When thinking about the worst presidents in American history, a topic very much on our minds these days, we should not forget the odious Millard Fillmore.
But one aspect of his life usually elicits little more than a fleeting mention in this ceremony — his role in the passage of the notorious Fugitive Slave Act.
By pushing this compromise, Fillmore capitulated to the demands of the slave-holding South, fractured his party and helped set the stage for secession a decade later. But he also triggered acts of defiance among many in his home town of Buffalo — a defiance that deserves commemorating at least as much as his own actions.
This “new and improved” law, signed by Fillmore on Sept. 18, 1850, added radical new enforcement measures to the original Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.
State and local officials who refused to cooperate with slave owners or their agents could be penalized with hefty fines or even jail time. To give officials an incentive to comply, the act provided for monetary bonuses when a suspected fugitive was successfully returned to the South. Private citizens also could be compelled to aid in the rendition process on penalty of imprisonment and fines.
A bounty hunter needed only to present an affidavit to a designated federal magistrate authorizing him to act on the behalf of his client to claim a person as a fugitive. The accused had no right to trial or to speak on his or her own behalf. As a result, the act nullified the doctrine of habeas corpus, at least as it applied to African Americans. Even freeborn blacks now faced the prospect of legalized kidnapping from the “Bloodhound Law,” as it was called in the abolitionist press.
Despite the outcries from constituents within his own party, Fillmore supported the bill as a potential end-run around the perennial threats of secession upon which Southern Democrats had come to rely to receive congressional protections for slavery.
An infrastructure-loving Whig to the core, Fillmore hated slavery only to the extent that it detracted from his modernizing agenda. With Southerners pacified, the president hoped to gain their support for various Whig economic policies and move the country toward more important issues. At least that’s how he saw the issue of slavery: a distraction from the real work of American politics.
So he worked to pass the Fugitive Slave Act to do just that. To ensure the bill’s passage, Fillmore cajoled his colleagues, threatening to withhold his (and thus the party’s) endorsement from Whig congressmen who did not come aboard the compromise train. He even threatened to send federal troops to put down protests against the bill in cities such as Philadelphia. Hostage to Southerners’ ever-increasing demands, Fillmore was determined to see the Fugitive Slave Act enforced.
The compromise, however, tore apart the Whig Party, ultimately costing Fillmore the party’s nomination in 1852. After the party splintered, Fillmore found a place with the nativist American Party, commonly known as the Know-Nothings. Anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic, the Know-Nothings represented a particularly virulent form of white nationalism in an era defined by it. Fillmore accepted their nomination in 1856.
Sounding a refrain that we commonly hear today from politicians allied with nativist populist movements, Fillmore denied that he himself hated immigrants or Catholics — a significant number of whom populated his home town of Buffalo. But he revealed once and for all that, at the very least, he had no problem allying with rabid bigots if it would further his political and policy goals.
Fillmore was a true toad. Reminds me of someone in the Oval Office these days.