For Filmore, slavery was a moral wrong, and imposing on states’ rights was a legal wrong, but for U.S. history, the chimera of legislation that became the Compromise of 1850 was a catastrophic mistake.
“Everything Wrong with the Presidents” series focuses on, as the title suggests, everything each president did wrong while in office. While many presidents enacted worthwhile, and even occasionally beneficial, policies, that’s not what these essays are about. Thus, silence regarding the good actions should not be taken as denial of their existence.
Millard Fillmore (“His Accidency”) became America’s unlucky 13th president under trying circumstances following the sudden death of Zachary Taylor on July 9th of 1850. Fillmore was an articulate, steady, and classically attractive Buffalo lawyer; Queen Victoria reportedly said, “he was the most handsome man she had ever met.” Picked to balance out the Whig ticket against the unbridled machismo of Taylor, an uncouth, roughhewn war hero and slaveowner, Fillmore was described as “a southern man with at least partly northern principles.” He fulfilled this promise of balance more than his party leaders could have predicted, as a New York native son whose laissez‐faire approach to regulating slavery had a distinctly southern bent. 1
Fillmore’s presidency has become synonymous with obscurity, but his greatest mistake was hugely impactful for American history. The tarnished legacy of his legislative missteps reveals much about his political ambition and personal failings. Fillmore’s support for the incendiary updates to the Fugitive Slave Act, first written in 1793 and later codified within the Compromise of 1850, irreparably fractured his party and derailed his career of public service. The Compromise was controversial from its inception; the free‐soil dispute over how newly acquired territories would enter the union was already charged without the moral degradation and flouting of legal convention represented by the 1850 updates.
President Zachary Taylor was adamant in his rejection of the Compromise, in contrast to Fillmore, and northern Whigs looked especial askance at the Fugitive Slave Act provisions. Fillmore’s unwavering commitment to the Act despite its extra‐legal contortions of traditional justice had deep ramifications for his administration and his reputation. The Fugitive Slave Act caused very real human misery among the escaped peoples it targeted, and provoked outrage among Fillmore’s northern party cohort. Polarized reactions to the Act both delayed and intensified the coming sectional crisis, exacerbating tensions while kicking the legislative can down the line to later administrations.
Fillmore’s cardinal error was an outgrowth of two foibles from his political past. The first was his failure to ever join a political party that was not oppositional in nature. His campaigns and organizational efforts were always drawn against something–either a secret society, a politician, or a group of individuals, rather than advocating for specific policy changes. Fillmore’s second failing was his vacillation between morality and legality in his conception of slavery, he believed that possession of humans was evil, yet still prioritized the cold justifications of property law; ultimately, this allowed him to cast the issue as a legal battle and not a moral one. The vast mistake of the Fugitive Slave Act was undergirded by these two weaknesses, and led to Fillmore being relegated to the unremarkable margins of presidential history.
Even before he was thrust into the presidency, Fillmore was confronted with the political quagmire of slavery’s expansion. Zachary Taylor had never met his presumptive running‐mate before placing him on the ticket, and their vaguely cordial acquaintanceship would soon deteriorate. As vice‐president, Fillmore presided over the Senate and his tie‐breaking vote on expansion into the territories was looming ever closer when Taylor died, a boon to supporters of the Compromise of 1850. Fillmore had already raised the President’s hackles by acknowledging that he would break the tie in favor of the legislation, despite Taylor’s staunch resistance.
Rumors of conspiracy and foul play attended Taylor’s death. The President’s opposition to the Compromise was well known, provoking speculation about his passing that ultimately led to a 1991 exhumation. While inconclusive for a definitive cause of death (arsenic levels were too low to have suggested deliberate poisoning) the investigation showed the long reach of 19th century assassination rumors. 2 For supporters of the Compromise, Fillmore would turn out to be a much more malleable commander‐in‐chief. Dithering between two poles of opinion, Fillmore admitted he found human enslavement morally repugnant, yet felt there were no constitutional grounds for infringement on state sovereignty. His measured, methodical approach to soothing both sides of a tempestuous debate meant he ended up pleasing none, “swerving neither to the right or the left from the strict lines of duty.” 3 For Fillmore, the middle ground approach was precipitously rocky and led him astray, marking an indelible and irrevocable wrong turn of his presidency.
