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Millard Fillmore: Presidency, Facts & Accomplishments

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the life and presidency of the thirteenth president of the United States of America, Millard Fillmore. Some historians consider him to be among the least successful of the nation's presidents.

Stuck

In chess, the term zugzwang is used to describe a position of complete hopelessness; no matter what move the player makes, he is guaranteed to weaken his position and give his opponent the initiative. Considering the vitriolic discourse in the United States surrounding the issue of slavery in the 1850s, the thirteenth president, Millard Fillmore, found himself in a position of political zugzwang. No matter what he attempted to do - in this case, even broker a compromise - he was guaranteed to lose politically, and his decisions have caused him to largely be viewed as a poor president.

Early Career

Born in a log cabin in upstate New York in 1800, Fillmore was the second of nine children and began his legal career as a law clerk at the age of 19. Within a decade, he was elected three times to New York state legislature and then to his first term in the U.S. House of Representatives as a member of the Whig Party in 1932. Though Fillmore lost his seat in the 1834 election, he was elected again in 1836 and sat in the House until 1843 after choosing not to run in the 1842 election.

Fillmore was hardly a vocal abolitionist in his time in Congress, but he was firmly anti-slavery. For example, he opposed the admission of Texas as a slave state and he supported prohibiting the inter-state slave trade.

After choosing not to stand for reelection in 1842, Fillmore attempted but failed to be elected governor of New York in 1844. However, his political fortunes would soon change, as in 1848 he was elected at the Whig Party's national convention to be Zachary Taylor's running mate in the 1848 presidential election. After Taylor's election, Fillmore's view on slavery changed slightly; although he still disliked slavery, he believed allowing its possibility in the western territories was integral to the survival of the Union.

Presidency

Zachary Taylor's sudden death in July 1850 vaulted Fillmore into the presidency. Despite Fillmore's anti-slavery attitude prior to his taking the presidency, Fillmore promised to support the 1850 Compromise.

The Compromise was opposed by many northern abolitionists, as it opened up slavery to the Utah and New Mexico territories, should they choose in the future to allow it, despite both of these territories being below the latitudinal demarcation line separating northern free states from southern slave states, as per the earlier Missouri Compromise. Furthermore, it put federal law enforcement officials at the disposal of southern landowners attempting to catch their runaway slaves, even in northern states.

Internationally, Fillmore's principal achievement was to start the 'opening' of Japan to western trade, when he sent Commodore Matthew Perry and a fleet of American warships to the Pacific island chain in the hope of forcing them to begin trading with the U.S. and other European powers. Though any action or benefit from dispatching Perry did not come until after Fillmore's presidency, historians have credited Fillmore for starting the venture. Fillmore also guarded Hawaii from French invasion, warning Napoleon III that any French attempts at appropriating Hawaii would be met by U.S. action.

Fillmore's presidency is largely viewed negatively by historians. The Compromise of 1850, a deal Fillmore thought would save the Union, in reality just pushed secession and war back a decade. Rather than being a suitable compromise, the agreement instead angered both sides to the point that Fillmore received the ignominious distinction of being one of the few presidents not to receive his party's nomination for a second term.

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