Birth of President Millard Fillmore
America’s 13th president, Millard Fillmore, was born on January 7, 1800, in Moravia, New York.
Born three weeks after the death of George Washington, Millard Fillmore was America’s first President to be born after the death of a former President, and the first born in the 19th Century. With few opportunities available, at the age of 14 Fillmore’s father apprenticed him to a cloth maker in Sparta, New York. Tired of working under poor conditions, Fillmore bought his freedom and walked 100 miles to get home.
Fillmore began to study law in 1819, and eventually formed his own practice in East Aurora. He later began a law partnership with his close friend Nathan K. Hall. The firm quickly became one of western New York’s most respected law offices.
Fillmore entered politics in 1829 with the first of three terms in the state assembly. He was well-respected and popular among the assembly and his district’s citizens. Fillmore was elected to Congress in 1832 and again in 1836, and stayed for another three terms. During this time he also served as the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. Fillmore later won the election for New York State comptroller by such a large margin that he was immediately considered a top Whig candidate for the 1848 presidential election. As comptroller, Fillmore revised New York’s banking system, which later became the model for the National Banking System.
Fillmore was unknown nationally, but was chosen as Zachary Taylor’s vice president because he would help Taylor gain electoral votes in the important state of New York. This strategy paid off, and Taylor won the election of 1848. During Taylor’s short tenure as President, issues over slavery complicated admission of lands acquired from Mexico into the Union. Taylor attempted to make California and New Mexico states before such controversy could erupt, but was unsuccessful. When Southern states threatened to secede, Taylor threatened to use armed force. In an attempt to appease both sides while keeping the Union intact, Vice-President Fillmore led the fight for a compromise. But President Taylor opposed the Compromise of 1850 and died before an agreement could be made.
Fillmore made the Compromise of 1850 the first item on his agenda upon taking the oath of office. He believed that Taylor’s cabinet had biased the former President against the Compromise, and accepted each of their resignations. This was the first and only time such a change had been made by a vice president who had inherited the Presidency. Finally, on September 20, President Fillmore signed the Compromise of 1850 into law. Ideologically, Fillmore disliked the Compromise of 1850 because it made concessions to the South concerning slavery. However, he wished to preserve the Union and avoid war.
The abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia was of little consolation to the northerners who disagreed with the Fugitive Slave Laws, which put Federal troops at the disposal of owners of escaped slaves. The underground railroad was developed as a way to help slaves escape to freedom. Some northerners even attacked Federal marshals in order to free runaway slaves from custody. Ironically, it was the Compromise of 1850 – a law developed to heal the polarized nation – that prevented Fillmore from being elected in 1853.
Fillmore was unpopular at the time for supporting the Fugitive Slave Act and the Compromise of 1850. However, these choices helped the U.S. delay civil war for a decade. In foreign affairs, Fillmore’s greatest achievement was sending Commodore Matthew Perry to Japan to open relations, allowing the U.S. use of ports, supplies, and a future in trading.
On March 8, 1874, Fillmore died in obscurity at his home in Buffalo, New York.
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