Saturday, November 01, 2008

Millard Dissed, Again

I’ve been listening to a series of podcasts on American History before 1870 by Gretchen Ann Reilly, a professor at Temple College in Temple, Texas (description here). They’re really quite good. Dr. Reilly has her quirks (“anyways” is not a word), but she does an excellent job organizing large amounts of material and presenting it in a way that is both informative and entertaining. As with most survey courses, you will not encounter shattering insights, but neither will you receive bland pap.

I do, however, have one substantial bone to pick with Professor Reilly. She has bought hook, line and sinker the Johnnie Carson view of our thirteenth president, Millard Fillmore. Apparently pandering to the perceived prejudices and preconceptions of her audience, she portrays our hero as an ineffectual bumbler whose accession only compounded the Crisis of 1850 and certainly did not contribute to the solution:
In the midst of the debate [in 1850], tragedy strikes. The president at this time was president Zachary Taylor. And he was a military man, and he had made it clear that he was going to be like Andrew Jackson when it came to the Nullification Crisis of 1832. Andrew Jackson had insisted that the country stay together, that South Carolina could not just nullify this tariff. Taylor made it clear that he was going to be like Jackson, and that he was going to do whatever had to be done to keep the country together, and to make everybody compromise.

Well, July 9th, 1850, President Zachary Taylor dies. . . . And he’s replaced by his vice president, Millard Fillmore [pronounced with Johnnie Carson-like disdain]. Millard Fillmore, when he assumes the presidency, makes it clear that he is not Andrew Jackson, and that he wants a compromise more favorable to the south. And that just makes it harder to resolve this issue, because southerners surrounding Calhoun dig in their heels and refuse to compromise.

The debate comes to an end, and there’s no compromise worked out. And people around the country are concerned that this is going to be it, that the country will fall apart, that no settlement will be reached.

It’s the end of an era. Clay and Webster and Calhoun, the debate comes to an end, and they’ve failed, and all three men either die, as in the case of Calhoun, or leave Washington and retire from public life without this issue being resolved.

People across the country become concerned that all of these issues regarding slavery won’t be resolved, and that the country will fall apart, that the south will insist on seceding if it doesn’t get its way, and that the north won’t compromise on this, and the country will fall apart.

But a compromise is worked out, the Compromise of 1850, and it’s constructed by younger politicians, who replace these older politicians when they leave, especially a rising young Democrat from Illinois, Stephen Douglas. Douglas is able to get the Compromise through Congress because he takes what was once a whole bill that dealt with all of these issues . . . and he breaks it up . . . into five smaller bills, and that’s how the final compromise is achieved. . . .

This story line is – with all due respect – utter nonsense. I have posted repeatedly on Millard’s sterling performance during the Crisis of 1850 – try here, here and here – and do not propose to rehash all of those entries. To begin with, it’s absurd to claim that “southerners surrounding Calhoun” were quaking in their boots when Zachary Taylor was president, and that Fillmore’s accession caused them to “dig in their heels and refuse to compromise.” Both southern Democrats and many northern Whigs, such as William Seward, fought the Omnibus Bill tooth and nail both before and after Taylor’s death. In retrospect, the Omnibus was never viable, and it died of its own weight.

Second, the attempt to portray the death of the Omnibus as “the end of an era” is grossly overblown. In particular, Professor Reilly somehow overlooks the fact that Daniel Webster did not “leave Washington and retire from public life.” President Fillmore promptly named Webster to be his Secretary of State. Within days after the collapse of the Omnibus, Webster and Fillmore put together an initiative that shifted the focus from California to the crucial Texas issue – an initiative that showed Fillmore to be firm, decisive and resourceful.

I have no problem giving major credit to Senator Douglas, but Professor Reilly’s description makes it sound as if credit should go exclusively to him and other unnamed “younger politicians.” But the fact of the matter is that the Fillmore-Webster initiative, resulting in the president’s message to Congress on August 6, 1850, was the crucial turning point that laid the groundwork for Douglas’s recasting of the Omnibus.

Leading historian of the period such as David Potter and Michael Holt have made clear that they view Fillmore’s presence as crucial to the success of the Compromise and have expressed admiration for the decisiveness and ingenuity that he exhibited. Rather than using Fillmore as an excuse to reinforce preconceived stereotypes, Professor Reilly should have taken the opportunity to explain just how misguided some of our preconceptions can be.


  1. Hey thanks for pointing to my blog for a description of the podcast. I am honored.


  2. I've been downloading and listening to history podcasts during my commute. I found your blog very helpful in locating interesting sources. Thanks so much!

  3. You're welcome. I love it when people benefit from my reviews. If you please, drop me a line - I'd love to get to know my readers


Related Posts with Thumbnails