In At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise that Saved the Union, Robert V. Remini makes clear that he believes that the Compromise of 1850 saved the Union. “By 1850 . . . it appeared likely that the nation would descend into secession and civil war. . . . The resulting Compromise of 1850 delayed the catastrophe of civil war for ten years.”
Prof. Remini likewise does not equivocate in his opinion concerning the importance of those ten years. Had civil war broken out in 1850, he maintains, the Union would not have survived:
[T]hose ten years were absolutely essential for preserving the American nation under the Constitution. Had secession occurred in1850, the South unquestionably would have made good its independence, and the country might well have split permanently into two nations. . . . Even ten years later, when war finally did break out, the South almost succeeded militarily in establishing its independence Why it failed was largely due to the Compromise of 1850.
Prof. Remini argues that those ten years made a difference for two reasons. Here is where the good Professor and I come to a parting of the ways. His first reason I agree with. To his second I register my vehement objection.
The first consideration to which Prof. Remini points is continued industrialization by the North during the 1850s:
First, [the Compromise of 1850] gave the North ten years to further its industrialization, by which it strengthened its ability to survive a protracted military conflict. The South did not have that capacity. It did not have the railroad system by which to move men and material to the areas where they were most needed. It did not have the factories or industries by which it could indefinitely sustain a fighting army and functioning government.
Prof. Remini's second factor refers to specific personalities. Basically, he asserts, only Abraham Lincoln could have saved the Union. In the process, he goes out of his way to dis poor Millard, which as you may imagine gets my goat:
Second, the Compromise gave the North ten years to find a statesman who would provide the wisdom and leadership the Union needed to successfully fight a war . . . Abraham Lincoln. By the 1850s . . . leadership of the nation had been reduced to such figures as presidents Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan, not one of whom had the talent, the skill, or the intelligence to prevent secession and civil war. By the end of the decade, Lincoln had appeared . . ..
Now them's fighting words. To begin at the end, it's worth noting that Prof. Remini is mixing his fruit. Abraham Lincoln didn't have “the talent, the skill, or the intelligence to prevent secession and civil war” either, so that's not the question. Come to think of it, Millard did have the talent, skill and intelligence to preserve the Union without war, so I suppose that puts him one up on Abe.
More fundamentally, it's just absurd to lump Millard together with Pierce and Buchanan. While it's impossible to prove a counterfactual, there is no particular reason to believe that Millard would have made a bad war leader. Look at Lincoln himself. Based on his uncertain and indecisive performance during his first six weeks in office, who would have predicted his growth?
Pace Prof. Remini, as I have documented here in many posts, Millard was a talented and intelligent man who, although he had no military experience (as Lincoln, for all practical purposes, had none), was utterly devoted to the Union. During the period before he resolved the Crisis of 1850 (with some help) he displayed decisiveness and boldness in matters both political and military – issuing a measured but stern warning to Texas not to send a military force against New Mexico, and issuing orders directing United States troops to New Mexico to back up that warning. See here, here, here and here.
If civil war had erupted in 1850-51 (probably starting as hostilities between United States and Texas troops in New Mexico, then spreading as southern states sided with Texas), technology and other considerations would probably have resulted in southern independence. Maybe Millard would have developed into a good war leader, maybe not. But there's no reason to identify his presumed incompetence as one of two key reasons for the North's hypothetical loss in a war that Millard never had an opportunity (if that's the word) to direct.