Presidential review–Millard Fillmore

27 May

Millard FIllmore


Good lord, there’s something about Millard Fillmore’s images around the time he was president that always comes off as mildly pissed/constipated.   I can give him some leeway because you can’t exactly be looking cheerful after a President’s death, but all of his pictures are like that, so don’t tell me.

One thing I want to say to America of yesteryear (and now) is make sure that when you have an election to vote in someone as vice-president that you’d like to see the job because though it seems unimaginable the President might eat some tainted milk or something and then you’re stuck with him.  Millard Fillmore was not meant to be president.  The reason he was on the ticket at all was because Boss Weed, a shady proto-gangster in New York at the time, was wanting to move his empire from being just New York city to the whole country, he had one of his guys all tabbed up to be Vice-President, and Fillmore was an effective block on that move, also being from New York.   Unfortunately his politics had nothing to do with any of this set-up and he didn’t have any beliefs that backed his own party.

Yes, Fillmore was from the north, but he was also pro-slavery, and at a time when the compromise of 1850 was the major issue this was a huge setback.  The oddest part is that Zachary Taylor–the last slave-owning president, was against the compromise because he didn’t want slavery to spread into the west, as well as finding the whole compromise thing incredibly divisive.  Fillmore was for it.  His entire cabinet resigned, but he was still for it.

Here’s the down-and-dirty of the compromise–1) California would be admitted as a free state (yay!)  2) Texas would be admitted as a slave state (boo!)  3) The rest of the territories would be able to choose by popular sovereignty when it came the time for them to apply for statehood.  4) Slave trade illegal in Washington DC (yay) 5)A stronger fugitive slave act (triple boo!)  There were a few other bits allowing Utah essential self-rule and defining Texas boundaries, but that’s all chicken scratch compared to these things.

The Fugitive slave act was the worst part of this compromise, because now federal marshals were required to aggressively hunt down and jail anybody even suspected of being a runaway slave.  All it took was any kind of accusation from anybody and the feds were to swoop in, take them, and send them back.  This was in response to a lawsuit that made it to the Supreme Court that ruled that states aren’t required to take action to uphold other states laws on a fugitive slave lawsuit.  (Though another effect of this ruling, to the curious, is that is why in movies the cops have to stop at the state line–they have no outside jurisdiction.)  Oh, by the way, this also took the right of any suspected slave to a trial (so the Supreme Court can’t intervene again.)

This was when escaped slaves started having to go to Canada rather than simply above the mason-dixon line to be truly free.  This also started the Underground Railroad and a massive cultural change that sets us in strictly pre-Civil war territory.  This compromise pleased nobody–the North in particular was outraged to have to submit to a system they wanted no part of–abolitionism took off.  Because of this the South got more defensive and unwilling to compromise at all.

Also, a secondary thing this compromise brought in was the idea of popular sovereignty being a good idea for the slavery issue.  For most non-touchy issues I think this is a great idea, but for slavery–no way.  In the territories eventually this would rear its head in bloody Kansas where the territory burst out into a shadow war over the issue a few years later–unrest that would not simmer down until the Civil War was over.

In international affairs Millard Fillmore has a slightly better time–he was the one who sent the great white fleet with Commodore Perry around the world to open trade.  This eventually opened up Japan (among other places) to U.S. trade–a very big accomplishment…but he didn’t arrive in Japan until Fillmore was out of office, so he didn’t really get credit for it.

Outside of that, he had an embarrassing episode in Cuba, where a Venezualan revolutionary tried to invade Cuba to liberate it.   Southerners wanted to get Cuba next after the Spanish American war, as the Caribbean proved ideal for a slavery based economy.  Fillmore tried (unsuccessfully) to block the invasion (twice), the Venezualan did not succeed, and France and Britain sent ships over to “keep an eye on things.”  Fillmore ended up having to apologize to Spain and unable to support independance because if Cuba pushed off Spain (who was not as strong as they used to be) either the United States would have to take it, and then it would cause political upheaval, or some stronger European country would take it.

Fillmore’s actions directly lead to the death of the Whig party–a party that for all its faults had a broad ideology (strong central government, work towards the end of slavery as an institution, national institutions).  Never again would they have the strong national impact they once had.  Also, from Fillmore until the Civil War ended slavery was the issue that mattered–no more philosophic discussions about the role of government or fair leadership.  Unfortunately, until war broke out, we did not have a president capable of leading the slavery issue into a fruitful discussion at all.

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