President Millard Fillmore
From the Wall Street Journal, "Tough Job, Wrong Man: The compromise he supported only heightened tensions between the states and included a draconian fugitive slave law,: by Fergus M. Bordewich, on May 23, 2011 -- Queen Victoria called Millard Fillmore the handsomest man she had ever met. He dispatched the naval expedition that opened Japan to the Western world. He fostered the public works that helped lay the foundation for American industrial might. Born into crushing poverty, he rose to become president of the United States. His presidency, however, is regarded by many historians as one of the worst in American history—a judgment that Paul Finkelman's passionately argued biography does nothing to dispel.
Fillmore was an accidental president. An amiable and respected but not widely known ex-congressman and comptroller of New York state, he was selected in 1848 as the Whig Party's ticket-balancer for its presidential candidate, Mexican War hero and Louisiana plantation owner Zachary Taylor. When Taylor suddenly died in July 1850, a little more than a year into his presidency, probably from gastroenteritis exacerbated by incompetent medical treatment, Fillmore was abruptly propelled into the White House. "The most obscure vice president ever," Mr. Finkeman writes, "was now president."
"Millard Fillmore" By Paul Finkelman
Fillmore took office at a momentous time. The Mexican War, concluded in 1848, had delivered to the U.S. a vast swath of territory stretching from the Texas frontier to the Pacific Ocean. Would this new empire be divided up into slave states or free? There was little time to ponder the question: Tens of thousands of Forty-Niners were demanding California's immediate admission to the Union as a free state, threatening to overturn the carefully nurtured balance between free and slave states.
The South, perceiving that it would lose its disproportionate leverage over the national government, demanded the creation of a new tier of slave states across the Southwest. Texans were already preparing to march an army into New Mexico Territory to seize it for slavery. At the same time slave-state politicians were loudly demanding a tough new fugitive slave law to stanch the northward hemorrhage of black freedom-seekers. Talk of secession was in the air, and threats of bloodshed rang through the halls of Congress.
The Thirteenth President of the USA: Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)
During the bitter congressional debate in the spring and summer of 1850, Sen. Henry Clay had struggled to craft some kind of compromise. President Taylor, though a slaveholder himself, had opposed any arrangement that would allow the extension of slavery into the western territories, regarding yet more slave states as a threat to the Union's stability. Fillmore had no part in these maneuverings. He was politically isolated—"too insecure to be forceful," Mr. Finkelman writes, "and too proud to ingratiate himself."
As president, though, Fillmore played a critical role. He was far more willing than Taylor to appease the South. Indeed, the executive branch, under his leadership, made a 180-degree turn. "God knows I detest slavery," Fillmore declared in a letter to Daniel Webster, his secretary of state. Yet he made no secret of his disdain for abolitionists or of his apathy toward the rights of African-Americans, slave and free. In this, sadly, he was pretty much in tune with the conservatives who made up the vast preponderance of Congress.
The compromise that was finally adopted was brought to fruition by Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, with Fillmore's support. California was to be admitted to the Union as a free state. The far-flung reaches of New Mexico and Utah—including the future states of Arizona, Nevada, most of Colorado and part of Wyoming—were to become official territories, with future settlers deciding for themselves whether to adopt or reject slavery. Texas would abandon its claim to New Mexico and in return receive a $10 million payoff to retire its pre-statehood debt—"the first federal bailout of a state," Mr. Finkelman dryly notes. The thriving slave trade in Washington, D.C.—a national embarrassment—would be terminated, but slavery itself would continue to be protected in the nation's capital.
The South also got its fugitive slave law. This measure made the federal government responsible for the arrest of freedom-seekers everywhere in the North—the widest expansion of federal power up to that time—and gave its commissioners the power to draft any citizen, however unwilling he might be, to help enforce it. Mr. Finkelman, a constitutional scholar, brilliantly dissects this law's many legal flaws, among them a draconian provision that held federal marshals personally liable for the value of any slaves who escaped. The Fugitive Slave Law, Mr. Finkelman writes, "would dominate the rest of [Fillmore's] administration, taint everything else he did, and in the end help destroy his presidency, his party, and ultimately the Union itself."
No other single federal act would do more to turn previously neutral whites against slavery. Most white northerners were deeply racist by today's standards. But when the federal government reached into their own communities and demanded that they collaborate in slave-catching, they rebelled. In several instances, abolitionist crowds literally ripped fugitives from the hands of federal commissioners and sped them to safety in Canada via the Underground Railroad. Some states, such as Massachusetts, even made it illegal for office holders to enforce the law.
In this short, fierce book—part of the "American Presidents" series—Mr. Finkelman has delivered an unvarnished but compelling portrait of one of our least remembered but far from insignificant presidents. Against his grain, he gives Fillmore credit for promoting a number of "visionary" ideas that would come to fruition only after he left the presidency in 1853: the transcontinental railroad, the assertion of American power in Hawaii, the building of a Central American canal. "But on the central issues of the age," Mr. Finkelman writes at the end of "Millard Fillmore," "his vision was myopic and his legacy is worse." (source: Wall Street Journal, Mr. Bordewich is the author of "Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America" and "Washington: The Making of the American Capital.")
Click here to watch Historian and legal scholar Paul Finkelman recount the presidential tenure of Millard Fillmore, on C-Span's Book TV.