[Abridged] Presidential Histories

13.) Millard Fillmore 1850-1853

February 01, 2021 Kenny Ryan
[Abridged] Presidential Histories
13.) Millard Fillmore 1850-1853
Chapters
[Abridged] Presidential Histories
13.) Millard Fillmore 1850-1853
Feb 01, 2021
Kenny Ryan

When Millard Fillmore became president, the country was on the verge of collapse. President Taylor had just died, the Compromise of 1850 appeared dead, and southern secessionist were organizing a convention to plot disunion. The nation looked to Fillmore to save it.

And he totally whiffed.

Follow along as Fillmore uses the scapegoating of minorities to rise to power, postpones Civil War for a decade with the Compromise of 1850, destroys the Whig party with his overzealous enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, and runs for president with the Know Nothings - a nativist secret-society-turned-political-party that dreamt of building an America where immigrants, catholics, and minorities are second-class citizens.

Bibliography
1. Millard Fillmore – Paul Finkelman
2. Zachary Taylor – John D. Eisenhower
3. Heirs of the Founders – H.W. Brands
4. Abraham Lincoln – David Herbert Donald
5. Franklin Pierce – Michael F. Holt


Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/AbridgedPresidentialHistories)

Show Notes Transcript

When Millard Fillmore became president, the country was on the verge of collapse. President Taylor had just died, the Compromise of 1850 appeared dead, and southern secessionist were organizing a convention to plot disunion. The nation looked to Fillmore to save it.

And he totally whiffed.

Follow along as Fillmore uses the scapegoating of minorities to rise to power, postpones Civil War for a decade with the Compromise of 1850, destroys the Whig party with his overzealous enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, and runs for president with the Know Nothings - a nativist secret-society-turned-political-party that dreamt of building an America where immigrants, catholics, and minorities are second-class citizens.

Bibliography
1. Millard Fillmore – Paul Finkelman
2. Zachary Taylor – John D. Eisenhower
3. Heirs of the Founders – H.W. Brands
4. Abraham Lincoln – David Herbert Donald
5. Franklin Pierce – Michael F. Holt


Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/AbridgedPresidentialHistories)

13.) Millard Fillmore 1850-1853

 

Welcome to the abridged presidential histories with Kenny Ryan. Episode 13, Millard Fillmore, the Know-Nothing candidate.

 

Looking back now, it’s easy to see that in the 1850’s, the united states was a dying country.

Compromises over slavery that had always been meant to just to kick that can of controversy down the road were creaking and collapsing under their dead and rotten weight.

The nation’s two political parties – the democrats and the whigs – were dying, too, and for the same reason. When they’d been created, Democratic party founder Martin Van Buren saw national parties as a way to control the national debate, to steer it away from slavery. But that premise had failed. Both parties would fracture along north-south lines in the 1850’s as their pro and anti-slavery elements decided their differences were greater than their commonalities.

The Whigs would die first. And when they did die, their last president, Millard Fillmore, would latch onto a bold and energetic new party. A party with powerful messaging that still resonates today. A party that he thought could last 100 years and become the great future rival of the Democrats.

And if you’re thinking, yes! It’s time for the Republicans and their platform of opposition to slavery and equality for all!

Well.

You’ve got another thing coming.

Today we learn about the American party. A party of anti-immigrant, anti-catholic bigots who grew from a hate-fueled secret society to almost take over the American experiment. And we’ll learn about the one-time president who thought they could make him president again – Millard Fillmore. 

INTRO

Millard Fillmore was born on January 7, 1800, to an impoverished family in Central New York. And his life basically plays out like the traditional American rags to riches story – a poor youth who pulls himself up by the bootstraps to realize tremendous fame and fortune – but in the case of Fillmore, the story also frequently derails into racism and bigotry. So. Arguably still the American story.

Fillmore hated the manual labor he knew he was destined for if he couldn’t get an education, so he began working at a law firm where he could learn while he worked. When he felt he’d learned enough, he returned to his hometown to establish a law practice before eventually moving to Buffalo, New York, and his timing here was really good. The Eerie Canal had just opened, turning buffalo into a boom-town overnight as goods from Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin traveled across the great lakes and down the canal to reach the port at New York City. And while trade was traveling east, investors and immigrants were traveling west. There was a lot of work to be had in Buffalo for a young lawyer.