Before the election, public speculation about Fillmore’s true feelings concerning slavery was rampant, with newspapers around the country arguing for or against his abolitionist bonafides. This was part and parcel of his desirability as a running mate. Diametrically opposing views could easily be projected onto him. One screed written in The Independent Monitor by members of the Rough and Ready Club of Pickens County, Alabama asserted that, “not a politician north is safer for us,” due to his strict interpretation of constitutional law. Fillmore was quoted as saying, ‘I regarded slavery as an evil, but one with which the national government had nothing to do.” 4
He cited the fraught nature of interfering with the sovereignty of individual states and their self‐determination, as, “by the constitution of the United States, the whole power over that question was vested in the States where the situation was tolerated.” He posited that the slavery question could be solved via self‐determination by each state according to their will, arguing that, “if states regarded it as a blessing, they had the constitutional right to enjoy it. If they regarded it as an evil they had the power…to apply the remedy.” 5 Vast powers were ascribed to the states themselves in charting their own future courses, while enslaved African Americans exploited under bondage were excised from the debate, again after Fillmore’s cursory acknowledgment of slavery’s immorality.
Fillmore further absolved himself and the legislature from culpability in human trafficking, as, “I did not conceive that Congress had any power over it, nor was in any way responsible for its continuation in the several States where it existed.’” His rigidity in failing to probe beyond an initial reaction also resurfaced; he rejected the airing of opposing opinions as unable to persuade him, saying, “I have entertained no other sentiments on this subject, since I examined it sufficiently to form an opinion, and I doubt not that all my acts, public and private will be found in accordance with this view.’” 6
Fillmore’s earlier statements presaged his reluctance to stanch the spread of human enslavement into the territories. He declared in Congress that, “I disavow unequivocally, now and forever, any desire to interfere with the rights or what is termed the property of the Southern States.” The explicit reference to property revealed the depth of his hands‐off approach to the peculiar institution. Concerned citizens could rest easy and feel, “well assured that Southern institutions will never be assailed or molested by any act of Millard Fillmore.”7
In contrast, a Richmond, Virginia paper disputed Fillmore’s support for the protection of slavery through analysis of his Congressional voting record. “An Abolitionist Unmasked” critiqued Fillmore for votes that aligned with noted antislavery agitators like John Quincy Adams. The southern members of his party were purportedly embarrassed by his failure to denounce abolition, as, “Whig orators and editors… in the slaveholding States, say as little about Millard Fillmore as possible. They seem really ashamed of him, and he is looked upon as the disgrace of the family so soon as we cross Mason and Dixon’s line coming south.”
Most papers affiliated with the Democratic Party were already virulently anti‐Whig, and his suspect voting record confirmed their fears: Fillmore was fraternizing with the enemy, “with those whose names have been detested by every Southernman.” The Richmond Enquirer urged vigilance, as, “whilst you have evidence…of the association of this man Fillmore with the most dangerous fanatics, we have no pledge from him that he would be true to the South.” While many of his statements in Congress did veer into pledge territory, Fillmore remained an enigmatic specter, to be repurposed according to shifting political interpretations. As a Whig, he seemed doomed to experience similarly contradictory treatment at the hands of Democrats, in which all outcomes were negative: “it is an old locofoco trick to interrogate Whig candidates very abundantly by letter; in order to abuse them for their answers, if they answer, or abuse them for their silence, if they are silent.” Likewise for Fillmore, there were few right answers. 8
The Compromise was the sole notable piece of legislation associated with Fillmore’s presidency, a much‐maligned attempt to stave off civil war that cemented his dubious fame. Comprised of five separate acts, it included banning the sale of slaves (but not slavery itself) in Washington, D.C., having Texas enter the Union as a slave state, California as free, with the New Mexico‐adjacent territories to be determined by popular sovereignty, contributing to a seething resentment between the oppositional northern Whigs and Democrats. The attempt to stanch the wounds of slavery and mollify all parties only served to prolong the sectional crisis.
