Saturday, January 17, 2009

Millard Derangement Syndrome: A Case Study and Rebuttal

I really like Rick Moran's site Right Wing Nuthouse and return to it regularly, but this cartoonish sketch of Millard Fillmore's career is utterly misguided. Rick clearly suffers from a bad case of Millard Derangement Syndrome (MDS):
[Zachary Taylor's] successor was, if possible, even more incompetent. Millard Fillmore is, to this day, a national joke, a punchline of a president. Historians try to be kind to the guy but Fillmore’s rabid enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act (a product of the last great compromise by the Great Compromiser Henry Clay) meant that hundreds of freed slaves or slaves who had been living free in the north became targets of bounty hunters and slave owners with dubious claims on their person. Many freed blacks fled to Canada rather than take a chance with Fillmore’s federal marshals who enforced the act, working cheek to jowl with the bounty hunters. The legislation was part of the Compromise of 1850 that lasted less than 4 years when the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the seminal Missouri Compromise of 1820 and made the 1850 legislation moot. Even the Whigs refused to nominate him for a full term in 1852. He ended up running for president in 1856 on both the Whig and Know Nothing Party tickets. Considering that there was no such party as the Whigs except as it existed in the drawing rooms and salons of a few rich men, Fillmore’s greatest claim to fame may be that he was the last major figure to run for president on the Whig party ticket.

The core of Rick's dislike of Fillmore clearly lies in Fillmore's willingness to sign the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 into law. No reasonable person will contend that that law was anything other than abominable. But what Rick fails to acknowledge is that the act was only one piece of a package of laws that Congress narrowly passed after years of acrimony and deadlock dating back, ultimately, to the introduction of the Wilmot Proviso in 1846. It's fair enough to debate whether the Compromise of 1850 as a whole was a Good Thing or a Bad Thing; but it's unreasonable to condemn Fillmore's decision on the Fugitive Slave Bill in isolation.

As it turns out, I've written a post on the real issue here: Was the Compromise of 1850 a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?. Having re-read it, I think it stands up pretty well (a few typos notwithstanding), and I won't repeat myself ad nauseam. But very briefly, I think it's reasonable to conclude, first, that, but for the Compromise, war might well have broken out between Texas and New Mexico, and then escalated and spread into a general civil war. Mark Stegmaier's book, Texas, New Mexico and the Compromise of 1850 (discussed here) further highlights this possibility.

Second, had war broken out in 1850 or 1851, it's entirely possible that the Union would not have survived intact. How would history have judged President Fillmore if he had provoked a civil war and then presided over the destruction of the Union? For that matter, if an independent CSA had emerged in 1850-51, how long might slavery have endured there? 1900? 1920? 1960?

Subsidiary manifestations of Rick's MDS appear in his descriptions of Fillmore's failure to obtain renomination in 1852 and his decision to run as the American Party candidate in 1856. Neither criticism withstands close analysis.

Fillmore did run for the presidency in 1848 and had no desire for the office. When President Taylor unexpectedly died, Fillmore steered the country through the greatest crisis it had ever faced. His initial inclination was to announce that he would not be a candidate in 1852. Friends dissuaded him from this course, but he clearly had none of Bob Dole's "fire in the belly." Essentially, all he did was not eliminate himself.

Had he seriously wanted the Whig nomination in 1852, it would have been his. Although Winfield Scott was ultimately nominated, it was Fillmore's own secretary of state, Daniel Webster, who blocked Fillmore's nomination by failing to release his small block of delegates. If Fillmore had demanded that Webster stand down, Fillmore would have been the candidate. He did not do so, and was probably relieved when he not get the nomination. This may be a political failing, but it was not a moral one.

Rick's complaints about the 1856 run are equally misguided. I have written a number of posts about Fillmore's affiliation with the Americans and won't repeat them here. But the bottom line is that Fillmore and his advisors devised a plan to take over the American Party and use it as a pro-Union vehicle. Fillmore used the American Party because it was the only platform available. He had entered politics in 1828 through the Anti-Mason Party. He had no use for the KN's secret rituals or its nativism.

There may have been "a few rich men" in "drawing rooms and salons" in 1856 who believed that the Whig party was not dead, but Fillmore was not one of them. It was precisely for that reason that Fillmore had concluded that he had no choice but to employ the Americans, and not the Whig Party, for his 1856 run. If a few deluded fossils claiming still to be Whigs chose to endorse him, there was no reason for Fillmore to reject them, but he ran as an American, not as a Whig, because he knew the Whig party no longer existed.

Finally, Rick's comments about rich men and drawing rooms suggest that he's been looking too much at those photos of Fillmore that make him look like a stuffed shirt. He was anything but. As I've recently emphasized, Fillmore's family was dirt poor; he was the quintessential self-made man. Both before and after his presidency, he dedicated himself to the welfare of his fellow citizens of Buffalo and western New York and was widely respected by them for his efforts.

About the illustration:
Sharply critical of both the Democratic and Whig choice of presidential candidates in 1852, the artist laments the nomination of two soldiers, Winfield Scott (center) and Franklin Pierce (far right), in preference to several more "capable" statesmen who appear at left. The latter are (left to right): Samuel Houston, John J. Crittenden, Thomas Hart Benton, Millard Fillmore, John Bell, Lewis Cass, Stephen A. Douglas, and Daniel Webster. Most prominent in the group are Fillmore, Cass, and Webster, who also sought the presidential nomination in 1852. Fillmore: "I have sought more anxiously to do what was right; than what would please, and feel no disappointment, at finding that my Conduct has, rendered me an unavailable candidate." Cass: "We have been partizans where we differed in opinions as to the best means of promoting the prosperity and happiness of our native land, but we cast aside, party when we stood Shoulder, to Shoulder, for the Constitution & the Union." Webster: "It is not our fortune to be, or to have been successful Millitary Chieftains. We are nothing but painstaking, hardworking, drudging Civilians, giving our life, and health, and strength, to the maintenance of the Constitution and upholding the liberties of our country." Columbia, draped in stars and stripes and grasping the hands of Scott and Pierce, responds: "I acknowledge your noble services, worth and Constant devotion most Illustrious sons, and that you have the long experience, Sound sense and practical wisdom which fit you to receive the highest honor in my power to bestow, but you are "not Available." " "Availability," in the contemporary lexicon, meant the quality of broad popular appeal. Scott and Pierce were both distinguished in the Mexican War. Scott, holding a liberty staff and Phrygian cap, proclaims: "You see Gentlemen it is "availability" that is required and that is "my" qualification." Pierce holds a shield adorned with stars and stripes, adding, "I am a "Great" man and have done the country "Great" Service! I never knew it before; but it "must be so;" for the Convention has declared it, and the Democracy affirm it." Before his nomination by the Democratic convention of 1852, Pierce was a relatively little known New Hampshire attorney--a fact which Whig publicists tended to exaggerate. Pierce had, after all, served as a two-term congressman and senator from New Hampshire.

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