13th President, 1850-1853
Early Life and Pre-presidency
- Born on January 7, 1800 in Cayuga County, New York.
- Parents: Nathaniel Fillmore and Phoebe Millard. Siblings: Olive Armstrong,
Cyrus, Almon Hopkins, Calvin Turner, Julia, Darius Ingraham, Charles De Witt, and Phoebe Maria.
- Born into poverty, he helped his father on the farm. When he was 14 years old, his father arranged for him to apprentice with a cloth-maker in another county. The work was too gruelling, almost equal to slavery, so he borrowed $30 to buy his freedom and walked 100 miles back to his home.
- Taught himself to read and write, even stealing books to have something to read.
- Attended New Hope Academy in the nearby town in 1819 where his teacher would become his future wife.
- In late 1819, he worked as a clerk for a judge in Montville, New York with whom he also studied law.
- His family moved to Buffalo, New York where he continued to study law. He was admitted to the bar in 1823 and opened his law practice in East Aurora near Buffalo.
- Married Abigail Powers (1798–1853) on February 5, 1826. Children: Millard Powers (1828–1889) and Mary Abigail (1832–1854); Married Caroline Carmichael McIntosh (1813–1881) on February 10, 1858. No children.
- He joined the Anti-Masonic Party in 1828 and was elected to the New York State Assembly. He served from 1829 to 1831. He succeeded in eliminating prison sentences for debtors unable to pay their loans.
- Won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Whig Party candidate and served from 1833 to 1843. He authored the Tariff of 1842 and chaired the Ways and Means Committee from 1841 to 1843.
- Ran for Governor of New York in 1844 but lost.
- Elected as New York’s comptroller in 1847 and served from 1848 to 1849.
- Chosen as the Vice Presidential candidate to Zachary Taylor of the Whig Party in the 1849 election. Zachary Taylor was a slaveowner, so Fillmore was chosen Vice President as a compromise with anti-slavery Whig members from the North.
- Did not get along well with Taylor and was given no role in the latter’s Presidency. As Vice President, his role was limited to the Presidency of the Senate.
- When President Zachary Taylor died of illness 16 months after taking his oath as U.S. President, Fillmore assumed the Presidency.
- Took his oath of office on July 10, 1850 at the House Chamber, U.S. Capitol
- Taylor’s entire Cabinet resigned as soon as Fillmore took office. He chose replacements who were in favor of the Compromise of 1850 proposed by Fillmore’s ally Henry Clay.
- Fillmore’s term was dominated by the campaign for the passage of the Compromise of 1850 in both houses of Congress and the repercussions of the compromise after it was finally passed.
- The Compromise of 1850 could not gain enough support from both pro- and anti- slavery members in both houses. Senator Stephen Douglas divided the Compromise into five separate bills with the hope that each one would gain enough support to be approved separately. This strategy proved to be successsful.
- The Compromise of 1850 was comprised of the following bills: 1. Admit California as a free state; 2. Settle the Texas boundary and compensate the state for its losses; 3. Grant territorial status to New Mexico; 4. the Fugitive Slave Act; 5. Abolish slave trade in the District of Columbia but not slavery itself.
- California was admitted to the Union as a free state on September 9, 1850, making it the 31st state. The Fugitive Slave Act was passed on September 18, 1850, while the other four bills were passed on September 20, 1850.
- In 1850, Fillmore appointed Brigham Young, the leader of the Latter Day Saints who had colonized the Utah Territory, as the first Governor of the Utah Territory.
- Invoked U.S. neutrality when exhiled Hungarian leader Lajos Kossuth came to the U.S. to ask for support for the Hungarian Revolution.
- The most controversial bill of the Compromise of 1850 was the Fugitive Slave Act, which stated that all runaway slaves, including those who had fled into northern states, must be captured and returned to their masters. It also required federal authorities to enforce the law even in northern states where slavery was banned. Anti-slavery supporters called it the “Bloodhound Law.”
- He tried unsuccessfully to prevent Narciso Lopez from leaving the U.S. to invade Cuba. Lopez was a Venezuelan filibuster who had gathered American volunteers in the South to invade and liberate Cuba from Spain. Lopez’s first attempt was in May 1850, but his mission failed. He tried again in August 1851, but was captured and executed by the Spaniards along with many of his American volunteers. Fillmore took the blame for the incident and was condemned by those who supported the invasion, as well as those who did not.
- In response to the Fugitive Slave Act, many state legislatures in the North passed “personal liberty” laws forbiding state judges from helping southern slaveholders get back their runaway slaves. The laws also granted to blacks the right to be tried by a jury in settling such disputes.
- Fillmore tried to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act in his native New York later in his term, but abolitionists rescued captured slaves from authorities and any attempt to prosecute them were met with failure.
- He sent Commodore Matthew C. Perry to Japan to negotiate the opening of trade relations with the country. Perry did not arrive in Japan until after Fillmore’s term ended.
- Towards the end of Fillmore’s term, the Whig Party began to break apart from their conflicting views on slavery, with abolitionist members from the northern states disagreeing with slave-owning members from the South.
- Lost the Whig Party’s nomination for re-election in 1852 to Winfield Scott. He lost favor among anti-slavery Whigs for signing the Fugitive Slave Act.
- Returned to Buffalo, New York to continue serving as Chancellor of the University of Buffalo, a position he had held during his tenure as Vice President then President.
- His wife Abigail caught pneumonia after attending President-elect Franklin Pierce’s inauguration on March 4, 1853 and died within a month. In 1854, his daughter Mary died of cholera.
- Toured Europe in 1855 and was offered an honorary Doctorate of Civil Law by Oxford University but turned it down because he felt he did not have the proper educational attainment to justify the award.
- The Whig Party had disintegrated by 1856. Fillmore joined the American Party of the Know-Nothing Movement, which was anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic, rather than the newly formed Republican Party, which included future president Abraham Lincoln.
- He ran in the 1856 election as the Presidential candidate of his party with Andrew Jackson Donelson as his Vice President. The party finished third in the electoral votes, and altough he lost the popular vote, he garnered 21.6%, attesting to his enduring popularity with the American people.
- Fillmore retired from active politics after his defeat in the 1856 election.
- Although he opposed President Abraham Lincoln’s policies during the Civil War, he was a Unionist who helped in the war effort.
- Helped to found the Buffalo Historical Society in 1862. He served as the first President. The Society is now the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society
- Supported the Reconstructionist Andrew Johnson who was Abraham Lincoln’s Vice President, and laterPpresident after Lincoln was assassinated one month into his second term.
- Died on March 8, 1874 from complications of a stroke.
- He is interred at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, New York with his two wives and daughter Mary Abigail.
- He married his second wife, Caroline McIntosh in 1858, five years after the death of his first wife. They bought a mansion in Buffalo that was torn down during World War I.
- The Aurora Historical Society maintains Fillmore’s home in East Aurora, New York outside Buffalo. This was the home that Fillmore had built for his first wife Abigail when they moved to East Aurora from New Hope. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1975.
- A sculpted statue of Fillmore was erected next to the Buffalo City Hall.
- Fillmore, Utah was named by Utah governor Brigham Young in gratitude for Fillmore’s making him Utah’s first governor in 1850.