Millard Fillmore was the 13th President of the United States, born on January 7, 1800. He assumed the presidency upon the death of President Zachary Taylor and never appointed a vice president. He is a nearly forgotten figure in American political history, but is credited (or blamed) with delaying the American Civil War for a decade during his brief time in office.
While only serving for two and a half years, he presided over the entry of the great state of California becoming the 31st state in 1850. The controversy was, of course, centered on race. Slavery was still legal as part of the Missouri Compromise—the fragile balance of “free state” and “slave state” was the burner—and adding another state threatened to send tensions boiling over. Fillmore saw slavery as a pre-existing evil and although he considered himself to be anti-slavery, his inability to lead on this subject led to a legacy of appeasement. The president decided to support what would become the Compromise of 1850 which allowed California to enter the Union as a “free state” but as part of the Devil’s Bargain it allowed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
What former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once called ‘America’s birth defect’ poisoned the presidency of Millard Fillmore, who would not be elected to a full term on his own, and damned African Americans who might have otherwise escaped enslavement to being returned to bondage. The act replaced an existing act that had been resisted by the North (still quite racist). It called for the capture and return of runaway slaves to their “owners.” Fillmore, who was born in Cayuga County, New York, overcame a lack of education to become a lawyer and teacher in East Aurora, NY. He ran for and was elected to the NY State legislature as an Anti-Mason. Two years later in 1830, he moved to Buffalo and was elected to Congress for two years later. After a failed run for governor, the man so used to winning responded to loss with a compromise. He joined slave holder Zachary Taylor’s Whig Party ticket, and was elected vice president of the United States.
Under the guise of preserving the Union, the new vice president supported Taylor’s efforts to create a compromise between the “slave states” and “free states” to seal the deal of California’s entry. The challenge with searching through history is taking the full measure of each person and the context in which they live. But it is further complicated when examining past presidents of the United States. In delaying the Civil War, but not preventing it, he did what modern political analysts call “punting.”
According to all reports, Millard Fillmore, after finally accepting that he would not win a presidential election, lived out his days in Buffalo as a good citizen. But while he presided over the executive branch, he failed to make the argument for ending slavery once and for all. Instead, he strengthened it and delayed the inevitable.
On this day, it would be good for leaders to remember that being on the right side of history is incredibly important. It’s more important than the admiration or disdain you might face in the moment because it will ring through history as your legacy. History doesn’t look kindly on the miser or the meek—history adores the protectors, the trailblazers and the bold.
-Adam James is the editor-in-chief of Majority 60 and a political scientist. Before founding “M60” as a place for Democratic movers and shakers to meet and discuss important topics, he traveled the United States while earning his MBA and later his MA in political science. He now lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife. Follow him on Twitter @adamjamesm60 Majority 60 was founded in 2016.