlearned. The two had not met until after the election, and they did not hit it off when they did. Once in Washington, Taylor wasted no time shutting Millard Fillmore out of his administration. Other Whig leaders like Thurlow Weed and William H. Seward found favor with the new President and convinced him to deny Fillmore most patronage appointments in New York. The vice president's key ally, Henry Clay, was not offered a cabinet post. As vice president and thus president of the Senate, Fillmore held the tie-breaking vote in Senate sessions. In fulfilling these responsibilities, he was respected for his wisdom, humor, and ability to accommodate diverse views there. But he had virtually no role in Taylor's presidency.

Compromise of 1850

The critical issue of slavery continued to plague Taylor's administration. In particular, discussion focused on whether to adopt the Compromise of 1850. The election of 1848 had turned on the question of whether to allow slavery in the lands gained by the United States in the war with Mexico, and little had happened since Taylor's election to cool the debate on this matter. In his annual message of December 1849, he had dismayed fellow Southerners by announcing his support for admitting California and New Mexico into the Union as free states. In the Senate, Henry Clay bundled several provisions into a single omnibus bill that would attempt a compromise on the slavery issue. Clay's bill entailed the organization of Utah and New Mexico Territories on a popular sovereignty basis, California statehood, and the prohibition of public slave auctions in the District of Columbia. For slaveholders, it also offered a new fugitive slave law. This piece of legislation decreed that runaway slaves apprehended anywhere in the United States would be returned to their masters if new federally appointed commissioners decided that they were in fact fugitive slaves. It denied any due process to such slaves and allowed authorities to arrest African American suspects and return them to slave territory—whether the arrested person was an actual slave or not. Finally, it empowered federal marshals to enforce the law. The Fugitive Slave Law also cited severe penalties for noncompliance. The act horrified Americans openly opposed to slavery, and they vowed to fight its passage.

Clay urged Taylor to join the debate over the compromise, but the President wanted little part of it. Seeming to take a wait-and-see approach to the legislative fight, he simply contested some of the positions of the compromise and threatened a veto. Gradually, support in Congress for the compromise lost steam, and the omnibus bill was tied up in endless Senate debates by mid-1850. America was no closer to deciding the slavery issue than it had been before.

Fillmore watched much of the debate from the sidelines, isolated from the President's administration. Events, however, took a rapid turn. At a Fourth of July celebration in 1850 on the White House lawn, the President sought relief from the oppressive heat and humidity by gulping iced beverages and a large bowl of cherries. He suddenly began to experience intestinal cramps. It is likely that either the ice or the fruit was contaminated with cholera, a stomach ailment caused by unsanitary conditions that could—and frequently did—kill a person in scant hours in those times. Physicians, resorting to the medical practices of the day, prescribed bleedings and opiates that only made matters worse. Within five days, Zachary Taylor was dead. He had been President for just sixteen months. The presidency had suddenly fallen upon a forgotten man. Millard Fillmore, who had been all but banished from the Taylor administration and held opinions very different from the late chief executive, was suddenly the President of the United States. He immediately replaced Taylor's cabinet with proponents of the compromise and threw the full weight of his new administration behind its passage.

The Campaign and Election of 1852

Weary from the epic compromise fight and the criticism that it had drawn toward him, Millard Fillmore showed little enthusiasm for serving another term. He did no campaigning and did not even disclose his intentions on running again. In March of 1851, using an editor allied to him, Fillmore planted a report in a newspaper that he was retiring from office. Then Daniel Webster announced his candidacy. The candidacy of his own secretary of state did not greatly trouble the President; indeed, he was honestly sympathetic towards Webster's longtime ambition for the office. Webster's announcement, however, comprised the last straw for Fillmore, and the President tried to formally withdraw from consideration until others in the cabinet talked him out of it.

The Whig Party was fragmenting over slavery disputes. None of the leading candidates—Fillmore, Webster, and General Winfield Scott—greatly appealed to a majority of the Whig Party members. Fillmore was disliked by abolitionists for enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law. Webster was aged and unwell. Southern Whigs disliked Scott, who had served as President Jackson's personal emissary in 1832 when Jackson threatened to use federal troops in South Carolina in a tariff and secession dispute.

The Whigs opened their convention in Baltimore in mid-June of 1852. Fillmore led in the early balloting. Webster's cause was quickly seen as hopeless, and if he had given the President his delegates, Fillmore would have ended the argument quickly. Webster, however, stubbornly clung to his delegates, and they slowly began to defect to Winfield Scott. On the fifty-third ballot, Scott wrapped up the nomination.

