Fillmore the forgotten

On July 9, 1850, 169 years ago today, President Zachary Taylor died after developing a form of cholera brought on by ingesting bad cherries and ice milk. Taylor had carried the 1848 election for the Whig Party as a decorated hero of the Mexican War. His death meant that his vice president, a man whom Horace Greeley called “timid, irresolute, uncertain,” and that even the White House’s website calls “uninspiring,” would assume the presidency during a time when the slavery question was the prevalent issue of the day. His name was Millard Fillmore, a president largely forgotten today.

Early years

Born on Jan. 7, 1800, in Locke, New York (now Summerhill), Fillmore worked on a farm and was apprenticed to a textile mill as a child. At age 14, he began attending school during breaks at the mill. It was there that he fell in love with his teacher, Abigail Powers, the daughter of a Baptist minister who was only two years older than Fillmore.

In 1818, Fillmore began studying law while working as a clerk and secretary for Cayuga County attorney Walter Wood. He passed the New York bar in 1823 and opened a law office in East Aurora. In 1826, he and Abigail were married and the couple moved to Buffalo, where Fillmore established another law office and became active in local politics.

In 1828, Fillmore met newspaper publisher Thurlow Weed, an influential political boss that helped organize the Anti-Masonic Party. Weed recruited Fillmore and backed him for a seat in the New York State Assembly. From 1828-31, Fillmore served in the Assembly and was instrumental in establishing laws that abolished the imprisonment of debtors.

In 1832, Fillmore was elected as an Anti-Mason to his first term in Congress, representing New York’s 32nd District. After one term, he joined the newly established Whig Party, a coalition of politicians opposed to the Andrew Jackson administration. He opted not to run for Congress in 1834, but won three consecutive terms in 1836, 1838, and 1840.

A popular member of Congress, Fillmore was appointed the chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee in 1841, when the Whigs held a majority in Congress. He used his position to promote higher tariff rates and to pass an appropriation bill that helped fund the development of the telegraph by Samuel Morse.

The second Whig vice president

In 1842, Fillmore announced that he would not run for Congress, choosing to focus his efforts on running for governor of New York in 1844. Due to the death of President William Henry Harrison in 1841, followed by the unpopular presidency of John Tyler, the Whigs had lost much support throughout the country; Fillmore lost the 1844 New York gubernatorial election to Democratic U.S. Senator Silas Wright Jr. Fillmore blamed his loss on abolitionists and Catholic foreigners and went back to practicing law.

He did not stay away from politics for long. In 1847, he was elected state comptroller, the state government’s chief financial officer, but a year later a bigger opportunity came along: the vice presidency.

At the 1848 Whig National Convention in Philadelphia, Major General Zachary Taylor, a slave-holding southerner, was nominated for president. Hoping to have a northerner to balance the ticket, the Whigs considered cotton manufacturer and former Congressman Abbot Lawrence of Massachusetts. A powerful coalition, led by prominent Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, opposed Lawrence on the grounds they did not want two cotton-based money makers on the ticket. They pushed instead for Fillmore, who was chosen to be Taylor’s running mate.

The Taylor/Fillmore ticket found itself opposed by Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan on the Democratic ticket and former President Martin Van Buren on the Free Soil Party ticket. Winning 163 electoral votes and carrying 15 of 30 states, Taylor defeated Cass and Van Buren, but the victory was hollow for Fillmore after he learned that Weed and New York Senator William H. Seward were actively trying to undermine his political influence. Seward had made a deal with Taylor in which he, not Fillmore, would decide on patronage jobs for New Yorkers. The deal resulted in those not chosen by Seward for jobs in the administration blaming Fillmore, making him many enemies.

Sectional strife

The American victory over Mexico in the Mexican War of 1846-48 exacerbated tensions over slavery throughout the country. As part of Mexico’s surrender, the United States acquired the territory that makes up modern day California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. With the new territory came the question of whether or not to expand slavery.

In 1820, the Missouri Compromise attempted to settle the slavery debate by establishing a line, running west from the Missouri-Arkansas, border that would serve as a boundary for slave and free states: slavery would be legal in any state or territory admitted into the union south of the line and illegal in any state or territory admitted north of the line. This line had only been utilized once, when Texas ceded its territory north of the line to the U.S. government in exchange for admission as a slave state. But in 1849, gold was discovered in California, prompting many to flock out west to seek their fortune. The following year, California applied for statehood, but one problem arose: California’s boundaries contained land both north and south of the line.

Despite being a southerner and slaveholder, Taylor opposed the spread of slavery into the new territory. He threatened to send federal troops to enforce the boundary between Texas and New Mexico, which Texas threatened to invade to take by force land it claimed across the Pecos River. Taylor further told Congress that he would veto any compromise put forth on the matter.

Fillmore, who personally opposed slavery, presided over the Senate debates, often times having to mediate when tempers flared. A few days before Taylor’s death, Fillmore confided to the president that should the vote on a compromise result in a tie, he would cast a tie-breaking vote in its favor on the conviction that a compromise was necessary to save the Union.

The death of Taylor made Fillmore the 13th President of the United States, and he appointed to his cabinet individuals who favored a congressional compromise. On Aug. 6, 1850, Fillmore addressed Congress and suggested Texas be paid to abandon its claim to disputed territory in New Mexico.

Congress responded by passing the Compromise of 1850. In it were five key provisions:

• California admitted as a slave state;

• Texas compensated for the loss of territory in the boundary dispute with New Mexico;

• New Mexico given territorial status;

• Abolition of the slave trade in Washington, D.C. (though slavery was still legal in the district); and

• The enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law, which allowed slaveholders to pursue and capture, even with the aid of federal troops, runaway slaves that fled to free states.

Fillmore signed the compromise, believing it would placate southern lawmakers, some of whom were threatening secession. While the compromise temporarily prevented war, sectional strife increased. The antislavery movement gained momentum, particularly after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” In turn, the increase in abolitionists further embittered southerners, who started to view secession as their only option.

Later years

In 1852, the Whigs denied Fillmore the presidential nomination, selecting Major General Winfield Scott as their candidate. Scott lost to Democrat Franklin Pierce, and Fillmore left office on March 4, 1853. Twenty-six days later, Abigail Fillmore died.

Fillmore attempted to run for president again in 1856, when he became the nominee of the American Party (also dubbed the “Know-Nothing Party”). The American Party focused on curbing immigration, particularly of Catholics, and maintaining the Union. The election went to Democrat James Buchanan; Fillmore received only 22 percent of the popular vote and no electoral votes. He never held political office again.

In 1858, Fillmore married Caroline Carmichael McIntosh, an Albany heiress whose fortune allowed Fillmore to undertake philanthropic ventures, such as the creation of Buffalo General Hospital. He became a leading citizen in Buffalo and served as the first chancellor of the University of Buffalo (now the State University of New York at Buffalo).

During the Civil War, he supported the Union, but he opposed President Abraham Lincoln, whom he called a “military despot.” He supported Democrat George McClellan in 1864 and President Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction program after the Civil War.

Fillmore died on March 8, 1874, at home after suffering a stroke. He is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo.

Although he pushed for the expansion of railroads further west and commissioned Commodore Matthew Perry to open trade relations with Japan, Fillmore’s presidency was overshadowed by the Compromise of 1850. As a result, historians consistently rank him among the worst presidents, though it is worth noting that his two consecutive successors, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, rank even lower.


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