Millard Fillmore, Slavery and Buffalo

Millard Fillmore, 13th President, is one of the forgotten Presidents in the years leading up to the Civil War. However, he played a significant part in slavery issue in the 1850s.  Post-Presidency he had a significant role in the founding of many of Buffalo’s civil institutions.

Pre-Presidential Life

Fillmore was born extremely poor in upstate New York. He became a lawyer in Buffalo and worked his way into politics. In 1848 he was nominated by the Whig Party for VP to balance out southerner Zachary Taylor.  After Taylor’s death in 1850, Fillmore served out the remainder of Taylor’s term from 1850 – 1853. 


Consistent with the Whig platform, Fillmore supported internal improvements and aided railroad development. He dispatched Commodore Perry to open Japan. He warned European powers against trying to colonize Hawaii. He peaceably resolved guano issues with Peru (don’t laugh – it was a widely used fertilizer at the time). When some Southerners looked to bring Cuba into the Union as a slave state, Fillmore resisted and worked out a peaceful solution with Spain. 


By the 1850s was there any possibility that the Civil War could have been avoided?  Or was there any way slavery could have ended without the Civil War?   These seem almost contradictory – if the Civil War could have been avoided through a political settlement, doesn’t that mean slavery would have continued? Or perhaps slavery would have been abolished peaceably. Brazil, which imported more slaves than any other country, gradually ended slavery in the 1870s by freeing all children of slaves and freeing any slaves when they reached the age of 60.  Slavery in the West Indies and Caribbean was eliminated by France and Great Britain by the mid-1800s.  Even in the United States, all the Northern States had eliminated slavery. Nonetheless, at that time, the South seemed more interested in slavery expansion rather than its end.

Compromise of 1850

The country was being torn apart by the issues of slavery in the territories annexed to the United States after the Mexican-American War.  Northerners wanted to halt the expansion of slavery, the South wanted new states to be allowed to choose whether they wanted slavery or not. 

In June 1850, Southerners held a political meeting known as the Nashville Convention. After heated debate, radical Southerners, who urged secession if slavery were restricted in the new territories, were overruled by the moderates.

Congress passed five separate bills which formed the Compromise of 1850:

  1. California was admitted as a free state.

  2. The slave trade was banned in the District of Columbia.

  3. Stringent fines and penalties were included in the Fugitive Slave Law.

  4. Texas, a slave state, gave up claims to a significant part of the New Mexico territories in return for the Federal government absorbing Texas’s state debts.

  5. The new territories, broken into the New Mexico territory and Utah territory, would be allowed to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery.

President Zachary Taylor, although a Southern Slave-owner, was against the expansion of slavery and opposed the Compromise. He died in July 1850 while the Congressional debate was still ongoing. Although Fillmore personally opposed slavery (stating “God knows I detest slavery”), Fillmore supported the Compromise and signed each of the five bills into law.

In response to the Compromise of 1850, Southerners held another convention and created the ‘Georgia platform’. This platform accepted the Compromise and rejected succession, as long as no further changes were made in ‘Southern rights’.

The Fugitive Slave Act inflamed Northern anti-slavery opinion. It required Northerners, under penalty of fines or imprisonment, to assist in the capture and return of alleged fugitive slaves. This, in theory, forced anti-slavery proponents to become active in enforcing slavery.

Post Presidency

At the 1852 Whig Presidential nominating convention, Fillmore was unable to win the Presidential nomination due to a split between Northern Whigs and Southern Whigs. It took 53 ballots to nominate compromise candidate Winfield Scott.

In 1856 Fillmore ran for President as a third-party candidate. The Whig party had collapsed due to divisions over slavery, with anti-slavery proponents founding the new Republican Party. The American Party (also called the ‘Know-Nothings’) won over 20% of the Congressional seats in 1854 with support from former Whigs. At that time the American Party was anti-Catholic and anti-immigration. Although Fillmore was not a member of the American Party, the party nominated him for President. He ran a campaign based on national unity and received over 21% of the vote, second only to Teddy Roosevelt’s 1912 third-party run.

Civic Life

After his Presidency, Fillmore lived for over twenty years. He dedicated himself to significant charitable work in Buffalo helping to found many of its institutions including the Art Gallery, History Museum, Science Museum, University of Buffalo, Buffalo General Medical Center and the public library.

Reputation and Legacy

Although Fillmore is generally forgotten today, he has inspired two comedic novels in the 21st century. “Millard Fillmore, Mon Amour” is a comedy novel about a neurotic millionaire working on a 10-volume biography of Fillmore. And “The Remarkable Millard Fillmore: The Unbelievable Life of a Forgotten President” is a comedic fake biography. If you visit the Millard Fillmore Presidential Library you’ll end up in a bar in Cleveland. You can also read a syndicated comic strip called ‘Mallard Fillmore’, yes it is a duck.

His actual Presidential reputation has been criticized for signing and enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act. He also receives disapproval for his 1856 Presidential run on the American Party. As stated by the University of Buffalo: “The university's recognition of Millard Fillmore is based on his role in helping to found the university and serve as its first chancellor. This recognition is not an endorsement of his policies or legacy as president of the United States.” Seems a bit harsh against their founder, as by the time he was President the Civil War was probably inevitable.