Hidden Strength: Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)

Millard Fillmore doesn’t have the best reputation among scholars. He’s often lumped uncritically with the doughfaces that followed him, but in fact he was a much better and stronger president than either Franklin Pierce or James Buchanan. Let’s review his record.

The Compromise of 1850

The Compromise had the following provisions:

  • California would bypass the territory phase and enter the union as a free state
  • New Mexico and Utah would determine for themselves whether they would be slave or free states
  • Texas would cede certain territory to New Mexico, and in return Texas’s debts would be paid
  • Slave trade (but not slave owning itself) would be banned in Washington DC
  • The Fugitive Slave Act would require people to return escaped slaves to their owners, and would be enforced by federal marshals, not the states.

Historians have blasted Fillmore for the last part — the Fugitive Slave Act — saying that it was a trigger for the Civil War, inciting northerners against slavery. There are three problems with this indictment.

(1) The Fugitive Slave Act certainly did make the hunting of slaves more visible to people in the north. It woke people up and caused outrage. Turning people in the north against slavery was a good result of Fillmore’s presidency, not a bad one. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which had profound effects on northern passions. But the Civil War itself was certainly not inevitable at this point.

(2) The North was the slam-dunk winner in the Compromise of 1850. The Fugitive Slave Act was the singular Southern-friendly part that meant anything. The other parts either favored the north or threw the south crumbs. Slavery would be allowed in New Mexico and Utah, but slavery had been outlawed by the Mexican government, so there were no slaves around there at the time, and the land was badly suited for slavery in any case. No one operating in real-world politics can call the Fugitive Slave Act a sell-out with a straight face.

(3) Historians say that Fillmore shouldn’t have put slavery in a Constitutional framework, but a moral one. That’s impossible to take seriously, given that these same specialists never hold the twelve presidents before Fillmore to the same standard. Fillmore was a man of his time, just like his predecessors.

Fillmore should be commended. He was personally against slavery, but as president he knew it was his job to uphold the laws until slavery could be peacefully abolished, and to get us much for the north as possible. That’s what the Compromise of 1850 achieved.

Facing Down Rebels, Opening Japan, Protecting Hawaii, Mending Relations with Latin America, Avoiding War with Cuba

All of that, yes. In his short two and a half years as president, Fillmore was on a roll:

Texas. Before the Compromise of 1850 passed, Texas had threatened to seize a disputed area in New Mexico. Civil war threatened, but Fillmore diffused the situation by sending troops to New Mexico and a warning to Texas.

South Carolina. After the Compromise of 1850 was passed, South Carolina made preparations to secede from the union. Fillmore reinforced forts around Charleston and sent troops to the Carolina regions which prompted outrage. He held his ground, saying that as Commander and Chief he could station troops where he bloody well pleased if he believed it was in the nation’s best interest. This was the second time Fillmore diffused a tinderbox situation that could have exploded into civil war.

Japan. In 1852 he ordered Commodore Perry to open Japan to trade. Japan had been an isolated nation since 1639, and Fillmore wanted to change that, not only for trade but so that American ships could stop and resupply in Japan while en route to China and Southeast Asia. He also wanted the Japanese to stop abusing American shipwrecked sailors who were stranded on Japanese shores. Perry arrived in Tokyo Bay in 1853, and eventually negotiated the Treaty of Kanagawa (signing it in 1854, after Fillmore left office) which gave the U.S. the right to trade and resupply in the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate. Japan also agreed to protect shipwrecked sailors. The only bad part about the opening of Japan is that it was done by coercion: Fillmore ordered Perry to use gunboat diplomacy if necessary.

Hawaii. Napoleon III had seized Honolulu in 1849, and then withdrew. Fillmore resisted demands for annexation, and then in 1851 the French made a list of demands on the Hawaiian king that would have established a French protectorate. Wisely enforcing the Monroe Doctrine, Fillmore pushed the French away, and they interfered no more. Hawaiian independence was preserved.

Latin America. James Polk had strained relations with this region by making the Canal Zone a virtual U.S. Colony — a less than admirable use of the Monroe Doctrine. (Polk’s foreign policy was basically the Monroe Doctrine on steroids.) Fillmore began a good-neighbor policy toward the region, and improved relations with Mexico, arranging for American businessmen to buy Peruvian dung for fertilizer instead of getting it by force.

Cuba. Back in 1849 a Venezuelan named Narciso Lopez had recruited Americans from the South to liberate Cuba from Spain. The Southerners were running out of ways to expand slavery on the continent, and wanted to add Cuba to the union as another slave state. President Zachary Taylor prevented the attempt. When they tried it again on Fillmore’s watch, he warned sternly that he would not protect anyone captured by Spain for trying to overthrow its colonial government. Things went ahead anyway, and badly, and the Spanish executed two American citizens. Fillmore lived up to his word, wisely avoiding retaliation and war, while also working out a settlement where the American prisoners were released from Cuba.


Historians deride James Buchanan a failure (and they are correct) for doing nothing when states started rebelling and seceding from the union. Yet they treat Millard Fillmore as another Buchanan, when Fillmore faced down rebellion not once, but twice, in Texas and Southern Carolina. These historians then ignore Fillmore’s other impressive accomplishments — with Japan, Hawaii, Latin America, and Cuba. And they fault him for the Compromise of 1850, instead of giving him the praise he deserves.

I dock him two peace points for opening Japan by means of coercion. Other than that, his peace record is flawless. For prosperity I split him down the middle. He heavily subsidized railroad construction in the west, and there were plenty of private railroads to make this welfare unnecessary; it basically amounted to taxpayer money being redirected into the pockets of rich railroad barons. For liberty, Fillmore does deserve to be docked some for the Fugitive Slave Act — its nature being what it is — but not nearly to the extent most historians would have it, for the reasons explained above. For a compromise, the Compromise of 1850 was a resounding victory for the north, kept the nation at peace, and made northerners care about the African American plight in the south.

Peace — 18/20
Prosperity — 10/20
Liberty — 15/20

TOTAL SCORE = 43/60 = Good

This isn’t the record of a bad president at all, nor even a mediocre one. Fillmore was pretty damn good.

3 thoughts on “Hidden Strength: Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)

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