But then he started getting tugged toward politics. And not for any grand aspirational reasons, but more because, well, Fillmore’s kind of a putz.

In 1827, when Fillmore was 27-years-old, a group called the “Anti-masonic” party was a growing force in New York state politics. These were people who were largely anti- Andrew jackson. Jackson and a large number of his Democrats were Masons, so folks who opposed Jackson and the Democrats tended to be anti-mason, too. So, who are the masons and why didn’t people like them? Well. The masons are a secret society that can be traced back to Europe, where they’d been founded by stonemasons. They had secret handshakes and secret rules and they liked to hang out sometimes and, I don’t know, probably get drunk together. And if the idea of a secret society sounds fun, well, that’s basically why people joined. It was a social club that made members feel like they were important and that they had status because they were in and everyone else was out and, like, totally lame. The masons had existed in the United States since the country’s founding – George Washington was a mason – and, though they were very secretive about their group’s purpose and activities, as best as I can tell, it really was just a bunch of guys who thought it was fun to belong to a secret club.

But, well, as you can probably remember from the grade school playground, it’s not fun to not be included. Non-masons were pretty suspicious of masons, especially as masons kept getting prominent government roles and enjoying success in business. There’s two ways of looking at the anti-masons. If you’re feeling negative, you can say they were a bunch of jealous losers who were tired of being left out. If you’re feeling positive, you can say they were anti-egalitarians who thought nobody was better than anybody else just because of their social class. Quite a few anti-masons would later become leading abolitionists as a result of this second belief.

So this is kind of simmering there when, in 1826, a New York Mason named William Morgan publicly announced he was going to quit the group and write a book revealing all its secrets … and then he showed up dead, which wasn’t a good look. This sparked the anti-masons to jump from grumbling about being left out to actively rooting out masons and banishing them from American political life.  Millard Fillmore attended a couple anti-masonic conventions and decided to ride that paranoia to being elected to the state assembly on an anti-masonic ticket in 1828. And I’m not sure this is just a coincidence for Fillmore, him being attracted to politics by the anti-masons. His political career is going to be defined by scapegoating minorities. The anti-masons will collapse as a political movement quickly, after masons abandoned their organization in droves, and Fillmore will switch his allegiance to the Whig party, where at least he can still be an anti-jackson man. But when similar paranoia-based political movements sprout in the future, oh man, he’ll be so down.

Now, the next couple decades of Fillmore’s career are pretty darn dull, so I’m going to largely skip over them. In short, he’ll slowly rise his way up the Whig party, two steps forward, one step back, and he’ll frequently feud with a fellow New York whig named James Seward, who will basically be Millard’s perpetual rival and later serve as Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of State. Another fun fact about Seward is he was born in the village of Florida, in Orange County, in New York state, which I found delightful and had to share.

Anyway, as Fillmore slowly developed his career, he made sure to blame any setbacks on Catholics and immigrants. And this blame became a kind a self-fulfilling prophesy for him. Something would go wrong for him, he’d give a speech about how everything is the Catholics and immigrants’ fault, and then they’d vote against him because he was literally promising to screw them over if he won and he’d suffer a setback again. This guy will just never learn.

And that pretty much takes us to the whig party convention of 1848. This is where our story really starts taking off again.

The whig convention of 1848 is the convention that nominated Mexican-American War hero Zachary Taylor – ol’ rough n ready! – to be the party’s presidential nominee.

It’s also the convention that will put Fillmore in the vice presidency.

Once Taylor had secured the presidential nomination, it was time for the party delegates to nominate a vice president. And since Taylor was a military man from the south with dubious whig credentials – there was some debate as to whether he really was even a whig – the party decided it needed a northerner with impeccable whig credentials to balance the ticket. Which meant the obvious candidate was Thomas Ewing!

