Born of humble origins in New York State, Millard Fillmore (1800-1874) became a lawyer and won election to the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in 1833. He served four terms in Congress but left in 1843 to mount an unsuccessful run for the governorship of New York. In 1848, he emerged as the Whig Party candidate for vice president under Zachary Taylor, and after Taylor’s victory he presided over months of early debate in Congress over the controversial Compromise of 1850. Taylor died suddenly in mid-1850 and Fillmore succeeded him, becoming the nation’s 13th president (1850-1853). Though Fillmore personally opposed slavery, he saw the Compromise as necessary to preserving the Union and enforced its strong Fugitive Slave Act during his presidency. This stance alienated Fillmore from voters in the North, and in 1852 he failed to gain the Whig nomination.
Millard Fillmore’s Early Life
Despite popular legend surrounding the humble origins of various politicians before and after him, Millard Fillmore was one of the few presidents actually born in a log cabin, in Cayuga County, part of New York’s Finger Lakes region, on January 7, 1800. He received little formal education, apprenticing to a wool carder as a teenager before switching to work in a law office. At 23, he was admitted to the New York bar. Fillmore had fallen in love with Abigail Powers, a teacher, when he was 19, but refused to marry until 1826, when he had established himself as a lawyer.
Fillmore entered politics in 1828 as a member of the Anti-Masonic Party, built on democratic, libertarian principles and an opposition to exclusive societies like Freemasonry. Elected to the state assembly, Fillmore became a close ally of the powerful New York political boss Thurlow Weed, who supported his run for the House of Representatives in 1831. Weed led the Anti-Masons into the new Whig Party in 1834.
From Congress to the White House
Millard Fillmore served four terms in Congress but declined to run for reelection after 1843. At Weed’s urging, he ran unsuccessfully for governor of New York in 1844. Four years later, Fillmore was serving as comptroller of New York when he was chosen as a dark horse pick for vice president under the Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor. As a pro-business northerner, Fillmore served to balance the victorious Whig ticket opposite Taylor, a slaveholder from Louisiana.
At the time, sectional tensions over slavery and its extension into new western territories threatened to pull the nation apart. Taylor pushed for the immediate admission of California and New Mexico as states, a position that angered many southerners since both were likely to ban slavery. Beginning in early 1850, Vice President Fillmore presided over the Senate during months of debate over a compromise package of legislation proposed by Whig Senator Henry Clay. While Taylor was against Clay’s bill, Fillmore privately told the president he would vote in favor if there were a tie in the Senate. Congress had been debating for five months when Taylor took ill suddenly after an Independence Day celebration in Washington. He died on July 9, 1850, and Fillmore became the nation’s 13th president.
Millard Fillmore’s Presidency
Millard Fillmore, who only learned of the seriousness of Taylor’s condition a few hours before he died, acknowledged in his first message to Congress that he had become president “by a painful dispensation of Divine Providence.” Taylor’s cabinet resigned, and Fillmore appointed Daniel Webster as his secretary of state, clearly aligning himself with the moderate Whigs who favored compromise. Clay’s legislation gained ground in Congress after Senator Stephen Douglas took up its defense, and Fillmore helped its cause by coming out publicly in its favor, calling the compromise “a means of healing sectional differences.”
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Adopted that September, the Compromise of 1850 would define Fillmore’s presidency. California was admitted to the Union as a free state, while New Mexico was granted territorial status. The slave trade in Washington, D.C., was abolished, while a strong Fugitive Slave Act put federal officers at the disposal of slave owners seeking their runaway slaves. Fillmore, who opposed slavery personally, was unwilling to touch it in states where it already existed for the sake of preserving the Union. Over the next few years, he consistently authorized the use of federal force in carrying out the return of slaves, further enraging northern abolitionists (including many in his own party).
Aside from his handling of the growing sectional crisis, Fillmore focused on encouraging America’s expanding economy during his presidency. He favored federal support for the building of a transcontinental railroad and opened markets abroad, restoring diplomatic relations with Mexico and urging trade with Japan. He also took a strong stand against Napoleon III, invoking the Monroe Doctrine when France attempted to violate Hawaii’s independence in 1851.
Millard Fillmore’s Post-Presidency Career
In 1852, the Whigs denied Millard Fillmore their presidential nomination in favor of General Winfield Scott, who lost to Democrat Franklin Pierce in the general election. Within a few years, it had become clear that the Compromise of 1850 was only a temporary truce, and as violence broke out in Kansas and Nebraska the Whig Party splintered into factions and disintegrated. Fillmore refused to join the new Republican Party and endorse its strong antislavery platform, and in 1856 he accepted the presidential nomination of the short-lived Know-Nothing (or American) Party. After finishing third behind Democrat James Buchanan and Republican John C. Fremont, Fillmore retired from politics. His wife Abigail had died in 1853, and in 1858 he married a wealthy widow, Caroline McIntosh.
Fillmore opposed the policies of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, throughout the Civil War (1861-1865), supporting the presidential candidacy of Lincoln’s Democratic rival, General George McClellan, in 1864. He died in 1874 after suffering a stroke. A capable administrator and devoted public servant, Fillmore has largely been remembered for his ambivalent stance on slavery and his failure to prevent growing sectional conflict from erupting into a full-blown civil war.