By: Jeff Jacoby
History doesn’t repeat itself. But it has an unnerving tendency to rhyme.
Consider, on this first Presidents’ Day under Donald Trump, another New Yorker who occupied the highest office in the land.
When Millard Fillmore became the nation’s 13th president upon the death of Zachary Taylor in 1850, he immediately plunged the White House and the Whig Party — one of the nation’s two dominant political parties — into turmoil. On the day he took the oath of office, Fillmore petulantly dismissed every member of Taylor’s Cabinet, which he resented for having ignored him when he was vice president. As a result, it took weeks — in one case, more than two months — before the new president’s Cabinet members were approved. The Whigs, already riven by patronage quarrels and North-South tensions, grew even more polarized over Fillmore’s policies. He was off to a bad start.
To an American looking back from 2017, the disorder that followed Fillmore’s accession might almost prefigure the pandemonium in the Trump White House.
There are other echoes.
Fillmore presented himself as a loyal Whig, but his political career had begun with the Anti-Masons, a political movement tied to a bizarre hostility toward Freemasons. He was attracted, writes Paul Finkelman, a legal historian at Albany Law School, “to oddball political movements, conspiracy theories, and ethnic hatred.” Even after becoming a Whig, he trafficked easily with anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant groups.
Fillmore served four terms in the House of Representatives, where he energetically supported higher tariffs. When he ran for governor of New York in 1844, he kept talking about tariffs — mostly, suggests Finkelman, to avoid talking about slavery. Though antislavery sentiment was strong in New York, and though Fillmore, like most Northern Whigs, was conventionally opposed to the practice, he shunned the abolitionists. The most urgent moral issue of the day left him personally unmoved. He seemed to believe that Whigs could avoid the controversial politics of slavery altogether.
His unwillingness to condemn the spread of black servitude helped Fillmore lose the governor’s race. So did his hostility to Irish immigrants and his coziness with nativists. Nonetheless, Fillmore had a following, and at the Whig convention in 1848, he captured the vice presidential nomination. The ticket was headed by Taylor, a hero of the Mexican War and a Southern planter, and Fillmore was seen as an ideal ticket-balancer: He was from a key antislavery state, which would appeal to Northerners, but had never been actively antislavery, which would reassure Southerners.
Taylor was president for only 16 months; he died of cholera after eating tainted food. During his brief administration, however, he turned firmly against the Southern “fire-eaters” who had expected him, a fellow slaveholder, to sympathize with their cause. The nation was being roiled by sectional bitterness, especially over the extension of slavery to the vast territories that had been wrested from Mexico. In Congress, Henry Clay proposed a series of bills that came to be called the Compromise of 1850, but it was a lopsidedly pro-slavery package, and Taylor refused to support it.
Vice President Fillmore, on the other hand, was in favor of appeasing Southern interests. He backed Clay’s legislation; if it came to a tie in the Senate, he said, he would vote against Taylor and in favor of the compromise.
With Taylor’s sudden death, pro-slavery forces thus found themselves with an unlikely friend in the White House — a Northern Whig from an abolitionist state, who was willing to open the Southwest to slavery. The Compromise of 1850, passed by Congress and signed by Fillmore, undid the 30-year-old Missouri Compromise, which had permanently barred slavery north of Missouri’s southern border. Clay’s legislation did clear the way for California to enter the union as a free state, and it shuttered the slave markets of Washington, D.C. But those sops to Northern sentiment did nothing to halt the advance of slavery, or to restore harmony to a Whig Party increasingly at war with itself.
But of all the components of the compromise, the worst was the Fugitive Slave Act.
Rarely has there been a more repugnant law. For the first time in US history, the Fugitive Slave Act created a national system of law enforcement. Its purpose: hunting escaped slaves and returning them to bondage. Federal commissioners were appointed nationwide, and empowered not only to adjudicate fugitive slave claims, but to assemble local posses to capture slaves on the run. The law imposed harsh penalties on anyone caught aiding a fugitive slave. And even free blacks were at risk of being seized and charged as runaways, since the law, with grotesque disregard for due process, forbade accused fugitives from testifying in their own behalf.
Fillmore enforced the law with determination, and dispatched federal troops to prevent opponents from interfering. He denounced Northern communities that vowed to resist the law — “sanctuary cities” aren’t a 21st-century innovation — and piously proclaimed that “without law there can be no real practical liberty.” Scores of fugitives were captured and returned to the South during Fillmore’s presidency. When antislavery activists in Boston rescued a captured slave from the US marshals holding him, Fillmore repeatedly ordered that the rescuers be prosecuted. In a Pennsylvania case, the administration went further, charging 41 Americans with treason for refusing to join a slave-catching posse.
By the end of Fillmore’s term, the Whig Party was fractured beyond repair. Democrats won the 1852 election in a landslide. The Whigs vanished from US politics, supplanted by a new, unequivocally antislavery Republican Party.
Fillmore, however, turned elsewhere. He migrated to the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic “Know-Nothing” Party, running as its presidential nominee in 1856. His slogan was “Americans Must Rule America.” Five years later, Americans were ripping America apart in a ghastly Civil War that Fillmore had helped make inevitable. As Abraham Lincoln labored to preserve the union and emancipate the slaves, Fillmore watched from the sidelines, harshly criticizing.
Today, the 13th president is lost in obscurity. Fate has been kinder to him than he deserved.