The convention was the end of the Whig Party as a national force. With Southern opposition to Scott so strong, he was unelectable. Many Southern Whigs abstained and a few threw their support behind the Democratic candidate, Franklin Pierce, and the slim, moody New Englander won the election with ease.

Millard Fillmore: Domestic Affairs

When Zachary Taylor became ill on July 4, 1850, Millard Fillmore knew that the President was dying. When the President finally passed away, Fillmore passed a sleepless night, brooding over what lay ahead. The nation was embroiled in a sectional crisis of the first order, and all eyes would be on the new President. At noon the next day, he took the oath of office in the Capitol and left without giving a speech.

Compromise Choices

Fillmore's views on the all-encompassing slavery issue were markedly different from his predecessor's, and everyone in Taylor's cabinet knew it. Days before the President's death, Fillmore had bluntly told Taylor that if the Compromise of 1850 came to a vote in the Senate, he would cast his vice presidential tie-breaking vote to pass it if necessary. The cabinet, who had barely spoken to Fillmore up to this point, saw the writing on the wall and unanimously resigned; the new President curtly accepted them all. In days, America was governed by an entirely new order. Fillmore appointed to his cabinet Whigs who shared his pro-Union, pro-compromise views.

His longtime ally Henry Clay, aged and exhausted, readied himself for a final battle in Congress. At the end of July, not one month since Taylor had helped stall the compromise, Senator Clay introduced a modified omnibus combination of bills that comprised it. Fillmore pressured Congress to consider the original bill rather than the watered-down version. The angry tone of the national debate increased. In Congress, forces for and against slavery fought over every word of the bill. Both sides chipped away at the bill's provisions, and support for it collapsed, much to Fillmore's deep disappointment. Clay, wasted by the struggle, left Washington, D.C.A new player, from the opposing party, entered the fray. Stephen Douglas, age thirty-seven, had headed the committee charged with partitioning new American territories while serving in the House. Elected to the Senate in 1847, he now headed its Committee on Territories.

Instead of fighting one great battle, Douglas would fight five smaller ones. The compromise was reworked into a quintet of bills, with each having just enough support from one section of the country or another to assure passage. One by one, the bills squeaked through Congress. As a result, Texas settled its border dispute with New Mexico and received $10 million from the United States as compensation for conceding territories. California gained statehood as a free state. New Mexico and Utah were granted territorial status, without specifying any policy on slavery for either, affirming the principle of popular sovereignty in deciding the issue (i.e., local determination). The Fugitive Slave Law, which would later provoke rancorous debate, occasioned almost no debate in the Senate or the House and passed with surprising ease. The final bill involved the nation's capital itself. Slave trading, but not slavery itself, became illegal in the District of Columbia. Congress worked well into the fall, in its longest session to date. Fillmore signed the bills, considering their passage a triumph of interparty cooperation that had kept the Union intact.

Public Reaction

Many Americans, however, did not see it that way. For those with strong feelings about slavery, the compromise seemed to offer something for everyone to dislike. Northern abolitionists were enraged by the Fugitive Slave Law, and several states subsequently passed laws prohibiting its enforcement. Southern proslavery forces, meanwhile, were dismayed by the restrictions on the practice in California and the District of Columbia. They also doubted the government's commitment to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law.

Fillmore struggled to keep these disparate factions appeased. Responding to Southern pressure and secession threats, he decided to vigorously enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. In 1851, a Maryland man combed Pennsylvania, hunting down runaway slaves that he owned. One of these slaves killed his master when found by him. The incident led Fillmore to support treason charges against over forty persons—both black and white—supposedly connected with the killing. A Supreme Court judge, however, ruled that opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law did not qualify as a treasonous act. Later in his administration, Fillmore sought to enforce the law in his native New York, ordering the apprehension of an escaped slave hiding there. A band of armed abolitionists rescued the slave from authorities, however, and attempts to prosecute any of them failed.

Incidents like these convinced many Northerners that Fillmore was appeasing the South. Antislavery politicians made considerable inroads to power at the state and local levels. To counteract Northern uneasiness, Fillmore ordered General Winfield Scott to strengthen forts in South Carolina to give Southerners second thoughts about possible secession schemes. Meanwhile, legislatures in Northern states passed "personal liberty" laws which forbade state judges to assist slaveholders and extended to blacks the right to trial by jury in these disputes. Unfortunately, by trying to please everyone, Millard Fillmore, it seemed, could please no one. The Whig Party began to fall apart from the strain of all the conflicting points of view on slavery.

