Fillmore, Millard (1800-1874), 13th president of the United States (1850-1853) and the second vice president to finish the term of a deceased president. He succeeded Zachary Taylor at a critical moment in United States history. The Mexican War (1846-1848) had renewed the conflict between the Northern and Southern states over slavery, since it had added new territories to the United States. The debate over whether these territories should be admitted as free or slave states precipitated a crisis that threatened civil war. Much to the relief of Northern and Southern politicians, Fillmore pursued a moderate and conciliatory policy. He signed into law the Compromise of 1850, which admitted one territory as a free state and allowed slave owners to settle in the others. This compromise did not solve the basic problem of slavery but did preserve peace for nearly eleven years. During that time the North gained the industrial power that enabled it to defeat the South when civil war eventually came.
Fillmore was born in upstate New York in 1800. He was the second child and eldest son in a family of nine. His parents, Nathaniel and Phoebe Millard Fillmore, had moved from Vermont to New York several years before his birth. Young Fillmore did chores on his father's farm, worked as an apprentice in the clothier's trade, and attended local schools irregularly until he was 17. Although the only books in his home were the Bible, an almanac, and a hymnbook, Fillmore managed to educate himself with the help of a village schoolteacher, Abigail Powers.
When he was 19, Fillmore began to study law with Judge Walter Wood of Cayuga County. He supported himself by teaching school. When his family moved to East Aurora, near Buffalo, New York, Fillmore continued his study of law and his teaching. In 1823 he opened a law office in East Aurora. Three years later he married Abigail Powers. The couple had two children, Mary Abigail and Millard Powers. In the early years of their marriage, Mrs. Fillmore continued to teach school and to help her husband with his law studies.
In 1826, the year Fillmore was married, an incident in western New York set him on the road to the presidency. When William Morgan, a former member of the Masonic fraternal order who had written a book that claimed to expose the order's secrets, disappeared, the rumor spread that he had been murdered by avenging Masons. Thurlow Weed, a newspaper publisher and politician, seized on the incident to arouse public feeling against all secret organizations and helped to organize the Anti-Masonic Party. Meanwhile, Millard Fillmore had been winning respect and popularity in East Aurora. People admired his professional ethics, temperate habits, careful speech and dress, and good looks. These qualities caught the attention of the Anti-Masonic politicians, who were looking for vote-winning candidates. In 1828, Weed and his group ran Fillmore for a seat in the New York state legislature, and he was elected. Four years later, again with Weed's backing, Fillmore was elected to the House of Representatives in the Congress of the United States.
When the Anti-Masonic Party merged with the new Whig Party in the mid-1830s, Fillmore became a Whig. In Congress he was a strong supporter of Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, the leader of the Whigs. The two men agreed that compromise on the slavery issue was necessary to preserve peace between the North and South.
In the important position of chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Fillmore took a leading part in framing the protective tariff (tax on imports) of 1842. The tariff raised rates to about the high level of the tariff of 1833. That tariff was opposed by the South and had provoked the state of South Carolina to pass its Ordinance of Nullification, declaring the tariff void within its borders.
Fillmore did not run for reelection in 1842. He hoped for the vice presidential nomination on Clay's Whig presidential ticket, but the party's national convention of 1844 gave that spot to Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey. Fillmore then accepted the Whig nomination for governor of New York. In the election, however, Fillmore was beaten by his Democratic Party opponent, Silas Wright, and Clay lost the decisive New York vote.
The Whigs nominated Fillmore for state comptroller in 1847. This office was second in power after the governor's and supervised public finances and superintended the banks. Fillmore defeated his Democratic opponent by 30,000 votes, the largest margin ever gained by any Whig over a Democrat in New York. The victory established Fillmore as a vote getter and put him in competition with former Governor William Henry Seward for the position of New York's leading Whig.
The presidential election of 1848 was dominated by the recently ended Mexican War and by the Wilmot Proviso of 1846, which had been inspired by the war. The proviso specified that slavery should not be introduced into any territory acquired by the United States from Mexico as a result of the war. Although the proviso was defeated in Congress, it raised the political issue of whether slavery should be extended beyond its prewar limits.