That’s right. Thomas Ewing. And you might be asking, who is Thomas Ewing? Well, he was a former U.S. senator and secretary of treasury from Ohio who everybody basically loved. Or. Well. Almost everybody. Because, unfortunately for Mr. Ewing, who was not present at the convention, one of the members of the Ohio delegation had a personal vendetta against him that nobody seemed to know about. So right before the balloting for vice president began, this other guy decided now was the perfect time to stick it to Ewing. He stood up and announced he had just received word that Mr. Ewing wanted his name to be withdrawn from consideration. Of course, Ewing wanted no such thing, but nobody at the convention knew that, so they took this other guy for his word and nominated Millard Fillmore instead!

And that’s why today’s episode is about Millard Fillmore.

Who, by the way, also edged out his New York rival William H. Seward for the role. Take that, Seward!

And then Zachary Taylor won the election of 1848 and named William H. Seward to the prestigious position of secretary of state.

Damnit, Seward!

The Taylor presidency, and Fillmore vice presidency, began in 1849 and was a terribly awkward time for Millard Fillmore, which he probably blamed on minorities. Fillmore was quickly reminded that the vice president is, as John Adams put it, “the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived,” as he had zero influence on the administration. Even worse, his rival Seward became one of Taylor’s most-trusted confidants.

There are probably three reasons Seward quickly eclipsed Fillmore in the administration.

First, there was a well-established history of presidents totally ignoring their vice presidents. 

Second, Seward a much more savvy politician that Fillmore.

And Third, Fillmore disagreed with Taylor on the biggest issues of the day – which I’ll get more into in a minute. Fillmore went so far as to tell Taylor that he would use his tie-breaking vote in the senate to oppose legislation Taylor favored if it came down to that.

But it didn’t come down to that, because, on July 4, President Zachary Taylor had a snack of cherries with an iced glass of milk, drank a lot probably tainted water from the good ol’ DC sanitation system, got sick, and died five days later. And that means, it’s time for Millard Fillmore to step in as president.

 

AND SO, on July 9, 1850, 50-year-old Millard Fillmore, the rags-to-riches lawyer and vaguely bigoted new York politician who was shaping up to be just another entirely forgettable vice president, was sworn in as the 13th president of the United States after the death of his predecessor. 

But what did the world, and the country, look like when Fillmore became president? Let’s look around.

Internationally, French troops invaded the Papal states to reinstall Pope Pious the 9th, which seems like a fun bit of drama, a brit named Joseph Swan had begun developing the light bulb, and Louis Pasteur and Marie Laurent married in Europe – this last one is really important as this husband-wife team of scientist will develop the principles of vaccination and pasteurization in the years to come.

Domestically, the United States appeared on the verge of disunion. The U.S. had acquired all of modern California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and much of Colorado and Texas from Mexico in the Mexican-American war just a couple years earlier, and then gold had been discovered in California just as the war was winding down. 100,000 Americans participated in a mass migration across the continent in search of that California gold. These so-called 49ers soon clamored for a state government to bring order to the region, and organized a hastily called convention that unanimously agreed the new state should be free of slavery, because nobody – not even settlers from the south – wanted to compete with slaves in the California gold mines. New Mexico was asking for a similar ban on slavery and Southern politicians in Congress were livid, threatening to secede if slavery were banned in these new lands acquired from Mexico, and northern politicians didn’t want to give an inch, either, as anti-slavery attitudes had solidified in the north. 73-year-old Henry Clay, the great compromiser who had saved the nation from similar disagreements in 1820 and 1832, put forth one final compromise – the compromise of 1850 – in January, but it was defeated when it came to a vote in Congress. And, I misspoke in my previous episode when I said Congress went into recess after this, they stayed in session, but Clay didn’t stick around for the rest of it. Old and discouraged, he gave up and went home right around Taylor’s death in July.

So, in July 1850, the compromise was dead, Taylor was dead, Clay had given up and gone home, and delegates were gathering at a secessionist convention in the south to vote on disunion, so it fell to fillmore to save the day.

And he totally didn’t. 

On one of Fillmore’s first days in office, Zachary Taylor’s full cabinet, including Fillmore’s old rival William H. Seward, came to Fillmore with resignation letters in hand. This was a formality. They all expected to be retained. But Fillmore shocked them by accepting their resignations and firing the whole lot on the spot – something no accidental president had before done or has done since, because it’s stupid. When Fillmore cut all those guys loose, well, he didn’t have anyone in the wings ready to replace them. And when he started offering jobs to people, some of them said no! So, in July and August of 1850, with southern secessionists planning a convention to discuss disunion, the federal government was essentially adrift because Fillmore was still scrambling to build a cabinet. It was just him, this sad and angry man, alone in the white house with nobody to help him. 

