Saturday, September 01, 2007

Millard Fillmore, Know Nothing: Part I

I have posted previously about Millard Fillmore and have made no bones about my belief that he was an admirable man and a fine president.

Spread out over several installments, I am going to tackle what is generally considered to be the most embarrassing episode in Fillmore’s career – his affiliation with the American (Know Nothing) party, a rabidly anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant group that burst onto the political scene in 1854. In 1856, Fillmore ran as the Know Nothing candidate for the presidency.

It would be easy to assume that Fillmore’s embrace of the Know Nothings merely confirms that he has been justly relegated to historical oblivion. Does it not demonstrate that Fillmore was a disgusting advocate of hatred and discrimination? Alternatively, perhaps it shows that, behind the mannered fa├žade lay an ambition so overweening that he was willing to ally himself with any group, no matter how bigoted, that would advance his selfish ends. Or was he so stupid that he allowed himself to be used by bigots, oblivious to the credibility he gave them?

In order to keep this post manageable, I’ll just begin to set the stage. By the end of 1853, Fillmore’s Whig party was on the ropes. Winfield Scott had been swamped in the 1852 presidential election, and state and local elections during 1853 had largely been disastrous for the Whigs. Even so, at the beginning of 1854, many Whigs were optimistic. They had been on the ropes before and bounced back. What they needed was an issue.

Democrat Stephen Douglas gave them that issue when he introduced the Kansas Nebraska bill in January 1854. Conservative Whigs such as ex-president Fillmore, who had left office in March 1853, looking to restore the Whigs as a credible, national party, began to salivate. Whigs could oppose the bill on the ground that it betrayed the “final settlement” of the slavery issue represented by the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, which Fillmore had championed.

In this way, Whigs could devastate free-state Democrats by firmly opposing the spread of slavery. At the same time, the Whigs would be taking a position reaffirming the finality of the Compromise of 1850 that would have great appeal in the south. By positioning their opposition in this way, they thought, the Whig party would (in modern terms) both energize its base by opposing the Democrats and take a highly popular position likely to win additional converts, particularly in the north and border and mid south. Whigs would sweep to victory in 1854, laying the groundwork for retaking the presidency in 1856.

Alas, for a number of reasons, it was not to be. In the next installment, we’ll consider why not.


  1. Fellow History Person11:21 PM

    This is really good stuff. I am really enjoying your take on Fillmore's place in the historiography. It has definitely made me think of the interpretation of a president that I have, frankly, paid little attention to.

  2. Thanks so much for the nice words!


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