At the Whig convention of 1848 in Philadelphia, Fillmore's friend Henry Clay lost the presidential nomination to General Zachary Taylor. Clay's policy of compromise on the slavery issue was well known, whereas Taylor, a hero of the Mexican War, was associated with no particular point of view. He won the nomination largely through the efforts of Weed and Southern leaders. After Taylor was nominated, John A. Collier, a Whig delegate from New York and a political ally of Fillmore's, suggested to the convention that it lessen the disappointment of the Clay supporters by naming Fillmore as the vice presidential candidate. His plea was successful, and Fillmore was nominated. To avoid further controversy over slavery or any other issue, the national convention adopted no platform. At its national convention the Democratic Party also avoided making an issue of slavery. It nominated US Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan for president and William O. Butler of Kentucky for vice president. Cass favored having the settlers of new territories decide for themselves whether they would allow slavery or not, a policy later called popular sovereignty. A third party took part in the election of 1848. Called the Free-Soil Party, it included Democrats and Whigs who disagreed with their parties, and abolitionists, who wanted an immediate end to slavery. The Free-Soil Party nominated former president Martin Van Buren of New York for president and Massachusetts legislator Charles Francis Adams for vice president. In the election, Van Buren took enough Democratic votes from Cass in New York to give the state to Taylor, the Whig. The electoral vote was 163 for Taylor, 127 for Cass. In the New York state popular vote, Taylor got 219,000, Cass got 114,000, and Van Buren got 120,000.
During the first half of 1850, Fillmore as vice president presided over the United States Senate (the upper chamber of Congress) as angry debates raged between Northern and Southern sectionalists over the status of slavery in the recently acquired lands. His fairness and sense of humor in the chair were not enough to restore peace among the contending senators. The antislavery faction, led by Senator Seward (the former governor of New York) and Senator Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, clashed with the Southerners, led by Senator James M. Mason of Virginia, Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, and Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. Angry words figuratively rocked the Senate hall, as they did the chamber of the House of Representatives.
Although President Taylor was a Louisiana slaveholder, he leaned more toward Seward's antislavery views. Determined to uphold the Constitution of the United States, the president threatened to send federal troops to protect disputed New Mexico territory from an invasion by proslavery Texans. Southerners countered that, if Taylor followed through with his threat, the act would be the signal for an armed Southern rebellion against federal power. Mississippi called for a convention to meet in June 1850 at Nashville, Tennessee, to consider secession.
The best hope of compromise seemed to lie in a series of resolutions drawn up by Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky and based on measures proposed by representatives from both parties and both sections. These resolutions were referred to a select committee of 13, headed by Clay. The committee recommended an omnibus bill, based on Clay's resolutions. According to the recommended compromise, California was to be admitted as a free state, while the Utah and New Mexico territories were to be organized without mentioning slavery. This meant the territories were open to all settlers, including slaveholders. The bill also included a new, tougher Fugitive Slave Law, which required that runaway slaves be returned to their owners. The new law had severe penalties for nonenforcement. A chief grievance of Southerners against the old law was that Northerners would not enforce it. Other sections of the bill abolished slavery in the District of Columbia and settled a boundary dispute between Texas and New Mexico. President Taylor did not share the fear, held by Clay, Fillmore, and others who favored compromise, that the Union was threatened. He insisted on the admission of California as a free state, and he encouraged New Mexico to adopt a free status. Taylor's opposition hindered those who favored the compromise. However, he died suddenly on July 9, 1850, and Fillmore took the oath as president.
President Fillmore's choice of a Cabinet showed unmistakably that, as a moderate Whig and a foe of sectionalism, he favored compromise to avoid a national crisis. As his secretary of state, Fillmore appointed Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, who had appealed for compromise in a celebrated speech on March 7, 1850. Another significant Cabinet appointment was Governor John J. Crittenden of Kentucky, also a well-known conciliatory Whig, as attorney general.
