Thursday, April 01, 2010

"The compromise [of 1850] could never have passed had Zachary Taylor lived"

I've argued before that the decisive strategy and firm statesmanship of our nation's least appreciated president, Millard Fillmore, was crucial to the passage of the Compromise of 1850, by which the country avoided civil war for ten crucial years.

I'm in the midst of reading Michael F. Holt's brief (133 pages of text) and so far excellent biography of Franklin Pierce, and I see that Prof. Holt agrees:
Despite the odd alignment in Congress [of the coalitions supporting and opposing the Compromise], the compromise could never have passed had Zachary Taylor lived, but he died on Jul 9, 1850. Taylor's death brought New York's Millard Fillmore to the presidency, and after some hesitation Fillmore named Daniel Webster, a strong pro-compromise man, as his secretary of state. In early August, Fillmore and Webster publicly announced their support for the compromise package, but even before that they had privately pressured northern Whig senators and representatives to allow passage of the concessions to the South. As a result of their pressure, usually involving threats about federal patronage allotment, a sufficient number of northern Whigs abstained on crucial roll-call votes to allow the prosouthern compromise bills to pass.
My chief quibble with Prof. Holt concerns his assertion that Fillmore named Daniel Webster as his secretary of state only "after some hesitation." To the extent this suggests that Fillmore was unsure of who he wanted in that position, I must dissent. Fillmore learned that president Taylor had died late in the evening of July 9, 1850. He was sworn in at noon the next day. Fillmore's biographer Robert J. Rayback relates that Millard settled on Webster his first night as president:
During his first sleepless night as President, Fillmore had settled on Webster as his cabinet's premier. On the day of his inauguration the two went into conference. The aged statesman from Massachusetts, Fillmore learned, was still willing to abide by the principles of his March 7 speech and was willing to take the post of Secretary of State.
What held up the announcement of Webster's appointment was not Millard's indecision but "[d]oubt about who would replace Webster in the Senate and whether Webster's financial friends would continue to pay for his services in the new position." Fillmore and Webster placed "extreme pressure" on Massachusetts governor George N. Briggs (who wanted the post for himself) to appoint Webster's protege Robert C. Winthrop as Webster's replacement in the Senate, while "Webster's friends . . . raised a fund for him, and by July 17 all was arranged for Webster to enter the cabinet."

And before you start howling that the Compromise of 1850 was a monstrous outrage against the laws of Nature and of Nature's God, for which Millard should be execrated rather than hymned, please read Was the Compromise of 1850 a Good Thing or a Bad Thing? and "Civil War between North and South would then have likely erupted".

How many of the men in the print at the top can you identify?


  1. Anonymous2:04 AM

    Hi Elektratig,

    I don't know much about Franklin Pierce so Michael Holt's new book on him should be a fine addition to my library.

    As for this picture:) Hmm... I don’t know all faces but from left to right I see: general Scott, Thomas Hart Benton, Lewis Cass, old Henry Clay, John Calhoun, James Buchanan, Stephen Douglas, Daniel Webster. I think John Fremont, John Crittenden, Millard Fillmore and Henry Foote are also there.

    Alex K.

  2. Alex,

    I haven't finished it yet, but Prof. Holt's book is a model of its kind. Short but has all the essentials plus Prof. Holt's fine analysis. He certainly does not whitewash Pierce's failures and shortcomings, but the true value lies in his analysis of the factors and reasons that led to them. Highly recommended.

    I have to go back to the picture and make a list of everyone I can identify. I'm scratching my head over a few of them!


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