The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Fillmore, Millard
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FILLMORE, Millard, thirteenth president of the United States, born in the township of Locke (now Summerhill), Cayuga co., N. Y., Jan. 7, 1800, died in Buffalo, March 8, 1874. Cayuga co. was then a wilderness, with few settlements. The nearest house to that of the Fillmores was 4 m. distant. Young Fillmore's education was limited to instruction in reading, writing, spelling, and the simplest branches of arithmetic. At 14 he was apprenticed to learn the fuller's trade. In 1819 he conceived the design of studying law. He had yet two years of his apprenticeship to serve, and agreed with his employer to relinquish his wages for his last year's services, and promised to pay him $30 for his time. He made an arrangement with a retired lawyer, by which he was to receive his board in payment for his services in the office. In 1821 he went on foot to Buffalo, where he arrived an entire stranger, with $4 in his pocket. Here he obtained permission to study in a lawyer's office, and supported himself by severe drudgery in teaching school and assisting the postmaster. By the spring of 1823 he had so far gained the confidence of the bar, that by the intercession of several of its leading members he was admitted as an attorney by the court of common pleas of Erie county, although he had not completed the period of study usually required, and commenced practice at Aurora, where his father then resided. In the course of a few years he acquired not only a large practice, but a thorough knowledge of the principles of the common law, which placed him in the first rank among the lawyers of the state. In 1827 he was admitted as attorney and in 1829 as counsellor of the supreme court of the state. In 1830 he removed to Buffalo, where he continued in the practice of the law until the autumn of 1847, when he retired from it on being elected comptroller of the state. Mr. Fillmore's political life commenced in 1828, when he was elected representative to the state legislature by the anti-masonic party. He served three successive terms, retiring in the spring of 1831. He particularly distinguished himself by his advocacy of the act to abolish imprisonment for debt, which was passed in 1831, and which was drafted by him, excepting the portions relative to proceedings in courts of record, which were drawn by John O. Spencer. In the autumn of 1832 he was elected on the anti-Jackson or anti-administration ticket to congress. After serving one term he retired till 1836, when he was reëlected as a whig. He was chosen again in 1838, and again in 1840. In 1842 he declined a renomination. In congress he rose gradually to the first rank for integrity, industry, and practical ability. During the early part of his congressional career a national bank was the prominent subject of discussion. Mr. Fillmore was never a warm friend of the bank, and took no part in the debates upon it. He was, however, a decided whig, and labored earnestly in support of the internal improvement and protective tariff policy of that party. In the struggle which took place upon the question of the reception of petitions for the abolition of slavery in the 25th congress, he supported Mr. Adams, and voted for their reception. In a letter written Oct. 17, 1838, he avowed that he was opposed to the annexation of Texas so long as slaves should be held therein; that he was in favor of congress exercising all its constitutional powers to abolish the slave trade between the states, and in favor of immediate legislation for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. He expressly stated, however, that he would not pledge himself as to his future course upon any of these subjects; but reserved the right to modify or change his views, as upon further reflection or examination he might deem proper. He took a prominent part in the debates in congress upon the subject of the burning of the steamer Caroline by British troops at Schlosser, on the Niagara frontier, in December, 1837. At the opening of the 26th congress, Dec. 2, 1839, the seats of five out of the six members from New Jersey were contested. The claimants who held the certificate of the governor were whigs; and so evenly were the parties in congress balanced, that if these were admitted to their seats the whigs would have the control of the organization; if not, it would be in the hands of the democrats. The whigs contended that the certificate of the governor, authenticated by the seal of the state, should be received as presumptive evidence of the right of the five members to their seats; that they should be permitted to participate in the organization of the house, and that afterward the claims of contestants to their seats should be investigated in the ordinary course of business. The democrats insisted that the house should decide the question before electing a speaker. A violent debate arose. Two weeks were consumed in discussing whether the five New Jersey members should be permitted to participate in organizing the house. A resolution to admit them was lost by a tie vote. A speaker was chosen on Dec. 16, and the discussion was then resumed. Mr. Fillmore was assigned a place on the committee on elections. He canvassed the entire vote of the state of New Jersey, devoting three months to this drudgery. A majority of the committee, being democrats, reported that the democratic contestants were entitled to the seats. The minority of the committee were satisfied that three at least of the whig members were unjustly excluded by the majority report. On March 6, by a strict party vote, overruling the decision of the speaker, Mr. Fillmore was declared to be out of order while supporting his views on this question, and all further debate was substantially prohibited. On March 10 the democratic contestants were admitted to their seats, and their title to them was confirmed by a party vote on July 16. Mr. Fillmore was one of the most prominent actors in this controversy, and by his labor in the committee and zeal in debate upon the questions involved, added greatly to his reputation throughout the country. Hitherto he had always been in a minority in congress; but the whig party was largely in the majority in the 27th congress, which assembled in 1841. A new financial system, and an entirely new tariff, were to be devised and put in operation. Under the circumstances the position of chairman of the committee