19th Century US History

The Legacy of Millard Fillmore



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Associating Millard Fillmore with the term "legacy" might, to the average person, seem problematical. After all, a man whose dying words were purported to be: "The nourishment is palatable" (he was being fed soup on his deathbed in the aftermath of a stroke), hardly seems all that interesting and dynamic a character. There were no great wars or defining emergencies that President Fillmore had to attend to, nor were there any defining acts on his part that would help high school history students to remember him by. But he was not a completely boring and uninteresting a President. There were crucial things going on politically in our country, and he was right in the middle of a great compromise that delayed the Civil War by eleven years.

Millard Fillmore was the second Vice President to assume office (1850-1853) after the death of the incumbent. (The first was John Tyler in 1841.) Fillmore's predecessor, President Zachary Taylor was in office about a year when he died of gastroenteritis (some believe as a result of eating contaminated strawberries from the White House Garden). His first order of business was to completely replace Taylor's Cabinet with men who supported compromise legislation designed to accommodate the growing divisions between slave and free states. During this change in Presidents, great Senate compromisers like Henry Clay and Stephen A. Douglas worked frantically to prevent the upcoming breakup of the Union. With Fillmore's backing, the result was the Compromise of 1850, which gave a little bit to everyone and papered over sectional differences, which would boil over to secession and Civil War.

Fillmore was the last of the old Whig party. His inability to placate either wing of his party cost him renomination to run for his own term. He and Daniel Webster were defeated by Winfield Scott, who lost the election to Franklin Pierce. Fillmore was, in the end, another President in a series of one-term Presidents, who were unable to sustain the creaking compromise needed to govern our fractious nation. Believing that if all sides of the slavery dispute could somehow be placated he could keep the Union together, Fillmore's support of Clay and Douglas ultimately succeeded only in reaching a tenuous compromise that later came apart at the seams, first in "Bleeding Kansas," and then in 1851 when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter.

Returning to civilian life, Millard Fillmore became one of the founders and later Chancellor of the University of Buffalo. He returned to politics and ran for President in 1856 as the so-called Know-Nothing Party candidate. The Know-Nothings were basically an anti-Catholic, anti-immigration and nativist group who for awhile during the 1850's did quite well in national politics until their decline in 1856 along with Fillmore's failed run for office. The Know-Nothings won but one state (Maryland), but made quite a respectable showing (almost 22% of the vote) for a third party.

So, Millard Fillmore's legacy is mixed. During his presidency he welcomed California into the union, separated the New Mexico territory from Texas, abolished slave trade within the boundaries of Washington, D.C., and strengthened the hated Fugitive Slave Law that put U.S. Marshals at the disposal of slave catchers seeking runaways in the north. It is difficult to be too critical of President Millard Fillmore, though. He served during a time when our country was becoming unraveled, and he was faced with the impossible task of trying to come up with a way that would not have his presidency remembered as the one where our country fell apart.

More about this author: Jerry Curtis

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