If the United States was going to be saved, it was going to have to be saved by somebody else.

Enter Stephen A. Douglas.

In 1850, Stephen Douglas was a first-term senator from Illinois who was about to become the single most important man in 1850’s American politics. As a series of failed presidents come and go, Douglas alone will attempt to pick up Henry Clay’s mantle as the great compromiser and, less successfully, try to hold the country together.

And it starts with the compromise of 1850, a 6-plank effort to resolve the crisis and save the union.

With Clay out of the picture and Fillmore still trying to build his cabinet, Douglas got to work during that summer of 1850 tinkering on Clay’s compromise bill and looking for ways to get it passed. Ultimately, he decided the bill would be easier to pass as six separate bills for its six separate planks, because while a majority couldn’t be found for the six planks bound up together, each individual component could get just enough support to pass alone. Two months after Fillmore took office, September, 1850, the compromise bills began passing in pairs and heading to Fillmore’s desk, where the new president signed them all – an act his predecessor, Zachary Taylor, had vowed not to do. 

Which means it’s time to dive back into the Compromise of 1850, what it was, and why it was supposed to save the union.

Plank 1.) California would be admitted as a free state. This was pitched as a point for the north, but really was probably inevitable at this point.

Plank 2.) The rest of the land taken from Mexico, including new mexico, was organized as a territory with no restrictions on slavery. This was a point for the south, especially considering the New Mexico territory was asking for slavery to be banned there.

Plank 3.) Texas gave up its claim to half of New Mexico. This was a point for New Mexico, which didn’t want to be ruled by Texas, which was really far away and where slavery was 100% legal.

Plank 4.) The Federal government paid off Texas’ entire $10 million dollar pre-annexation debt – basically, in exchange for denying the state’s highly questionable claim to New Mexico. Point for Texas.

Plank 5.) The slave trade was abolished in Washington D.C., but slavery was preserved as legal there. Let’s call this a wash.

Plank 6.) the most controversial one - Congress passed a new Fugitive Slave Act. This was a big, big point for the south.

Add that up, and it looks about even, with maybe a slight advantage to the south. But if you lift the hood on the fugitive slave act and read what it does, you realize, holy smokes, this is crazy. And because Fillmore is going to spend the rest of his presidency trying to enforce it, we’re going to open that engine up and look at what it did.

Are you ready? Because this stuff gets pretty nuts.

·      The fugitive slave act established commissioners in every county of the country who were empowered to hear fugitive slave cases and call up forces to catch runaway slaves whenever slave catchers showed up asking for assistance. Further, the commissioners could be held personally liable if they failed to capture any escaped slaves in their county. We talk today about how hard it is to hold police accountable through lawsuits – just google Castle Rock vs. Gonzalez (And I mean, seriously, do it, make a note to yourself to Google Castle Rock vs Gonzalez after this episode is done. It’s crazy). Well, 170 years ago, you could easily sue a federal Marshal who didn’t recover your escaped slave. 
 But wait. There’s more. Way more.

·      The act established a $1,000 fine for aiding or harboring fugitive slaves. Technically, a poor northern farmer could be fine $1,000 for giving a cup of water to a black man on the side of the road if it was later proven that the black man was an escaped slave. Given that there were 150,000 African Americans in the north at this time, if you did anything nice for any of them, you’d put yourself at risk of a $1,000 fine if it was later found they’d once escaped slavery in the south.

·      If a black person was captured and accused of being an escaped slave, they couldn’t file a writ of habeas corpus, which is basically a constitutionally-protected right to demand to know why you’re being detained and then be freed if the reason wasn’t lawful. So it just threw out the constitution there.

·      The only proof needed to legally capture and accuse a black person of being a slave was that they matched a written description of an escaped slave that had been sworn before a southern judge, which, well, I mean, matching a description on a piece of paper sounds pretty damn limp to me.

