Saturday, April 06, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Thirteen, It's Millard Fillmore, B-tches!

I can't recuse myself from writing about this next guy, even though I wrote a favorable review of the bibliographic reference Millard Fillmore: A Bibliography by John Crawford for the Summer 2003 edition of Reference and User Services Quarterly and thus I have a more... forgiving view of Millard Fillmore's tenure as replacement President upon Zachary Taylor's passing.

Although I can't forgive much.  Fillmore is the one who signed the odious bills that formed the Compromise of 1850.

In Fillmore's defense, his Active-Positive worldview made him do it.

The Compromise was the one thing standing against the serious threats of secession and civil war.  The results of the Mexican-American War had angered up Northerner abolitionists: the sudden population boom of California filling up with Free-State backers - threatening the possibility that all those new Western territories could turn anti-slavery - had angered up Southerners.  Fearing disunion, key Senators - Clay, Webster and Calhoun (that bastard) - offered up a series of bills that would attempt to placate both sides by letting California go Free but also requiring federal marshals to arrest any suspected runaway slaves and ship them South under a Fugitive Slave Act.

Fillmore's predecessor Zachary Taylor would have none of it.  He didn't want compromise and he didn't want Southern states ignoring federal authority.  If Taylor hadn't died, our nation could well have fought its civil war in 1850, not 1860.

Instead it fell to Fillmore, a long-time political figure from New York.  In many ways the polar opposite of Taylor: Where Taylor was a novice politician, Fillmore was experienced.  Where Taylor was Uncompromising (the trait of an Active-Negative), Fillmore was open to the idea of Compromise due to his days as Congressman.

To Fillmore, the Compromise package was a present solution to what he viewed as a current problem, so he signed off on all the Compromise bills Congress sent him.  In his mind, the passage of that compromise would settle passions and let things go back to a status-quo.

In one respect he was right: the Compromise did settle passions.  Abolitionists up North found it particularly frustrating to get more people to join them in protest, because most of the citizenry - North AND South - simply didn't want to fight.

But in every other way, Fillmore was very much wrong, and again the sin of an A-P President - the failure to see the consequences of their actions - made itself plain within a few years.  That Compromise settled passions only for the issues - the disposition of California and New Mexico - of that moment.  Newer issues would arise - such as the disposition of Kansas and Nebraska - that brought those passions back.  And Fillmore failed to recognize how much of a poison pill that Fugitive Slave Act would be to abolitionists who feared it would - and did - create abuse where slave-owners would claim legitimate freedmen - so easy to "identify" from their skin color - as slaves, in effect kidnapping innocent Blacks.  Worse, it forced people upon pain of a $1000 fine (back then a steep price) to join any effort to round up Blacks.  At the time (1850) most Northerners didn't care much for it: but once the Act was being enforced - and people getting prosecuted for it - the outrage grew.

And that was the Northerners.  The Southern slave-owning politicians also refused to let the Compromise settle their passions.  They wanted to end the Missouri Compromise and get the chance to spread slavery everywhere they could (even into Free states).  Rather than tread lightly on the use of the Fugitive Slave Act, they quickly abused it by doing nothing to stop slave-owners from claiming any and all Blacks within view as "escaped slaves" (easier to commit when there was no penalty of false affidavits).

Fillmore didn't get his wish about cooling passions.  By the time was facing an election cycle to stand as his own candidate, he was hated well enough within the Whigs to force a deadlocked convention and denied him a chance to run for his own administration.  Fillmore was still able to push a platform upholding his Compromise, which hurt the eventual candidate Winfield Scott's campaign.  The slavery issue shattered the Whigs that season, the pieces of the party floating for a banner until the anti-slavery Republicans formed 4 years later.

Fillmore's Active tendencies pushed him to run again for office in 1856 for another Third Party - the Know-Nothings - but won little.  As such, his foreign policy successes - forcing a trade mission on isolationist Japan that actually profited both nations in the long term, dealing with Great Britain over a potential conflict regarding the UK's hold in the hemisphere, and avoiding an international incident involving Hungary - get overlooked.

Unfortunately, the foreign policies successes get overlooked for a very good reason: his domestic policies kept the United States marching relentlessly towards an unforgiving war.

Next week: Quite honestly the unhappiest person to ever sit in the White House.

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