Fillmore’s most egregious error was accepting the Compromise’s notorious final component, the Fugitive Slave Act. The Act gave northern Americans an unwelcome window into slavery’s cruelty. Enslaved African American people who escaped to freedom were forcibly sent back to bondage, care of the federal government. Residents of Massachusetts and New York could previously claim innocence in these brutal enforcement practices; they now found themselves complicit through taxes and directly confronted with the violence of recapture.
The Fugitive Slave Act offended many northern citizens, including from Fillmore’s home state. Critical press reactions in New York attacked the Act’s inherently racist larger objective as well as its supporting details. The Evening Post offered a compendium of the criticism, citing the St. Louis Union as reporting that the act, “…departs widely from ordinary proceedings, and we do not see on what principle of justice they are supposed to rest…the 5th section makes the Marshal — in case a fugitive in custody should escape – liable…to the full value of labor or service due…though occasioned by no fault of the officer…yet he be held responsible for the whole value. We recollect of no instances of legal liability like this in the common law, or in any statute.” 9 This divergence from accepted common law transferred the urgency of return onto law enforcement in the form of an undue financial burden.
The article criticized another glaring monetary imbalance in the eighth section, “which allows the Judge a fee of $10 in each case, if he decides in favor of the claimant, and only a fee of $5 where he decides against…a direct pecuniary reward for a decision in favor of the claimant, and against personal liberty.” Rather than encouraging judicial impartiality, the Act sought to openly reward those rulings that favored slaveowners. Further diminishing the court’s independence, the 9th section provided that even doubtful claims be pursued regardless of an individual judge’s opinion of the case’s merits, “compelling the Marshal… to remove the fugitive to the state from which he fled, and this, though the Judge…believes the affidavit to be false, the act leaves him no discretion, but requires the action of the Marshal.” Beyond the erosion of legal oversight, the Act transferred the fiscal burden of slavecatching onto the federal government, as, “the entire expense of removal…shall be paid out of the treasury of the United States! In no other case has such a provision been made, in relation to any kind of property.” 10
The unusual provisions of the Act undermined Fillmore’s professed commitment to legal precedent as the highest good. By invoking unique circumstances to safeguard slaveowners’ human property that never applied to any other form of personal property, Fillmore was bending the rule of law to his own conciliatory aims. While he emphasized the moral wrong of human bondage, his legal justifications rang hollow when compared with established property law.
The Albany Atlas decried the implications of southern appeasement, focusing on the Act’s familial destruction, as, “throughout the northern states…populations are terror‐struck by Fillmore’s Slave‐Capturing bill. The child brought up by its fugitive slave mother, may now be a man, be captured and returned to slavery.” The article cited the example of a local man kidnapped and denied due process, “the case of Hamlet…who married and had children here, and who was carried off from them, without hearing and without trial.” 11 Here again, the treatment of enslaved African Americans violated the specific legal precepts that Fillmore claimed he sought to defend.