Fillmore made plain his desire for peace in a message to Congress on August 6, 1850. It was hailed by influential congressional leaders as a masterstroke of timing and persuasive moderation. Aided by the full power and support of Fillmore's administration, Clay's omnibus bill, known as the Compromise of 1850, was split into five separate measures, all of which were passed by Congress and signed into law by Fillmore. Meanwhile, the Nashville convention adjourned without taking any action against the Union.
One of the five measures was the new Fugitive Slave Law. Fillmore signed and, more important, enforced the Fugitive Slave Law, actions that were completely in keeping with his conciliatory policy. As a result, he won the hatred of the more radical antislavery group. Seward and Weed, the antislavery Whig leaders of New York, opposed Fillmore vehemently, and the president countered by removing pro-Seward people from federal office. At a Whig convention in Syracuse, New York, resolutions were passed approving Seward's radical position. Thereupon a contingent of Fillmore conservatives walked out, led by Francis Granger, whose gray hair gave the name "Silver Gray Whigs" to that faction. This act widened the breach in the Whig Party, which was also disintegrating in other parts of the country on the issue of slavery.
The most important aspect of Fillmore's foreign policy was his sanction of a plan to open Japan to world commerce, which had been largely prohibited there for more than 200 years. Influenced by petitions to Congress and other evidences of public interest, he approved an expedition to open the "sealed" empire. In January 1852 a naval expedition was entrusted to Commodore Matthew C. Perry. In July 1853, four months after Fillmore left the presidency, Perry arrived in Japan with four men-of-war. That visit and another visit the following year culminated in a commercial treaty between the United States and Japan.
Fillmore was reluctant to serve a second term, but participated in the Whig national convention of 1852 because he wanted to ensure that the party platform supported the Compromise of 1850. After securing that, he asked that his name be withdrawn at an opportune moment and his delegates transferred to Daniel Webster, another contender for the Whig presidential nomination. However, Fillmore's Southern Whig supporters, who believed he would win, backed him vigorously and never did withdraw his name. They held out for Webster to release his delegates. By the time Webster did that, it was too late. The antislavery Whigs had secured control of the convention and, mindful of Fillmore's enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, they succeeded in having General Winfield Scott named the party's candidate. In November, Scott was decisively defeated by his Democratic opponent, Franklin Pierce. After the 1852 election the Whig Party broke up over the slavery issue. By 1856 its place had been taken by the Republican Party, led by Seward and Weed.
Fillmore turned over the presidential office to Pierce in March 1853. His wife died less than a month later, and the former president returned to his home in Buffalo.
In 1856, Fillmore accepted the presidential nomination of the American Party, a coalition of Silver Gray Whigs and Know-Nothings, a secretive political group opposed to immigration. In the 1856 national election, contested by the Democrat James Buchanan, the Republican John C. Frémont, and the American Fillmore, Buchanan triumphed by a small margin. Fillmore carried only the eight electoral votes of Maryland, a border slave state. The popular vote was 1,838,169 for Buchanan, 1,341,264 for Frémont, and 874,534 for Fillmore.
Fillmore returned permanently to private life, but he continued to regard the political scene with interest and anxiety. Critical events—the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and the secession of the Southern states in 1860 and 1861 that led to the outbreak of the Civil War—induced Fillmore to take the platform to plead against secession and disunion. Always for conciliation rather than coercion, Fillmore opposed some of President Lincoln's measures. In 1864, when Lincoln ran for reelection, Fillmore supported General George B. McClellan, the Democratic candidate and a conservative. After the war, Fillmore's sympathies were with President Andrew Johnson in opposition to the Radical Republicans in Congress, who inflicted their drastic, punitive Reconstruction policy on the defeated secessionist states.
In 1858, Fillmore remarried. His second wife was Mrs. Caroline C. McIntosh of Albany, New York. He continued his law practice in Buffalo, interrupting it to make two trips to Europe. His civic interests included the University of Buffalo, now SUNY Buffalo, and he was its first chancellor. He was a founder of the Buffalo Historical Society and the Buffalo General Hospital, and he was active in other community projects, such as the Natural Science Society. He died in 1874.