Millard Fillmore: Foreign Affairs

Despite the congressional debates that raged on over the issue of slavery during Millard Fillmore's term in office, the President had a foreign policy agenda that emphasized expanding trade while limiting American commitments outside the Western Hemisphere.

Asia Pacific: Japan and Hawaii

For nearly three centuries, Japan had been a completely isolated nation. American shipping interests, however, identified the nation as a prime location to stop and resupply their ships on the way into China and Southeast Asia. Great Britain's opening of China some years earlier had illustrated the benefits of new trade markets. Assisted by Secretary of State Daniel Webster, Fillmore ordered a trade mission to Japan by Commodore Matthew Perry. Although the mission was not fully completed until the succeeding administration of Franklin Pierce, the policy did open Japan for trade with the rest of the world. The consequences of this mission, both positive and negative, were the work of Fillmore.

Elsewhere in the Pacific, Fillmore showed strong resolve in preventing the Hawaiian Islands from falling into either French or English hands. When the French government tried to force an annexation agreement on Hawaii's king, Fillmore warned Napoleon III in no uncertain terms that the United States would not stand for any such action.

Central America and the Caribbean

Taylor had signed the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850 with England. This agreement prevented both the U.S. and Great Britain from claiming further territories in Central America. Both nations, however, continued to angle for influence in the region and to control the construction of a future canal project joining the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans there. Fillmore dispatched warships to protect American merchant vessels from British interference. He also took a hard stand against private American interests sending mercenaries of their own into the region to gain influence.

Agricultural interests in the American South, growing weary of defending their slave-reliant economy to the rest of the nation, had been interested in expanding their slave-based economy into the Caribbean nation of Cuba for years. Taylor's predecessor, James Polk, had tried in vain to purchase the great island from the Spanish. Early in the Taylor administration, a Venezuelan named Narciso Lopez had raised an army of several hundred Americans, mostly adventurous and speculative southerners, with the intention of invading Cuba. Federal authorities attempted to prevent Lopez from leaving American shores with this force, but he managed to sail out of New Orleans. What followed was remarkably like the Bay of Pigs invasion a century later and equally ill-fated. This "filibustering" expedition managed to land in Cuba, but it failed to generate a rebellion. A second invasion during the summer of 1851 eluded Fillmore's attempts to stop it. This time, the invader's luck ran out completely. Routed on the beaches by the Spanish, the insurgents were either executed—their leader, Lopez, among them—or enslaved.

The incident, rightly or not, was blamed largely on Fillmore. Southerners condemned the President for not supporting the invasion; northern Democrats criticized Fillmore for his subsequent apology to the Spanish. Meanwhile, the British and French sent warships to guarantee Spanish sovereignty over Cuba. Fillmore had his Secretary of State Edward Everett, who replaced Webster in 1852, warn the Europeans that under certain circumstances control of the island "might be almost essential to our [America's] safety." This tough talk against the European powers managed to win Fillmore a respite from his critics.

Eastern Europe

Fillmore did little to align the United States against repressive imperial governments in Europe. When Austria protested that the United States was siding with Hungarians in their attempts to free themselves from the Hapsburg empire, Fillmore enunciated the doctrine from his annual message of 1850 that the United States believed in the inalienable right of each people to establish "that form of government which it may deem most conducive to the happiness and prosperity of its citizens. . . ." Unfortunately, he did not back these words up with concrete actions. In 1851, Congress invited the Hungarian patriot Kossuth to visit the United States. Fillmore and Secretary of State Webster, worried that the American people might want the U.S. to back Kossuth openly, warned him at a state dinner that although they supported his efforts at national liberation, the effort would have to be carried out solely by the Hungarians. Democrats, in turn, created a "Young America" movement to support Eastern European liberation, but it too was designed more to exploit domestic politics than to influence events in Europe.

Millard Fillmore: Life After the Presidency

Millard Fillmore and his family welcomed the escape from Washington after Pierce's election; they had never liked the city. Abigail Fillmore had been so unwell during most of the administration that her daughter, Mary, had been pressed into hostess duty for White House functions. The city, however, took a final, terrible swipe at the family. Abigail Fillmore, compelled to sit outside for hours on Pierce's cold, wet inauguration day, caught pneumonia and died less than a month later. Not long afterward, Fillmore's daughter, Mary, only twenty-two-years-old, died of cholera. The former President was devastated by the twin calamities, and he searched for something to take his mind off them.