The Atlas targeted Fillmore’s tenuous commitment to his ideology, accusing him of adopting abolitionist postures when politically beneficial, then aping pro‐slavery rhetoric as it served him. The article identified a nascent resistance movement spreading across the northern United States, as, “from Boston to Pittsburgh there is a strange murmur of affright since the passage of this law – feeling of indignation, and talk of resistance…Millard Fillmore, a citizen of New York (a quondam abolitionist when office was to be got by it,) has made his state a hunting ground, and offered the 300,000 colored people of the north as a quarry to the sportsmen of the south.” 12
Newspapers predicted the combustible atmosphere would not survive the implementation of such inflammatory measures, as, “the Independent -a religious paper of this city‐ says ‘the attempt to carry it into effect, will set the north in a blaze. It cannot be done…a political party that undertook the execution of this law would be swept from existence, as an avalanche tears trees from their roots.” Even those northern citizens who had before rejected the expressly abolitionist politics of William Lloyd Garrison would never accept the effrontery of the Fugitive Slave Act, preferring, “rather a hundred times, to see the Union dissolved than this law executed.” 13
While the Compromise of 1850 delayed the Civil War, the postponement was costly. It allowed for slavery to spread into Texas and threatened to enter the western territories, and for resentment to solidify among northern citizens forced to watch and fund federal agents hunting humans in their own communities. The attempt at appeasement both prolonged the sectional tension and made confrontation increasingly inevitable. This error that so thoroughly tarred the administration’s legacy had deep roots.
Fillmore’s political cosmology stemmed from his lifelong history of affiliations always mounted in opposition to a person, organization, or ethnic group. These loosely formed parties were adamant in their objections, but less strident in what they supported, and unclear on how they planned to translate their angst into a workable governing strategy. This “single overarching flaw of joining organizations that were against, rather than for, important issues” spanned Fillmore’s involvement in the Anti‐Masonic Party (whose only mission statement was opposition to that secret society’s supposed concentrated power) to the Whigs (anti‐Andrew Jackson) to the nativist “Know Nothing” party (against immigrants/Catholics/non‐native born citizens.) 14
Throughout his public career, Fillmore cast himself as an antagonist to established political trends, gravitating towards parties defined solely by their rejection of prevailing power structures. The opposition groups stimulated passion and enthusiasm with their outraged denouncements of the American status quo. That same fervor flagged once the parties lacked a proper nemesis and confronted the nuances of affirmative policy‐making.
Fillmore’s shifting party affiliations and lack of explicitly held‐policy chops reinforced portrayals that framed him as inconsistent and opportunistic in his desire to lead. James McPherson described him as, “a man of relatively weak principles and leadership capacity. 15 His primary biographer argued that Fillmore was, “a quiet, almost modest man who had no desire for power.” 16 Fillmore’s intellectual conception of righteousness was forged by what he rejected, rather than espousing policy in service of his larger ideals.
For Fillmore, slavery was a moral wrong, and imposing on states’ rights was a legal wrong, but for U.S. history, the chimera of legislation that became the Compromise of 1850 was a catastrophic mistake. Fillmore’s unflagging commitment to compromise and the rule of law came at the expense of the republic. Had he adhered to the northern Whig sensibilities championed by William Henry Seward and sought to definitively end slavery, he would have enraged the south, as well as violated his own sense of propriety by undermining what he took to be sacrosanct Constitutional rights.
Conversely, if Fillmore embraced state sovereignty and left slavery to spread unchecked, he would have been abandoning his party compatriots in the north, as well as shattering his own moral code. Fillmore’s greatest wrong, moral or otherwise, was this decision to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act in the free states. By wielding the power and resources of the federal government to do slaveholders’ bidding and recapture escaped African Americans, he earned the enmity and disgust of northern citizens who sought abolition. Yet despite the outraged reactions, Fillmore, “knew all along that he would sign it. He regretted its necessity, but the Constitution required it, and it was not for him to decide to whether this was a wise provision or not – it was a compact, he had sworn to maintain it, and he would do so to his last hour.” 17 Fillmore attributed this unquestioning approach to his reverence for the law, but it suggested a deep unwillingness to grapple with the thorniest moral crisis in American history. The dilemma would have been challenging for any head of state, but Fillmore’s reflective, plodding nature led him to become mired in indecision, resulting in political paralysis. 18
While his culpability for the horrors of the Fugitive Slave Act is clear, Fillmore’s inability to wholescale prevent the Civil War seems an overwrought critique. The violence of slavery bred violence over free soil. Confrontations would likely spread regardless of any presidential maneuvering. Portrayals of his doddering ineptness were likely overblown. The survival of slavery as an institution loomed over his unelected administration. An inevitable schism would rend the country despite Fillmore’s earnest if morally dubious attempts to meld its fragile pieces together.
