Saturday, January 05, 2008

Millard Fillmore, Decisive Strategist

As the president's birthday approaches, let's take a break from his later career and examine briefly one of his masterstrokes as president.

On July 31, 1850, the Omnibus Bill that had been the centerpiece of Henry Clay's compromise plan collapsed in ruins. It was Millard Fillmore -- who had been president for less than a month -- who picked up the pieces.

At Fillmore's urging, on August 5 Senator James Pearce of Maryland introduced a new bill that among other things set new boundaries for Texas -- the boundaries it inhabits today -- together with new terms of compensation. The following day, August 6, the president sent Congress a special message on Texas. As Michael Holt explains, "[t]he message that Fillmore and Webster concocted was a political masterstroke."
Fillmore declared that the boundary dispute was . . . between the United States government and the the state of Texas. By terms of the treaty of 1848 [with Mexico] the area claimed by Texas belonged to the United States, and Fillmore was sworn to protect it by his oath of office. If Texas militia invaded United States territory by marching on Santa Fe, they would "become at that moment trespassers . . . [without] any lawful authority, and . . . intruders." In such an event, Fillmore would have no choice but to use his ample constitutional authority to call up the militia and the regular army to repel Texas' aggression.

Fillmore's firm stand "accomplished the seemingly impossible." By defying the Texans while at the same time proposing fair compensation to them, he both placated northern critics and gained the approval of southerners seeking settlement. Just three days later, on August 9, the bill easily passed the Senate, 30-20.

Thereafter, "[d]ebate in the Senate remained abrasive, but passage of the Texas bill allowed easy enactment of the other compromise measures." The series of bills that we know as the Compromise of 1850 was ultimately passed by the House and signed into law by the president.

"Millard Fillmore exulted over the final passage of the compromise bills," Holt observed, "[a]s well he might." Displaying decisiveness, bold leadership and an outstanding strategic eye, he helped the forces of compromise snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

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