·      If a black person was captured and accused of being an escaped slave, they’d be tried in front a judge with no jury. The judge alone made the decision. And the accused black person was not allowed to testify in their own defense

·      And that brings us to the last big point, and this truly takes the cake – if the judge ruled the detained person was a free man and should be let go, the judge was paid $5 for their time. If the judge ruled the detained person was an escaped slave who had to be returned to the south, the judge was paid $10 for their time. As in, that’s right, the judges were paid twice as much if they sent detained African Americans down into slavery.

And I want you to keep this law in mind the next time anyone says the south’s arguments over slavery were only about state’s rights. Because this law, which the south had been demanding for years, directly violated northern states rights by forcing northerners to help the south recover escaped slaves against the wishes of those northern states. The south, and really any politician, is only going to support state’s rights when it benefits them, and they’re going to demand the suspension of state’s rights when it benefits anyone else. 

Anyway, this act did more than anything to radicalize the north against slavery and prime it to be willing to fight a civil war. And Millard Fillmore basically staked his whole presidency on the vigorous enforcement of this act. Stories spread across the region of black men who had escaped slavery decades before being kidnapped, put before a judge, and deported back to the south before any friends or neighbors could come to their defense. Families were torn apart. Mothers and fathers were taken from their children. People were outraged. And acts of spontaneous disobedience began breaking out across the north in opposition.

For example.

In 1851, one of the first black men seized under the law was freed when the courthouse he was being held in was rushed by 30 men who seized him and smuggled him to safety in Canada, which super pissed off Millard Fillmore.

When an abolitionist convention was held in Syracuse, New York, Fillmore ordered one of the delegates who was an escaped slave be captured under the law and sent south. After the man was detained, a mob of 5,000 abolitionists surrounded the courthouse and demanded the his release – an experience that only empowered the abolitionists to further acts of opposition.

In 1851, Fillmore demanded 41 men be put on trial for treason – the largest treason trial in American history – after they refused to join a commissioner’s posse summoned to capture a slave under the law. A defense lawyer quipped, “Did you hear it? Three harmless, non-resisting Quaker’s and eight and thirty wretched, miserable, penniless negroes, armed with corn-cutters, clubs, and a few muskets, and headed by a miller, in a felt hat, without a coat, without arms, and mounted on a sorrel nag, levied war against the United States. Blessed be God that our Union has survived the shock.”

In short, the north’s reaction to Fillmore’s fanatical enforcement of the fugitive slave act was basically, “Well, If this the hill you want to die on, be our guest.” And all his support in the north was lost.

Which begs the question, why did Fillmore support a law that was so thoroughly hated in the region it applied to?

In short, to please the south.

There’s two ways we can look at this. One, he was trying to appease the south so it would support his reelection. Two, he was trying to appease the south to prevent secession.

If it was the second, it worked for a little bit. If it was the first, well, it didn’t really work at all.

A growing class of southerners had been clamoring for secession since James Calhoun first prompted the Nullification Crisis in 1832 – something we first talked about in episode 7 on Andrew Jackson. And even now, as Fillmore vigorously enforced the fugitive slave act, these southerners were still saying the north wasn’t doing enough. They were furious about California being admitted as a free state and demanding the further expansion of slavery into even more federal territory than what the compromise of 1850 had offered. In short, they wanted the compromise of 1820 nullified so slavery could expand into all the land of the former Louisiana purchase.

But, well. This was unreasonable. And it’s not just me saying it’s unreasonable, even a majority of 1851 southerners thought it was unreasonable. The Fugitive Slave act was a huge get, these so-called moderates argued. Let’s stay in the union and continue to fight this out politically.

And a funny thing happened in the off-year elections of 1851. In Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, you saw a realignment of the old Whig and democratic party lines behind new pro-secession or pro-union candidates. The pro-secession candidates were generally radical democrats like Jefferson Davis, the future president of the confederacy, while the pro-union candidates were a mix of moderate democrats and whigs. In 1851, the pro-union vote won big time. But I don’t think it’s the right interpretation to say the compromise of 1850 had succeeded. Sure, disunion didn’t happen now, but like every compromise before, it just kicked that can down the road. And at this point, we’re close to running out of road.