Competing views of his malleability from both factions meant he often pleased no one completely. Fillmore’s four middling terms in Congress were cited as evidence of his unremarkable personality, a “stolid kind of temperament…he didn’t offend many people, but he didn’t attract many people either.” 19 This association with a transient indecision dogged his collective administration, and over time ossified into his historical persona. Fillmore is remembered chiefly because he is forgettable, he is known for being little‐known.
Fillmore was also poorly served by not seeking out stronger advisors that would speak truth to power (or considering the advice of the cabinet he had, before they resigned en masse in protest of the bungled Compromise of 1850). When he was called upon to take a definitive stand and make monumental decisions to preserve the country, he waffled. His scholarly detachment and rigid sense of legal fair play doomed him to a dithering limbo. Fillmore was a methodical, self‐driven man, a voracious reader and brilliant master of the subjects he turned his attention to. Yet his analytical gifts became a hindrance when making abrupt gut decisions; throughout his life, his exacting self‐standards interfered with the forward motion of his goals. Even his marriage progressed at a glacial pace. 20
Fillmore’s restrained propriety and adherence to the rule of law produced, “a touch of righteousness that colored his personality…the trait would be a source of both his strength and his undoing.” His expectations of fair play contrasted with the ruthless political gamesmanship of his adversaries. Then‐Vice President Fillmore was surprised to find New York editor and government puppeteer Thurlow Weed undermining him and seeking to dilute his influence even after Weed proposed a reconciliation. By convincing political job‐seekers that the Vice‐President had lost his pull, Weed marginalized Fillmore – even claiming that he could, “put a cow up against a Fillmore selectee and have it confirmed.” 21 After enduring years of Weed’s machinations, his willingness to assume the best of his rival suggests an alarming lack of guile.
His retiring manner could be construed either as passionless or courtly, as noted by the Chicago Tribune during his transition back into civilian life: “ex‐President Fillmore has retired from the Presidential mansion. None, we feel assured, ever resigned the cares and duties of the exalted position more willingly.” Rather than hinting at a gormless lack of ambition, this hesitancy was claimed as an asset, and Fillmore was even more elevated, “in our eyes…for steadily refusing to do anything to influence his nomination, at one time declining absolutely. It was only thro’ the earnest and prolonged solicitations of his friends that he even permitted himself to be passive in the matter.” Beyond mere passivity, Fillmore seemed downright relieved, as he exited office with the satisfied air of, “having performed faithfully a given duty – one which has been found sufficiently onerous not to want to have again placed in one’s hands.” That relief was belied by his later presidential ambitions, yet Fillmore seemed relentlessly driven by an innate sense of duty, even when it contradicted his own personal preferences. 22
The brevity of his time in the White House – only two years, and eight months – further cemented Fillmore’s ineffectiveness. Incensed by the Fugitive Slave Act’s southern concessions, his Whig brethren rejected him for Winfield Scott. He again sought out reinvention, this time as a member of the Native American “Know Nothing” party. In yet another misstep, Fillmore failed to incorporate the lessons of his earlier political career, when his gubernatorial bid faltered largely because of immigrant opposition. Rather than rectifying this miscalculation by embracing these new voters, Fillmore doubled down on his latent xenophobia by aligning himself with the anti‐immigrant, nativist Know Nothings.