Unsurprisingly, Fillmore found solace in politics. Countless former Whigs were now without a party, and some had organized a new one. It had the strange name of the Know-Nothing Party, and its aims were less than savory. Targeting native-born Americans made uneasy by the hordes of immigrants now flocking to the United States, the Know-Nothings advocated immigration restrictions and a waiting period for new citizens to vote. Irish Catholic immigrants, perceived as a threat to the existing labor force, were a prime target. Fillmore refused to be part of the anti-immigrant message dispensed by the party, but the Know-Nothings made him their presidential candidate in 1856, as did the remnants of the Whig Party. The former President received only 21 percent of the vote, but it prevented another candidate he deeply opposed—John C. Frémont of the new Republican Party—from winning against Democrat James Buchanan.

Fillmore would make no more attempts at political office. He retired in Buffalo and married Caroline McIntosh, a wealthy Albany widow, in early 1858. Fillmore was thereafter active in many causes and charities. When the Civil War erupted three years later, Fillmore became a staunch Unionist, helping to organize enlistment and war-financing drives. The last Whig President died of a stroke in March 1874, firmly established as Buffalo's leading citizen. Some, however, never forgot—or forgave—Millard Fillmore's support of the Fugitive Slave Law. After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, a mob descended on Fillmore's opulent home and smudged black paint on the building.

Millard Fillmore: Family Life

Millard Fillmore did not smoke, drink, or gamble in an era when almost every American man partook in at least one of these vices. With the recent death of President Taylor and a wife who was often unwell, social occasions at the Fillmore White House were few and far between. The family preferred to take quiet refuge upstairs, where their daughter, Mary, would play the piano while others read or worked.

Washington in the mid-nineteenth century was a far from hospitable place. Nearby swamps teemed with mosquitoes bearing malaria and other diseases. Sanitation was poor, and in the summer, the city became nearly unbearable with humidity. The White House itself was in poor condition and uncomfortable to live in. The mansion had fallen into grave disrepair during the 1840s -- there were annoyed accounts of springs in battered furniture stabbing guests who tried to sit down in the White House. Not surprisingly, the Fillmores treasured escaping to the countryside, and they retreated there as often as possible.

Millard Fillmore: The American Franchise

The United States in the 1850s was rapidly becoming an industrial power. Clipper ships had mastered the dangerous voyage around Cape Horn, which opened up the West and the Pacific to trade from the East. Whaling vessels brought the oil needed for industry and households from eastern coastal waters. Wages were increasing, but unions were organizing the printers, hatmakers, and ironworkers to press for better working conditions. While craftsmen were being organized, most factory workers were not. The price of wheat and other crops was rising, luring farmers from the East and Northern Europe to the Midwest and prairie states.

Immigration and Migration

Immigration ran at a high level during the Taylor-Fillmore era, with more than 50,000 people a year entering the country. Most new arrivals were from Germany, England, and Ireland. Legal restrictions on immigration would not come until the Civil War. Some eastern states began levying taxes on the new arrivals, but these were disallowed by the Supreme Court in 1849. Between the mid-1840s and mid-1850s, nearly three million people from other lands emigrated to America.

By the time Fillmore was President, the discovery of gold in California had led nearly 100,000 Americans to try their luck there. Although few found riches, many stayed, and, aided by rapidly developing communication and transportation technologies, America became a truly bicoastal nation. Economic opportunity drove the rapid development of San Francisco, a small village that was transformed into a city of more than 25,000 people during Fillmore's administration.

Deseret, the home of the Mormons, was organized as Utah Territory in 1850, and Fillmore appointed the Mormon leader Brigham Young as the territorial governor. Under Young, federal authority remained nonexistent, and Mormons ignored the decisions of federal judges.

Status of Women and African Americans

The same year Millard Fillmore was nominated as vice president, a lawyer's daughter named Elizabeth Cady Stanton assembled a convention of her own. At the Seneca Falls Convention in New York, she worked with Lucretia Mott and other activists on a statement of principles that began the modern women's suffrage and civil rights movement.

During Millard Fillmore's administration, Uncle Tom's Cabin, the definitive abolitionist literary work by Harriet Beecher Stowe, was published; it shed new light on "the peculiar institution" of slavery and fueled antislavery sentiment throughout the North. In addition, the 1850s saw the peak of the Underground Railroad, which assisted African Americans fleeing enslavement. Although Congress reached a compromise over slavery in 1850, substantial minorities of the population in both North and South condemned it.

Millard Fillmore: Impact and Legacy

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)