Paved With Good Intentions: The Presidency of Millard Fillmore

From July 1850 to March 1853, Millard Fillmore served as the thirteenth President of the United States during one of the most tumultuous time periods in the country’s history. With the United States on the brink of collapse and the slavery issue reaching its zenith, Fillmore’s decisive and conciliatory leadership led the nation out of a military confrontation between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions of the country. During his two and a half years as President, he attempted to build a consensus between North and South, in an effort to unite rather than give in to the sectional demands that evolved over the issue. The three key issues that Fillmore faced during his time in office was the transition from his predecessor’s administration to his own, the Compromise of 1850, and the Fugitive Slave Act. These issues were defined by how President Fillmore chose to combat the issues of his time, and while his intentions involved keeping the nation together in a time of division, he in the end pleased none. By examining these issues as well as the life and traits of this unlikely person who ascended to the highest office in the land, Millard Fillmore’s legacy can be fully determined.

Born on January 7, 1800, in Summerhill, New York, Millard Fillmore was the first son and second child of Nathaniel and Phoebe Fillmore. His birth was a respite from the troubles that the family was facing, “For Nathaniel the birth of Millard was a brief distraction from mounting misfortunes. To his woes of poor crops, poor weather, and a crowded cabin was added a defective land title….”[1] Western New York in the early nineteenth century was a frontier region, and in a way foretold the kind of childhood Fillmore grew up in. Because of his “…station in life [that] arose as much from his father’s blunders as from his own ambition. Nathaniel’s experience with farming was unhappy…he would not urge it upon any of his five sons.”[2] His father’s failures led to Millard Fillmore’s ambitious desire in the path he took in life.

In 1819, Fillmore met his future wife Abigail Powers, where the two shared a mutual love for reading and the arts, the result being the start of their long courtship. Despite the initial attraction between Fillmore and Powers, his father moved the family from New Hope to Montville. Here, the young man began work with Judge Walter Wood. The Judge’s tutelage provided Fillmore an understanding of British and New York State law.[3] In 1826, Fillmore and Powers were wed at the bride’s home. From 1829 to 1831, he served in the New York State Assembly where “…the most memorable accomplishment of his service to his native state [New York] was as a member of the Assembly when he championed the movement to abolish imprisonment for debt in 1831.”[4] In 1833, Fillmore was elected to the United States House of Representatives and joined the new Whig Party. Unlike his work in the New York State Assembly, Fillmore’s time in Congress from 1833 to 1837 passed with few notable accomplishments.[5] Ten years later in 1847, the lawyer returned to the political arena, running for New York State Comptroller in the hopes of expanding Whig influence in his home state.[6] This victory placed Fillmore’s name in the Whig spotlight, leading to his rise to nationwide fame.

The 1848 Whig National Convention in Philadelphia nominated General Zachary Taylor, a famed hero of the Mexican American War. A slave owner from Louisiana, the nomination of the Southerner did not please Whigs from the North, who now supported the nomination of a radically anti-slavery running mate. In the end, New York State Comptroller Millard Fillmore, was nominated to be Taylor’s running mate.[7] The ticket won on November 7, 1848, and on March 4, 1849, Fillmore was sworn in as the twelfth Vice President of the United States. After serving for sixteen months in the second highest office in the land, his time came to lead the country at last. He did not become President through an election or an impeachment, but instead the death of his predecessor in the midst of one of the greatest crises the United States was facing. Starting from humble roots around the Finger Lakes, the lawyer and politician was now the President of the United States, wielding new power that he could have never hoped for.

On July 9, 1850, President Taylor passed away and Millard Fillmore within a few days faced his first challenge as the nation’s newest President. During his tenure as Vice President, Fillmore’s relationship with “Taylor’s cabinet had not been too civil…Shortly before the death of the president, they had been more friendly only because a vote on the Compromise was approaching.”[8] The new President’s relationship with his predecessor’s cabinet had always been tumultuous, and Fillmore sought to distinguish himself from Taylor. When he took office, every cabinet official that served under President Taylor tendered their resignation, which the New Yorker promptly accepted. While this was anticipated, he did not expect the rapid events that took place over the next month. At first, he asked the outgoing cabinet to stay with him for a month, but “They agreed to stay for only a week…The new president acted quickly. He picked a new cabinet within ten days.”[9] This act of defiance made it clear that the divide between the Taylor administration and the Fillmore administration was massive.

