The Life of Millard Fillmore

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Born in a log cabin, Millard Fillmore demonstrated that through methodical industry and competence an uninspiring man could rise to greatness.

Millard Fillmore was born in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Growing up, Fillmore endured the privation and difficulties that accompanied frontier life. He worked on his father’s farm until he was 15. At that time he was apprenticed to a cloth dresser. As a child he attended one-room schools. It was in such a school where Fillmore fell in love with Abigail Powers, who he would eventually marry.

Millard Fillmore in Politics

In 1823, Fillmore was admitted to the bar. In 1830, he moved his law practice to Buffalo. Fillmore was associated with Whig politician Thurlow Weed. In addition to practicing law, Fillmore also served in the House of Representatives for eight years. In 1848, Fillmore was the Comptroller of New York when he was elected Vice President of the United States, following the election of President Zachary Taylor.

As Vice President, Fillmore presided over the Senate during the tense and tricky negotiations that led to the Compromise of 1850. During the Congressional debates, Fillmore made no public comments on the merits of the proposal. However, Fillmore confided in President Taylor shortly before his death, telling him that in the event of a tie, Fillmore would vote in favour of the Compromise.

President Millard Fillmore

The unexpected death of Zachary Taylor and the ascension of Millard Fillmore to the Presidency resulted in a sudden shift in the administration’s outlook. Following the resignation of President Taylor’s Cabinet, President Fillmore appointed Daniel Webster as Secretary of State. This signalled an alliance with the moderate Whigs, who, like Fillmore, favoured the adoption of the Compromise.

In the meantime, California’s petition for statehood, which had been championed by President Taylor, was causing a bitter debate over the expansion of slavery.

Meanwhile, Henry Clay left the House of Representatives, exhausted by the arduous process of trying to ratify the Compromise of 1850. In his absence leadership was given to Senator Stephen Douglas. Fillmore used Clay’s absence to announce his support for the Compromise. He also sent a message to Congress recommending that Texas be given financial compensation in exchange for abandoning its claim that it was part of New Mexico.

This convinced a number of Northern Whigs to abandon their adherence to the Wilmot Proviso. The Wilmot Proviso stated that any territorial gains made by the United States as a result of the Mexican-American War were to be permanently closed to slavery.

Douglas’ strategy combined with Fillmore’s pressure from the White House made it possible to pass the Compromise as five separate pieces of legislation.

  1. The admission of California into the Union as a Free State.
  2. Compensation for Texas and the settling of the Texas-New Mexico border.
  3. The granting of territorial status to New Mexico.
  4. Federal assistance in the apprehending of runaway slaves.
  5. The abolition of the slave trade in Washington DC.

Some Whigs objected to President Fillmore’s signing of the Fugitive Slave Act and this was enough to cost him his party’s Presidential nomination in 1852.

Millard Fillmore’s Legacy

By the mid-1850s, it was becoming clear that the Compromise of 1850, which had been intended to end the debate over slavery was, at best an uneasy truce.

As the Whig Party disintegrated and the United Stated continued to spiral towards the Civil War, Fillmore refused to join the Republican Party. In 1856, Fillmore accepted the Presidential nomination for the American Party. During the Civil War he sided with the North, but remained a vocal critic of Abraham Lincoln. Millard Fillmore died in 1874.

Works Cited

Millard Fillmore. The White House. US Government. Apr.29/09.

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