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Millard Fillmore Biography

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#13: Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)

Time has not been kind to Millard Fillmore (January 7, 1800 – March 8, 1874), the last Whig President. Historians generally consider him one of the worst US Presidents, and he has been largely forgotten by the general public. But Fillmore had the misfortune of governing during a tense era. Thrust into office by the unexpected death of President Taylor, Fillmore inherited an intense controversy over the expansion of slavery – a controversy which had just reached its boiling point during Taylor’s administration and which came to define Fillmore’s domestic agenda.

Fillmore was from the Finger Lakes area of New York State. He earned admission to the bar in 1823 and opened his law practice in East Aurora, New York. Joining the Anti-Masonic Party, Fillmore was elected to the New York State Assembly, where he served three terms from 1829-31. As a Whig, he was a US Representative from 1833-35 and from 1837-43. After an unsuccessful run for Governor of New York, he served as New York State Comptroller from 1848-49. In 1848, Fillmore was nominated for Vice President to balance out a ticket headlined by the popular-but-polarizing, not to mention southern, Zachary Taylor.

The most contentious issue that election year was the expansion of slavery into western territories acquired from Mexico under President Polk. As President, Taylor instructed them to skip the traditional territorial stage, draft constitutions, and apply for statehood, knowing that their constitutions would likely forbid slavery. In an intriguing twist, Fillmore, who did not own slaves, clashed with the slave-owning Taylor, believing that allowing slavery in these territories would placate southerners. He also felt he had an obligation: "God knows that I detest slavery, but it is an existing evil [...] and we must endure it and give it such protection as is guaranteed by the Constitution."

In January, 1850, Senator Henry Clay, a Whig, called for compromise and Vice President Fillmore had a front-row seat to the bitter debates which followed. Shortly before Taylor’s death that July, the publicly-taciturn Fillmore indicated to Taylor that in the event of a tie vote on Clay's bill, Fillmore would vote in favor. Then Taylor died and all of his cabinet resigned, leading Fillmore to replace them almost entirely with supporters of what eventually became the Compromise of 1850. Clay presented a new, less potent version of the compromise to Congress, and Fillmore in turn advocated for the original version. The debate raged even further as governmental and public support waned. Clay was too old, sick, and exhausted to continue; he left Washington and turned the reigns over to Senator Stephen Douglas. In the end, Douglas broke the compromise into five bills, all of which passed Congress and were signed by Fillmore. California was admitted as a free state and the slave trade was abolished in DC – but slavery itself was still allowed there. The Fugitive Slave Act became law. The Texas-New Mexico border dispute was settled and Texas was compensated for lost land, while New Mexico and Utah were granted territorial status with popular sovereignty on the slavery issue. The public was not pleased.

As President, Fillmore did begin America’s efforts to open up Japan for trade and did valiantly protect the Hawaiian Islands from the French and the English, but he also took the fall for an embarrassing diplomatic episode in which a Venezuelan attempted to liberate Cuba using a self-created army of Americans.  When the Whig Party disintegrated, Fillmore opted not to join the Republican Party but did run for President again in 1856 on the xenophobic, anti-Catholic American Party ticket. With Andrew Jackson’s nephew as his running mate, he made an unusually strong showing for a third-party candidate.


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