The President’s selection of a new cabinet in July and August 1850 was the first major crisis of his administration. The cabinet appointed by Zachary Taylor held an immense dislike the new President, and chose resignation over cooperation. By the end of Fillmore’s first day in office, he already “…settled on [Daniel] Webster for his cabinet’s premier.”[10] His selection of Daniel Webster as Secretary of State was a difficult choice, as the Massachusetts Senator feared the potential people who could take over his seat. By July 20—eleven days after becoming President of the United States—all positions that President Fillmore wanted filled were sent to the Senate for confirmation.[11] This massive effort proved to the nation that the Fillmore administration fully distanced itself from the previous one. It showed that Fillmore moved in a different direction than Taylor, one that led to the greatest crisis of the decade.

On December 2, 1850, Fillmore sent his first annual address to the United States Congress to summarize his first months in office, as well as what he desired as a leader. The President wrote that “All mutual concession in the nature of compromise must necessarily be unwelcome to men of extreme opinions.”[12] This was the Compromise of 1850, an agreement that was the crowning achievement of his time in office. With the issue of slavery in the territories that were gained at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, it was clear that Fillmore had to deal with the issue that threatened to start a civil war. In order to begin the process of establishing the compromise, the omnibus bill that combined the proposals first was dissolved and the individual bills voted on were signed by President Fillmore as separate pieces rather than one.

Fillmore’s primary objective was compromise, and as he faced down the omnibus package, he hoped to end the sectional divides within Congress and the rest of the United States. While “He would tolerate wide latitude of opinions among Whigs on slavery, if for the time being they would cease prodding the nation to fits of suicide. Peace over slavery was his objective and to obtain it he adopted a flexible approach.”[13] Whereas President Taylor before sought to veto the compromise, Fillmore’s interests were not aligned to one party or region, and so was interested in unity rather than division. The strategy was to attach an unthinkable piece of pro-South legislation to poison the omnibus, and so Congress allowed it to die. In its place, the omnibus was broken up into multiple bills, and by early-September 1850, the Compromise of 1850 was passed and signed. California was admitted as a free state, the border disputes between Texas and the New Mexico Territory were resolved, two new territories were admitted and organized under popular sovereignty, and the slave trade was abolished in the District of Columbia, but not slavery itself.[14] Fillmore quickly signed them into law, but he hesitated on the Fugitive Slave Act. Despite hesitating, it too was signed as well. This showed the President’s willingness to make concessions and his conciliatory attitude that the country needed to avoid a civil war, and the Compromise of 1850 became the most important series of laws passed by Congress during the Fillmore administration.

The third major issue Fillmore faced was connected to the Compromise of 1850. This was the Fugitive Slave Act coming into law. On December 2, 1851, during Fillmore’s second annual message to Congress, the President said that “The Constitution declares that—No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor.”[15] Even though he said this over a year after the signing of the Fugitive Slave Act, the President’s argument found its origin in the Constitution of the United States. Despite appearing in favor of the South, Fillmore’s interest was to preserve the United States and to stop a civil war or insurrection from breaking out. The President was actually opposed to slavery, writing to his Secretary of State that “God knows that 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 can get rid of it without destroying the last hope of free government in the world.”[16] With the knowledge that the issue could potentially demolish a nation already teetering on the brink of war, Fillmore chose to sacrifice his personal desires rather than see the country break apart.

Rather than do the politically expedient act, Fillmore “Although he disliked slavery…signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act for what he felt was the good of the country. It was not for his own personal gain for he knew he would draw the hatred of abolitionists and members of his own party.”[17] Even support from the Whig Party was found for the President’s decision. Daniel Webster preferred the country to remain together over the tantalizing fulfillment of excising slavery from the country.[18] The Fugitive Slave Act was the most controversial portion of the Compromise of 1850, and it destroyed Millard Fillmore’s political career. Despite his hopes, the issue of slavery in the territories was not resolved, and within a decade the nation fell into civil war. Fillmore’s actions pushed back the final confrontation over slavery, and never truly resolved it was planned.

