Blue and Gray Trail
Civil War Encyclopedia
Civil War in Georgia
On the Blue and Gray Trail
Civil War by state
Today in the Civil War
This year in the Civil War
Civil War Encyclopedia >> People - Other
Divisions in America in 1850 were ready to boil over and the Compromise of 1850 appeared headed for a close vote in the Senate. For a while it seemed that Vice-President Millard Fillmore was going to play a pivotal role in the outcome; as President of the Senate it would be Fillmore's duty to cast the tie-breaking vote. His pro-Compromise position was different than that of President Zachary Taylor and in the stifling July heat of Washington, D. C., Fillmore journeyed to the White House to let Taylor know in case of a tie he would vote for the Compromise.
Things didn't turn out quite the way it looked that day in early July. President Taylor died at the White House on July 9 and Henry Clay's Omnibus bill for the Compromise of 1850 on the Hill was already dead. Fillmore's ascension to the White House, however, rekindled hope for the individual bills within the Compromise. Henry Clay left for a well-deserved vacation and Stephen Douglas took the helm, skillfully maneuvering the individual bills through Congress and into the hands of Fillmore, who was eager to sign them. The country was saved, at least for the time being.
Born to poor, hard-working farmers in central New York, he began working as a clerk to a local lawyer in his teens and realized that the legal profession would be a good way to better his life. Moving to Buffalo, he continued clerking while studying law, gaining admittance to the bar at age 22. Ruggedly handsome, from humble beginnings, and with a strong voice, it wasn't long before this farmer's son was involved in politics.
From the 1820's until 1860 there were an unusual number of political parties that would center on a single issue, then break up when the issue became moot. One such party were the Anti-masons. Although many of the founding fathers were Masons, the rise of the common man in the 1820's meant the Masons exclusionary policies were called into question. The Anti-masons came into being when a New York worker was kidnapped and murdered, allegedly by the Masons.
Following a term in the New York state house, Fillmore moved on to the U. S. House. In 1834 the Anti-masons became a part of the newly-formed Whig Party, and Millard Fillmore followed. When the Democrats were defeated in 1840, Fillmore became chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and was a politician who was on the rise. He was easily winning elections in New York, with its large electoral vote, making him an excellent candidate for Vice-president or maybe even President. As Chairman of Ways and Means he took decisive action to pass a Whig plan to end the lingering depression the country was suffering through.
In 1842 Fillmore left the House, his eyes on a higher prize--the Senate, however, a local political boss, Thurlow Weed, convinced Millard Fillmore to run for governor of New York. The Democrats swamped the Whigs and for the first time in his life, Millard Fillmore lost an election.
Leading up to the 1848 election the Whigs were deeply divided over the slavery issue. Nominating Zachery Taylor, a pro-Union slaveholder who favored a smaller government could unite the party with a northern Vice-President. Fillmore was the choice, mostly because he would probably bring in New York's electoral vote and he was supported by the a wide cross-section of Whigs. Two other nominees, Abbott Lawrence and William Seward had problems. Seward had supported the Wilmot Proviso making him unacceptable to the South and Lawrence was a "cotton man," even though he was from Massachusetts.
Following the election of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore, William Seward became an adviser of sorts to the President and it was probably Seward who advised Taylor to support the admission of California as a free state and to reject the Compromise of 1850. As a result of Taylor's stand talk of "disunion" swept the South and the Nashville Convention had just completed when Fillmore was discussing his stand with Taylor.
With Taylor gone, Fillmore began to sign each of the bills in the Compromise of 1850. The only one he had a problem with was the Fugitive Slave Act. John Crittenden, his Attorney-General, assured him that the bill was legal, but his wife pointed out that signing it was political suicide. Fillmore had to threaten to use troops in the North to enforce the act.
Following the passage of the final act of the Great Compromise in September, 1850, Fillmore turned to aiding the western expansion and invigorating the economy. Working with Illinois Democrat Stephen Douglas, Fillmore pushed through bills supporting railroads and other internal improvements while promoting the foreign interests of the United States. A major initiative was the restoration of diplomacy with Mexico.
Although he had stated he would not run for reelection in 1852, friends convinced him to have his name placed on the ballot. Winfield Scott got the nomination and lost to Franklin Pierce. Standing in the cold for hours on Inauguration Day, his wife got sick and died three weeks later. The ex-President returned to politics.
His party was in the process of breaking up into smaller parties. Since the northern Whigs were unabashedly pro-abolition and southern Whigs could not support them, other parties, mostly issue-specific, sprang up. One, the Republicans, caught the attention of most former Whigs, but Fillmore decided his chances were better in the American Party (Know-Nothings). Striking a nativist theme, the Know-Nothings claimed the Vatican was trying to control America and that other foriegners were bringing dangerous ideas to America. It was a pro-slavery party. Thus, Fillmore ran an anti-slavery campaign with a pro-slavery plank. It didn't work and he wound up third in the election of 1856 behind Democrat James Buchanan and Republican John C. Fremont. It was the end of his political career.
Fillmore remarried after the election and eventually supported Abraham Lincoln in 1860. By 1864 he had become disenchanted with Lincoln, the war, and the Republican monetary policy and supported George McClellan for President. He died in 1874.
Links appearing on this page:
Millard Fillmore was added in 2005
Battles | Places | Events by year | Events by date | Feature Stories |
Bookstore | Links | Who We Are |