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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The nearly forgotten President

By Tom Morrow

His name has been the brunt of jokes by comedians for years. He’s one of America’s little-known Presidents, yet Millard Fillmore held office and made important decisions in a critical time in United States history.

The 1848 Whig National Convention nominated U.S. Army Gen. Zachary Taylor (a slaveholder from Louisiana) for President. This upset supporters of Congressman Henry Clay and “Conscience Whigs” opposed to slavery in territories gained in the Mexican-American War. A group of Whig pragmatists sought to balance the ticket, and nominated Fillmore for Vice President. Fillmore came from a free state, had moderate anti-slavery views, and could help carry his populous state of New York.

With the death of President Zachary Taylor, Fillmore became the 13th President, serving from 1850 to 1853. He was the last Whig Party President.

Fillmore was a lawyer from New York State, serving as a Congressman from 1833 to 1843. He became President at the height of the slavery crisis of 1850. When the Whig Party broke up in 1854–1856, Fillmore and other conservative Whigs joined the American Party, the political arm of the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic “Know-Nothing” movement, though he himself was not anti-Catholic. He was the American Party candidate for President in 1856, but finished third.

During the Civil War, Fillmore denounced secession and agreed the Union must be maintained by force if necessary, but he was very critical of the war policies of President Abraham Lincoln.

When Fillmore became President, the nation became embroiled in the so-called “Crisis of 1850” with the Pro-slavery Southerners demanding all of the new territories should be open to slavery. Northerners demanded complete exclusion. The recently-admitted state of Texas claimed a large part of New Mexico, and wanted the U.S. to assume their “national debt” of the former Republic of Texas. California settlers were petitioning for immediate admission as a free state. There also were slavery disputes in the District of Columbia, about the apprehension of slaves who escaped to the free Northern states, and the territorial status of newly-settled Utah.

President Taylor had stunned his fellow Southerners by urging the immediate admission of California and New Mexico as slavery-free states. Ironically, it was Fillmore, the Northerner, who supported slavery in at least part of the New Mexico territory to avoid an open break with the South.

Henry Clay constructed a compromise bill, which included provisions desired by both sides. Fillmore did not comment publicly on the merits of any of the compromise proposals.

Taking action on other controversial problems, Fillmore sent a message to Congress recommending Texas’s debts be paid provided that state abandoned its claims to the New Mexico territory. Fillmore appointed Brigham Young as the first governor of the Utah Territory in 1850.

American merchants and ship owners wanted Japan “opened up” for trade and be able to put into port during emergencies without being considered as criminals by the Japanese. Fillmore dispatched Commodore Matthew C. Perry to open Japan to relations with the outside world.

Before his death, Fillmore helped to establish the University of Buffalo, as well as a number of other Buffalo civic facilities. He died March 8, 1874.


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