Millard Fillmore’s intellectual nature was one of many assets he had when taking office as President of the United States. The future lawyer and politician grew up being able to read and write, but he was himself primarily self-educated. During childhood, “His father’s library consisted only of an almanac, hymn book, Bible, and sometimes a weekly paper from Auburn.”[19] Fillmore as a result took every opportunity he could to read, and education became one of the key facets of the young man’s life. His desire to learn expanded beyond a simple education. When he was young, Fillmore’s “…enlightenment began at seventeen when neighbors organized a circulating library and he brought a share in it. Voraciously he attacked the books…He purchased a dictionary, and, determined to learn the meaning of every unknown word, he set up his own school on a desk in a shop.”[20] Determination drove the young man to learn even when he was engaged in hard work during this apprenticeship. Millard Fillmore’s lifelong emphasis on the importance of a good education transformed him into well-read person, a necessary trait for a future President.

Fillmore’s conciliatory nature was a second major asset of the President. This trait can be displayed through his actions while working on the Compromise of 1850. In the days leading up to the compromise, Fillmore desired “…a cessation of all the agitation that had the nation pitting its armed forces against a state and that turned men’s minds away from the real needs of the nation.”[21] The President clearly desired to unite the country, and his only true interest was the preservation of the United States rather than the interests of one region. While President Taylor was willing to take sides on the issue, Fillmore wanted to act contrary to his predecessor. During his first annual message to Congress in December 1850, Fillmore said that “In our domestic policy the Constitution will be my guide.”[22] Rather than take sides, the President chose instead to defer to a document that is itself born in conciliation and compromise. This is a clear example of Fillmore’s nature as President. He wished to end an issue that eventually led to civil war and to deal with the other important issues facing the nation. Rather than risk the further destruction of relations between North and South, he instead attempted—albeit disappointingly—to unify the country in the long term.

The President’s third asset was the relationship he held with his wife Abigail Fillmore. Her time as First Lady brought physical changes to the Executive Mansion that reflected her own and her husband’s studious disposition. On September 23, 1850, President Fillmore asked Congress for two thousand dollars for the White House Library.[23] Despite his initial desire for such a room, it was the First Lady who took the initiative once there was funding. It was obvious that “…she did not select books for herself alone but selected books that appealed to everyone.”[24] Abigail Fillmore’s role in setting up the new library was pivotal, and the selection of books showed that she was interested in sharing those interests with others in the nation’s capital and for future Presidents and their families. The addition of the White House Library gave Abigail Fillmore a key position in changing the appearance of the White House, as well as adding an important refuge for her husband and herself during his administration.

During the two and a half years that Millard Fillmore served as President of the United States, the issues that faced the nation for decades were brought to a point that threatened to drive the nation into a premature civil war. Despite his intentions, Fillmore’s policies merely relaxed tensions between North and South and did not end them. The legacy of the thirteenth President is shared with the other Antebellum Period chief executives who did nothing as the country fell apart, but his legacy in fact is one that sought to resolve the major issues dividing the United States. Through distancing himself from his predecessor, the Compromise of 1850, and the Fugitive Slave Act, Fillmore proved that he had an active administration. It also displayed his courage and innate desire to unite a country that was falling apart. It is evident that President Millard Fillmore’s legacy was an active one that sought to accomplish great change by resolving the country’s problems through compromise. Instead though, he pushed these problems away for a short time before they tore the nation apart a decade.

[1] Robert J. Rayback, Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President (Newtown, Connecticut: American Political Biography Press, 1959), 3.

[2] Rayback, 5.

[3] Robert J. Scarry, Millard Fillmore (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2001), 22-23.

[4] Scarry, 42.

[5] Scarry, 54.

[6] Rayback, 169-170.

[7] Rayback, 184-185.

[8] Scarry, 169.

[9] Scarry, 169.

[10] Rayback, 242.

[11] Scarry, 9.

[12] Millard Fillmore, “First Annual Message,” December 2, 1850.

[13] Rayback, 247.

[14] Rayback, 250-252.

[15] Millard Fillmore, “Second Annual Message,” December 2, 1851.

[16] Rayback, 271.

[17] Scarry, 175.

[18] Scarry, 176.

[19] Scarry, 20.

[20] Rayback, 6.

[21] Rayback, 247.

[22] Fillmore, “First Annual Message.”

[23] Scarry, 188.

[24] Scarry, 188.

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