By 1854, the Fillmore administration was so linked with flailing bureaucratic impotence that it is terribly quicker to identify the few things done right (seeking to open trade with Japan, developing the transcontinental railroad, enabling American farmers to access Peruvian guano for use as fertilizer) than to unpack everything the president got wrong. No other historical presidency has been accused of the same kind of ignominious blandness. The tension between his outward accomplishments and inner self‐doubt served to undermine his confidence and cloud his decision‐making, leading to widely perceived hesitation and the stagnation of a once‐promising political career. 23
What passion he did display was funneled towards his myriad social welfare interests, from establishing the Buffalo Historical Society, and the Buffalo Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, to the promotion of both fire prevention and literacy. Fillmore was so ardently committed to these last two pursuits that he not only oversaw the modernization of fire brigades in his home state, he was said to have personally rushed to a blaze at the Library of Congress while in office, battling flames to rescue books, and then donating generously to replace those he could not save. Had he shown this rapid response and instinct for action in his political decision‐making, the Fillmore administration – while still saddled with the confounding sectional crisis that haunted even celebrated presidents – might have overcome its legacy of mediocrity.
Culturally, his lack of distinction became a touchstone of presidential humor, as, “Fillmore faced up to the responsibilities of his new office by doing, as far as anyone could tell, nothing at all.” Such ribbing was rooted in his fundamental flaws. Ultimately, the gravest error was his unwillingness to reconsider his position on the eradication of human enslavement. Fillmore’s acknowledgment that slavery was a moral evil made his eventual recasting of the crisis as a problem to be solved for political expediency that much harder to reconcile. By focusing on slavery in strict political and legal terms, he may have hewed closely to the founding documents he revered, but the overarching American vision of liberty elided him. Fillmore’s unbending adherence to ideals of conduct stalked him out of the White House, bringing great sorrow. Despite driving rain at the Franklin Pierce inauguration, the outgoing first couple insisted on fulfilling his last presidential obligation by standing outside throughout the handover. The already‐sickly Abigail contracted pneumonia and died. 24
Perhaps the most insidious wrong was not Millard Fillmore’s, who was merely enacting the meek and moderate political stances he had promised. Rather, Zachary Taylor and the Whig party brass failed at the primary requirement of ensuring that the president had a competent and like‐minded successor. To the country’s detriment, they made a crucial miscalculation in selecting a vice‐president helpful to the ticket demographically, but woefully unvetted and unprepared to steer a nation riven with the fissures of slavery. Yet even still, those who profess appreciation for Fillmore do so as a joke, and with good reason. The Millard Fillmore Appreciation Society began as an outgrowth of mid‐twentieth‐century malaise during the turmoil of Vietnam and Watergate. During this low point in American morale, poking fun at Fillmore’s obscurity was an insouciant way for a burgeoning generation to thumb their noses at disappointing authority figures and institutions. A studied apathy became the group’s trademark: one potential applicant during the 1970s shared that, “when I expressed my interest in joining, I was told I had just disqualified myself.” Attempts to commemorate Fillmore via a scholarship for C‐average students were eagerly planned, but “appropriately never came to fruition,” abandoned when club members got distracted. 25
1. Robert J. Rayback, Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President, Golden Springs: 2015, 460; James McPherson, “Teaching the Obscure Presidents: Washington Post Presidential Podcast,” 2016. 6. <http://wapo.st./presidential>
2. On the modern exhumation, see Michael McLeod, “Clara Rising, Ex‐UF Prof Who Got Zachary Taylor Exhumed,” Orlando Sentinel, July 25th, 1993.
3. “Mr. Fillmore’s Administration,” Chicago Tribune, March 12, 1853,2.
8. “An Abolitionist Unmasked: Facts from the Record Proving Fillmore’s Propensity to Vote Upon the Slavery Question with J.Q. Adams, Slade, Corwin, and Giddings,” Richmond Enquirer, August 15, 1848, pg. 2; “The Latest Mare’s Nest,” Independent Monitor, November 1, 1848, Tuscaloosa, AL, 3.
9. The Evening Post New York, NY October 4th, 1850, 2.
10. The Evening Post New York, NY October 4th, 1850, 2.
11. The Evening Post New York, NY October 4th, 1850, 2.