So, like I said, if preventing disunion was Fillmore’s goal in supporting the fugitive slave act, then he bought like 10 more years. But if reelection is what he hoped for, well, all he’d managed to do was make sure no whig would ever be elected again.

In the 1852 whig convention, the south had Fillmore’s back, but the north was dead set against him. Northerners were furious about the fugitive slave act and would never support the man who had put it in place. They wanted General Winfield Scott instead – old fuss and feathers! – the champion of the Mexican-American War who had nearly won the party’s nomination in 1840. Which was a problem, because do you remember why he hadn’t won the nomination in 1840? It’s because the south had become convinced that Scott was too supportive of abolitionists. So just as strongly as the north refused to accept Fillmore, the south refused to accept Scott.

And then there was a third candidate – Fillmore’s current secretary of state, the 70-year-old former Massachussets senator, Daniel Webster, who decided to run against the sitting president while still sitting in his cabinet! Which is insane. All Webster did was siphon just enough votes from Fillmore to prevent him from ever getting the majority he needed to win the nomination. 

And so, these three candidates became trapped in a time loop as the convention voted again and again and again, but kept coming up with roughly the same results every time – 130ish delegates for Fillmore, 130ish for Scott, and 30ish for Webster, until finally on the 53rd ballot Scott got juuuuuust enough delegates to win the whig party nomination. Hooray! But. Well. The southern whigs never really did rally behind him. And most northerners never really did forgive the party for the fugitive slave act. So when the 1852 general election rolled around, Scott was destroyed, 254 to 42, in the electoral college, winning just four of 31 states.

As is our custom, let’s take a quick look around to see how the country, and the world, changed during the Fillmore presidency.

Domestically, we are hitting the peak era for the underground railroad – a secret network of safehouses that helped escaped slaves flee to the north. Harriet Tubman, who had escaped slavery in 1849, began her career as an underground railroad operative after the fugitive slave act was passed. She made 13 trips to the south over the next 10 years, freeing more than 70 people. She would later work as an armed scout and a spy for the union during the Civil War. She’s kind of a badass.

Also – I should have mentioned this in the Polk episode – a huge moment for the Women’s rights movement came in 1848, so, just before Fillmore became VP, when the Seneca Falls convention was held in New York State. This is considered by some to be the start of the American women’s rights movement, a movement that still to this day is fighting for equality between the sexes.

Territory-wise, California earned statehood in 1850, and on the invention front, the world’s first dishwasher was patented in New York. It was a wooden box with a handle you cranked to pour water on dishes and it didn’t really work but, it was the first dishwasher patent. 

Internationally, Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, Louis Bonaparte, seized power in France through a coup in 1851. He’ll never come close to matching his uncle’s ability in anything, but he will invade Mexico, set up a puppet government there, and support the confederacy during the civil war. And the first ever World’s Fair was held in London in 1851.

So as Millard Fillmore left the white house, he basically left the Whig party burning in ashes behind him. But he wasn’t done with presidential politics just yet. Over the next four years, he’d latch onto a former secret-society-turned-political-party called the American party that basically ran on a platform of “immigrants and Catholics can go to hell.”

So get ready for some good ol’ fashioned bigotry, the Know-nothing party is here!

First some background.

Anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant groups had been sprouting up here and there pretty much since the 1830’s, but they never really gained much traction because there weren’t a whole lot of catholic immigrants coming in. That changed in the 1840’s, when a potato famine and a wave of violent revolutions and counter revolutions in Europe, turned a trickle of 10 to 100,000 immigrants each year to a flood of 2.9 million. Some cities like New York saw their immigrant populations swell to 50%.

That’s when the anti-immigrant sentiment started transforming into a political force. In 1849, an anti-immigrant and anti-catholic secret society formed in New York under the name “Order of the star-spangled banner.” But, if you know anything about secret societies, the first rule of secret societies is don’t talk about secret societies. When members of the order were asked what they knew about it, they replied, “I know nothing about that.” And the know-nothing name took hold and stuck.

