13. MILLARD FILLMORE
In his rise from a log cabin to wealth and the White
House, Millard Fillmore demonstrated that through methodical
industry and some competence an uninspiring man could make the
American dream come true.
Born in the Finger Lakes country of New York in 1800,
Fillmore as a youth endured the privations of frontier life. He
worked on his father's farm, and at 15 was apprenticed to a
cloth dresser. He attended one-room schools, and fell in love
with the redheaded teacher, Abigail Powers, who later became his
In 1823 he was admitted to the bar; seven years later he
moved his law practice to Buffalo. As an associate of the Whig
politician Thurlow Weed, Fillmore held state office and for
eight years was a member of the House of Representatives. In
1848, while Comptroller of New York, he was elected Vice
Fillmore presided over the Senate during the months of
nerve-wracking debates over the Compromise of 1850. He made no
public comment on the merits of the compromise proposals, but a
few days before President Taylor's death, he intimated to him
that if there should be a tie vote on Henry Clay's bill, he
would vote in favor of it.
Thus the sudden accession of Fillmore to the Presidency in
July 1850 brought an abrupt political shift in the
administration. Taylor's Cabinet resigned and President Fillmore
at once appointed Daniel Webster to be Secretary of State, thus
proclaiming his alliance with the moderate Whigs who favored the
A bill to admit California still aroused all the violent
arguments for and against the extension of slavery, without any
progress toward settling the major issues.
Clay, exhausted, left Washington to recuperate, throwing
leadership upon Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. At this
critical juncture, President Fillmore announced in favor of the
Compromise. On August 6, 1850, he sent a message to Congress
recommending that Texas be paid to abandon her claims to part of
This helped influence a critical number of northern Whigs in
Congress away from their insistence upon the Wilmot Proviso--the
stipulation that all land gained by the Mexican War must be
closed to slavery.
Douglas's effective strategy in Congress combined with
Fillmore's pressure from the White House to give impetus to the
Compromise movement. Breaking up Clay's single legislative
package, Douglas presented five separate bills to the Senate:
1. Admit California as a free state.
2. Settle the Texas boundary and compensate her.
3. Grant territorial status to New Mexico.
4. Place Federal officers at the disposal of slaveholders
5. Abolish the slave trade in the District of Columbia.
Each measure obtained a majority, and by September 20,
President Fillmore had signed them into law. Webster wrote, "I
can now sleep of nights."
Some of the more militant northern Whigs remained
irreconcilable, refusing to forgive Fillmore for having signed
the Fugitive Slave Act. They helped deprive him of the
Presidential nomination in 1852.
Within a few years it was apparent that although the
Compromise had been intended to settle the slavery controversy,
it served rather as an uneasy sectional truce.
As the Whig Party disintegrated in the 1850's, Fillmore
refused to join the Republican Party; but, instead, in 1856
accepted the nomination for President of the Know Nothing, or
American, Party. Throughout the Civil War he opposed President
Lincoln and during Reconstruction supported President Johnson.
He died in 1874.