Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Fillmore (and Taylor) on Slavery

Millard Fillmore was a New York, but would sign one of the most notorious slavery bills ever, the Fugitive Slave Act.  Fillmore and Taylor disagreed on slavery, but actually not as most would expect as Taylor was the slave owning Southern and the Fillmore the northerner:
Taylor and Fillmore disagreed on the question of slavery, but not in the manner that people might imagine. Taylor wanted the new states to be free states, while Fillmore supported slavery in those states to appease the South. Fillmore said "God knows that I detest slavery, but it is an existing evil ... and we must endure it and give it such protection as is guaranteed by the Constitution." Apparently he was personally opposed to slavery on principle, but put his principles behind his politics. The debate over the issue was wild and wooly and as Vice-President, Fillmore was responsible for presiding over the senate. During one debate, Senator Henry S. Foote of Mississippi pulled a pistol on Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri.

To expand on Taylor's views:
At the time Taylor became President, the issue of slavery in the western territories of the United States was the number one political issue of the day. Debate between extreme pro and antislavery viewpoints had become very bitter. In 1849, Taylor told the residents of California, including the Mormons around Salt Lake, and the residents of New Mexico to create state constitutions and apply for statehood in December when Congress met. He correctly predicted that these constitutions would come out against slavery in California and New Mexico. In December 1849, and January 1850, Taylor told Congress that it should allow them to become states, once their constitutions arrived in Washington D.C. He opposed attempts to develop territorial governments for the two future states, because he worried that this might increase tension between pro and antislavery activists regarding a congressional prohibition of slavery in the territories (the very thing that would occur in Kansas years later.)

The slavery issue dominated Taylor's short term. Although he owned slaves on his plantation in Louisiana, he took a moderate stance on the territorial expansion of slavery, angering fellow Southerners. He told them that if necessary to enforce the laws, he personally would lead the Army. He said that if anyone was "taken in rebellion against the Union, he would hang ... with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico." He never wavered from this position. Henry Clay then proposed a complex Compromise of 1850. Taylor died as it was being debated.

Taylor's sudden death meant that it was Fillmore who now faced the Compromise of 1850 and he strongly supported it, unlike Taylor:
Fillmore's views on the all-encompassing slavery issue were markedly different from his predecessor's, and everyone in Taylor's cabinet knew it. Days before the President's death, Fillmore had bluntly told Taylor that if the Compromise of 1850 came to a vote in the Senate, he would cast his vice presidential tie-breaking vote to pass it if necessary. The cabinet, who had barely spoken to Fillmore up to this point, saw the writing on the wall and unanimously resigned; the new President curtly accepted them all. In days, America was governed by an entirely new order. Fillmore appointed to his cabinet Whigs who shared his pro-Union, pro-compromise views.

His longtime ally Henry Clay, aged and exhausted, readied himself for a final battle in Congress. At the end of July, not one month since Taylor had helped stall the compromise, Senator Clay introduced a modified omnibus combination of bills that comprised it. Fillmore pressured Congress to consider the original bill rather than the watered-down version. The angry tone of the national debate increased. In Congress, forces for and against slavery fought over every word of the bill. Both sides chipped away at the bill's provisions, and support for it collapsed, much to Fillmore's deep disappointment. Clay, wasted by the struggle, left Washington, D.C.

A new player, from the opposing party, entered the fray. Stephen Douglas, age thirty-seven, had headed the committee charged with partitioning new American territories while serving in the House. Elected to the Senate in 1847, he now headed its Committee on Territories.

Instead of fighting one great battle, Douglas would fight five smaller ones. The compromise was reworked into a quintet of bills, with each having just enough support from one section of the country or another to assure passage. One by one, the bills squeaked through Congress. As a result, Texas settled its border dispute with New Mexico and received $10 million from the United States as compensation for conceding territories. California gained statehood as a free state. New Mexico and Utah were granted territorial status, without specifying any policy on slavery for either, affirming the principle of popular sovereignty in deciding the issue (i.e., local determination). The Fugitive Slave Law, which would later provoke rancorous debate, occasioned almost no debate in the Senate or the House and passed with surprising ease. The final bill involved the nation's capital itself. Slave trading, but not slavery itself, became illegal in the District of Columbia. Congress worked well into the fall, in its longest session to date. Fillmore signed the bills, considering their passage a triumph of interparty cooperation that had kept the Union intact.

1 comment:

Nick Dupree said...

in truth, Fillmore was one of the worst racists to ever occupy the White House. Some of his letters are rated R for strident, profane racial hatred, for real.