|Millard Fillmore, 13th president, 1800-1874|
In his rise from the poverty of a log cabin to wealth and the White House, Millard Fillmore demonstrated that through methodical industry and some competence an uninspiring man could make the American dream come true [quote from the White House website (pdf)]. Fillmore was born in a log cabin in Cayuga county, NY, the second of nine children. Fillmore's ancestors were Scottish Presbyterians on his father's side and English dissenters on his mother's side, and he became a Unitarian. He was apprenticed to a cloth maker at age 14, and struggled to obtain an education. At age 19 he began to clerk for a judge, and began his study of law. In 1828 he was elected to the New York State Assembly, and was elected to Congress in 1832, where he served on the Ways and Means committee.
At the Whig national convention in 1848, the nomination of Gen. Zachary Taylor for president angered supporters of Henry Clay and opponents of allowing slavery in the territories gained in the Mexican–American War. A group of practical Whig politicians nominated Fillmore for vice president. Fillmore came from a non-slave state and delegates believed he would help the ticket carry the populous state of New York. Taylor and Fillmore disagreed on slavery as well as fiscal issues. Thus, Taylor's sudden death, just 16 months into his first term, signalled an abrupt political shift. When Fillmore took office, the entire cabinet offered their resignations. Fillmore accepted them all and appointed men who, except for Treasury Secretary Thomas Corwin, favored the Compromise of 1850.
Taylor had wanted the new western states to be free states, while Fillmore supported slavery in those states to appease the South. In his own words: "God knows that I detest slavery, but it is an existing evil ... and we must endure it and give it such protection as is guaranteed by the Constitution."
The Compromise of 1850 was an intricate package of five bills, passed in September 1850, defusing a four-year confrontation between the slave states of the South and the free states of the North that arose following the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). The compromise, drafted by Whig Henry Clay and brokered by Democrat Stephen Douglas avoided secession or civil war at the time and quieted sectional conflict for four years.
Missouri Compromise - latitude 36° 30' became the northernmost limit for slavery
The Compromise was greeted with relief, although each side disliked specific provisions. Texas surrendered its claim to New Mexico but received debt relief and the Texas Panhandle, and retained the control over El Paso that it had established earlier in 1850. The South avoided the conditions of the Wilmot Proviso but did not receive desired Pacific territory in Southern California or a guarantee of slavery south of a territorial compromise line like the Missouri Compromise Line or the 35th parallel north. As compensation, the South received the possibility of slave states by popular sovereignty in the new New Mexico Territory and Utah Territory, which, however, were unsuited to plantation agriculture and populated by non-Southerners; a stronger Fugitive Slave Act, which in practice outraged Northern public opinion; and preservation of slavery in the national capital, although the slave trade was banned there except in the portion of the District of Columbia that rejoined Virginia.
The Compromise became possible after the sudden death of President Zachary Taylor, who, although a slaveowner himself, tried to implement the Northern policy of excluding slavery from the Southwest.
Some northern Whigs remained irreconcilable, refusing to forgive Fillmore for having signed the Fugitive Slave Act, and helped to deprive him of the Presidential nomination in 1852. Because the Whig party was so deeply divided, and the two leading national figures in the Whig party (Fillmore and his own Secretary of State, Daniel Webster) refused to combine to secure the nomination, Winfield Scott received it. Because both the north and the south refused to unite behind Scott, he won only 4 of 31 states, and lost the election to Franklin Pierce.
At first the truce seemed like it would work, and the entire country entered a period of prosperity. However within a few years it was apparent that the slavery controversy was not settled. The South seceeded a decade after the Compromise was passed, in January, 1861, when Abraham Lincoln, a known opponent of slavery, was elected president. Throughout the Civil War, Fillmore opposed President Lincoln and during Reconstruction supported President Johnson. He commanded the Union Continentals, a corps of home guards of males over the age of 45 from the Upstate New York area. Although Fillmore, in retirement, continued to feel that conciliation with the South was necessary and considered that the Republican Party was at least partly responsible for the subsequent disunion, he was an outspoken critic of secession and was also critical of President James Buchanan for not immediately taking military action when South Carolina seceded.
It is often said that the best compromise is the type that pleases none of the compromisers. By the end of his presidency, Millard Fillmore knew this all too well. By championing the Compromise of 1850, he can be credited for keeping America from civil war for more than a decade. The political cost to himself, however, was total. Slavery was, like abortion today, the type of moral issue that terrifies politicians because it offers no easy middle ground. Debate in Congress over the issue during the Taylor-Fillmore term was so intense that fistfights were common in Congress, and many of its members carried pistols into the House and Senate chambers. With this in mind, it is far from surprising that there were no Presidents elected to a second term between those of Jackson and Lincoln. In fairness to men like Fillmore, they were simply prey for the most heated American social debate of the nineteenth century.
From the modern perspective, Fillmore seems almost an invisible man among Presidents, but his accomplishments, while not great, were nonetheless substantial. Some modern historians suggest his administration's ability to avoid potential problems is too often overlooked. In addition to the fine legislative engineering that passed the compromise, Fillmore also conducted a disciplined, principled foreign policy. He ended the isolationism of Japan, opening it to Western trade, and defended against foreign intervention in Hawaii. He handled flash points in Cuba, Hawaii, Eastern Europe, and Central America very well, resolving these crises and negotiating with Mexico, Portugal, Peru, England, France and Spain without the United States going to war or losing face.
The Genealogical Connection
Our genealogical connection to Millard Fillmore traces back to James Olmsted II (born December 4, 1580) and Joyce Cornish, both born in Essex, England, and married there on October 26, 1605. She died in Essex, England in 1621; he emigrated to America and died in Hartford, CT on September 8, 1640. They had seven children -- Nicholas Olmsted's g-g-g-g-grandson was Millard Fillmore -- and Nehemiah Olmsted's granddaughter married into the Gregory line.
Nicholas Olmsted, b.2/15/1611/12
Nehemiah Olmsted, b.11/10/1618
Jehiel Gregory and Elizabeth Andrews took their family of six children to Ohio in 1797. Jehiel Gregory (Jr) married Sarah VanDolah. Their daughter Elizabeth Gregory married Joseph Howsmon. Their daughter Mary Emily Howsmon married Oliver Perry Hay and eventually moved to Washington, DC.
Since the link went back so far, and through so many maternal lines (with their attendant name-changes), it is doubtful that any of the Gregory descendants knew of this obscure connection. It was interesting to me personally as it was the first presidential genealogical relationship I found, by accident, and it was early in my genealogical research in 2001.
Since the country was so small in the 1600s, there ends up being connections between so many people of the time. For instance, Millard Fillmore is related to the following presidents:
John Adams - 4th cousin, 3 times removed
George H. W. Bush - 4th cousin, 5 times removed
George W. Bush - 4th cousin, 6 times removed
Grover Cleveland - 5th cousin, once removed
John Quincy Adams - 5th cousin, twice removed
Warren Harding - 5th cousin, twice removed
Herbert Hoover - 5th cousin, 4 times removed
Gerald Ford - 5th cousin, 5 times removed
William Taft - 6th cousin, once removed
Calvin Coolidge - 6th cousin, 4 times removed
Ulysses S. Grant - 7th cousin
Franklin D. Roosevelt - 7th cousin, once removed.