Over the next few years, as the know-nothings grew larger, they changed their official name. They dropped the “Order of the star spangled banner,” which is a bit of a mouthful, and, with zero sense of self-awareness or irony, became the “Native American Party.” Which, wow. A bunch of anti-immigrant white dudes calling themselves the native American party – it’s ridiculous. So they shortened their name to the “American party” by 1852.

The party’s official slogan was “Americans must rule America” and the platform called for restrictions on immigration, a ban on immigrants holding elected office or voting, and a 21-year residency requirement for acquiring citizenship.

By 1855, the Know-nothing’s were a major political force. Nearly a quarter of Congress belonged to the party, and they held significant power at the state and local level, too. 

And that’s when Fillmore, who had never met an immigrant he couldn’t blame for his problems, joined the party as its presidential candidate for 1856.

But there was another opposition party that was also growing from the nurse log that was the old whig party – the republican party. These guys were a much more informal coalition of anti-slavery advocates who were not at all ok with the nativist streak of the know-nothings, and they nominated John C. Fremont, a scoundrel and explorer who was involved in seizing California from Mexico, as their 1856 presidential nominee

So, as the election of 1856 approached, we had a three-way race between the republican Fremont, the know-nothing Fillmore, and the Democrat James Buchanan. I don’t think anybody thought the know-nothings or republicans could beat the democrats yet, but everyone knew this election would determine which up-start party would replace the Whigs as the democrat’s rivals – possibly for the next 200 years. And Fillmore wanted the future to belong to the know-nothings.

But, thankfully for American history, the know-nothings ended up being destroyed by the one issue they tried to ignore – slavery. The party had no official stance on the matter and so, when southern delegates proposed a party platform that supported slavery at the know-nothing national convention, the northern delegates balked and walked and joined the anti-slavery Republican party instead.

And here’s the thing about running a party of hate. Yes, hate is a powerful motivator, but everyone you direct your hate against is going to be motivated as heck to vote against you. In addition to losing the abolitionist vote, the know-nothings were never going to win the Catholic or immigrant votes. 

The final result in 1856 was 17 states and 1.8 million votes for the Democrat James Buchanan, 11 states and 1.3 million votes for the Republican John C. Fremont, and 1 state and 900,000 votes for the know-nothing Fillmore.

So it was a near thing, but Fillmore was just barely prevented from establishing a nativist and bigoted party as one of the nation’s two premiere political ideologies. Luckily, we’d never have to deal with any of that stuff again. 

And that was that for Fillmore and the know-nothings. Fremont’s performance had proved the republican party would be the Democrats’ opposition party of the future, and in 1860, Abraham Lincoln would win its nomination and go on to become possibly our greatest president yet.

Fillmore’s final years would largely be lived quietly and off the radar. He’d support the union during the civil war, but would oppose the war itself, calling it expensive and destructive. More than a few would accuse him of being a southern sympathizer, because he kind of was, but he largely was so quietly. 

On March 8, 1874, Fillmore died of a stroke in Buffalo, New York, at the age of 74. His final words were reportedly, “the nourishment is palatable.” – he’d just been eating some soup.

So, if anyone ever asks you to name three things about Millard Fillmore, I’d suggest:

·       He only became president because Zachary Taylor died.

·       His zealous enforcement of the fugitive slave act, which was a totally crazy law, killed the whig party.

·       And his last political act was to run for president as the nominee of the bigoted and nativist know-nothing party, which died after his failure.

So what can we learn from Fillmore? 

How about the power of hope over hate? As the last president of the whigs and the lone presidential candidate of the know-nothings, Fillmore ran two once-powerful political parties into the ground by campaigning on messages of exclusion, fear, and hatred instead of messages of inclusivity, love, and hope. The party that ultimately rose from this period, the Republicans, would be led by a man who, in his first inaugural address, spoke of the “the better angels of our nature.” It wasn’t an easy struggle, but in 1850’s America, hate lost and compassion won and that, I hope, is the lesson we can draw from Millard Fillmore.

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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. The intro music was a recording of Isaac Brands from Smithsonian Folkway Records.

The primary biography for today’s episode was Millard Fillmore, by Paul Finkelman

In our next episode, we’ll look at the life and presidency of Franklin Pierce, the man who will turn to Fillmore and say ‘hold my beer.’ America’s descent into chaos isn’t done yet.

That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.