I continue my short series on what leadership lessons might be learned from four Presidents immediately preceding the Civil War with the presidency of Millard Fillmore the 13thPresident, who assumed the office upon the death of President Zachary Taylor in July 1850.
Fillmore grew up very poor in upstate New York, having been an indentured servant at one point in his life. He had almost no formal education, but became a clerk for local judge. Eventually admitted to the bar, he practiced law in upstate New York and became one of the more prominent attorneys in Buffalo. He became involved with the Anti-Masonic Party, was elected to the New York state assembly and later the US House of Representatives. In the House, he eventually rose to be Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. He left Congress in 1843, moving back to Buffalo NY and there served as Chancellor of the University of Buffalo, which he helped to found. He then became Comptroller for the state of New York.
In order to balance out the 1848 Whig ticket geographically, Southerner Zachary Taylor asked Fillmore to be his Vice Presidential standard bearer. The offer was made by letter with the two men not meeting until 10 days or so before the Inauguration. Fillmore assumed office on Taylor’s death in July 1850. Prior to 1967, the US Constitution had no mechanism to replace the Vice President if he became President. This meant that Fillmore served alone and never had a Vice President at the time when both the Whig Party and the country as a whole were splintering as result of the slavery issue. Fillmore’s support of the Compromise of 1850 and especially his enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, using federal troops to support this law, alienated the anti-slavery wing of the Whig Party and Fillmore was not re-nominated in 1852.
Fillmore’s reputation, while personally one of integrity, is not one for our better presidents. In a New York Times article by Thomas Vinciguerra, entitled “Why He Gets the Laugh”, it really sets the tone of how people, even today, think about Millard Fillmore. Gora poses the question, “Why does everyone beat up on Fillmore?” He cited to Michael F. Holt, professor of American history at the University of Virginia and author of “The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party”. “I think he’s gotten a bum rap. At least no one accused him of being an alcoholic like Franklin Pierce.” Tyler Ainbinder, the chairman of George Washington University History Department, said the most obvious explanation was his name. “It didn’t help you added that Fillmore was the 1856 presidential nominee of the Know Nothings. Combine that with his name and he’s doomed, but perhaps the even worse is simply that at the time he was thought of as quote a Namby Pamby milk toast kind of guy.”
He came to the Presidency with the death a truly beloved figure, Zachary Taylor. Further, he had been hamstrung by President Taylor with not being part of any decision-making group or even consulted by the President. This had another effect which dogged Fillmore through his presidency. Taylor had kept him from delivering the patronage which was the grease for the mid-19thcentury wheels of American politics. Taylor was not able to overcome his political enemies back in New Nork to dole out the plum federal jobs expected from a Vice President. This made him seem like a politician who could not deliver even when he acceded to the Presidency and he did not have a natural political base to draw upon.
While Fillmore was not a part of the Administration’s work on series of bills which became the Compromise of 1850, he was the Presiding Officer of the Senate and therefore heard the debates. This allowed him to understand that Henry Clay’s omnibus bill detailing all issues was doomed to failure so when Clay split the bill into five constituent parts, Fillmore indicated that he would sign all the separate parts which reached his desk as President. Yet this omnibus bill did not pass precisely because it included all the parts needed to deal with the continuing crisis over slavery.
The heart of the Compromise was bringing in California as a free state. Next was the treatment of New Mexico and Utah and whether they would come in as territories, which Congress could then decide on whether they would have slavery or not, or whether they would come into states, in which case they would have a plebiscite to determine whether they were slave states or not. The part that at the end was the most controversial was the Fugitive Slave Act replacing the one signed in the 1790s by George Washington, which had fallen into disuse because as it was no longer enforceable and only applied if the actual owner showed up to repossess the slaves. The slave trade was outlawed in the District of Columbia. The final piece of legislation, which is largely forgotten today, is that it was a border adjustment between Texas and what would then become New Mexico in exchange for which Texas received a cash payment.
Finally, I end with some quotes from Fillmore which seem appropriate today:
“It is not strange… to mistake change for progress.”
“Let us remember that revolutions do not always establish freedom.”
“The law is the only sure protection of the weak, and the only efficient restraint upon the strong.”
“Church and state should be separate, not only in form, but fact – religion and politics should not be mingled.”
Finally, and most appropriately for this July 4thholiday week: “The nourishment from barbecue is palatable.”
Tomorrow Franklin Pierce.
What was Millard Fillmore’s greatest accomplishment as a leader? Perhaps his quote, “The nourishment from barbecue is palatable.”Click to tweet
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2018