of ways and means was the most prominent in the house. It was assigned to Mr. Fillmore. The session continued nine months, during which time he was not absent a single hour from the house, though he did his full share of the labors of the committee. The preparation of the new tariff bill involved a laborious examination, digestion, and arrangement of figures and statistics. Although Mr. Fillmore did not profess to be the discoverer of any original system of revenue, still the tariff of 1842 was a new creation, and he is justly entitled to the distinction of being its author. At the same time, with great labor, he prepared a digest of the laws authorizing all appropriations reported by him to the house as chairman of the committee of ways and means, so that on the instant he could produce the legal authority for every expenditure which he recommended. Sensible that this was a great safeguard against improper expenditures, he procured the passage of a resolution requiring the departments, when they submitted estimates of expenses, to accompany them with a reference to the laws authorizing them in each instance. This has ever since been the practice of the government. — Mr. Fillmore retired from congress in March, 1843. He was the candidate for vice president, supported by his own state and by some of the western states, in the whig national convention which met at Baltimore, May 1, 1844. In the convention of the whigs of the state of New York, which met Sept. 11, he was nominated for governor, but was defeated by Silas Wright, Mr. Clay being defeated at the same time in the presidential election by Mr. Polk. In 1847 Mr. Fillmore was elected comptroller of the state of New York, an office which at that time included in its sphere many duties now distributed among various departments. In his report of Jan. 1, 1849, he suggested that a national bank, with the stocks of the United States as the sole basis upon which to issue its currency, might be established and carried on so as to prove a great convenience to the government, with entire safety to the people. This idea involves the essential principle of our present system of national banks. In June, 1848, he was nominated by the whig national convention for vice president, with Gen. Zachary Taylor for president, and was elected in the ensuing November. In February he resigned the office of comptroller, and on March 5, 1849, was inaugurated as vice president. In 1826 Mr. Calhoun, then vice president, had established the rule that that officer had no power to call senators to order. During the controversies in the session of 1849-'50 occasioned by the application of California for admission into the Union, the question of slavery in the new territories, and that of the rendition of fugitive slaves, in which the most acrimonious language was used, Mr. Fillmore in a speech to the senate announced his determination to preserve order, and that, should occasion require, he should reverse the usage of his predecessors upon that subject. This announcement met with the unanimous approval of the senate, which ordered Mr. Fillmore's remarks to be entered at length on its journal. He presided during the controversy on Mr. Clay's “omnibus bill” with his usual impartiality. No one knew which policy he approved excepting the president, to whom he privately stated that should he be required to deposit his casting vote, it would be in favor of Mr. Clay's bill. More than seven months of the session had been exhausted in angry controversy, when, on July 9, 1850, President Taylor died. Mr. Fillmore took the oath of office as president on July 10; President Taylor's cabinet at once resigned, and a new cabinet was nominated on the 20th. Its members were: Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, secretary of state; Thomas Corwin of Ohio, secretary of the treasury; A. H. H. Stuart of Virginia, secretary of the interior; Charles M. Conrad of Louisiana, secretary of war; William A. Graham of North Carolina, secretary of the navy; Nathan K. Hall of New York, postmaster general; and John J. Crittenden of Kentucky, attorney general. Of these, Mr. Webster died and Messrs. Graham and Hall retired in 1852, and were respectively replaced by Edward Everett of Massachusetts, John P. Kennedy of Maryland, and Samuel D. Hubbard of Connecticut. Mr. Fillmore immediately ordered a military force to New Mexico, with instructions to protect that territory from invasion by Texas, on account of its disputed boundary. Mr. Clay's bill having been in the mean time defeated, Mr. Fillmore on Aug. 6 sent a message to congress advising that body of the danger of a collision with Texas, and urging a settlement of the controversy in respect to its boundary. Various acts known as the compromise measures, and embracing substantially the provisions of Mr. Clay's bill, were passed before the end of the month. The president referred to the attorney general the question whether the act respecting the rendition of fugitive slaves was in conflict with the provisions of the constitution relating to the writ of habeas corpus. That officer prepared a written opinion in favor of its constitutionality. The president concurred in this opinion and signed the act, together with the rest of the compromise measures. The fugitive slave law was exceedingly offensive to great numbers of the whig party of the north, as well as to those known strictly as anti-slavery men. Its execution was resisted, and slaves were rescued from the custody of the marshals by mobs at Boston, Syracuse, and Christiana in Pennsylvania, in the last of which places one or two persons were killed. The president announced his intention to enforce the law, and issued a proclamation calling upon all officers to perform their duty in its execution. Prosecutions were instituted in various instances against the rescuers, but without practical results, owing to the unpopularity of the law. Although Mr. Fillmore's administration, as a whole, was acknowledged to be patriotic, able, and useful; although his purity as a public man was unquestioned, and not a single other measure of his administration could be called unpopular, still, by signing the fugitive slave law, he lost the support of a very large proportion of his party in the northern states. In his message to congress in December, 1850, he recommended considerable reductions in postage; the establishment of an agricultural bureau; liberal appropriations for rivers and harbors; the establishment of an asylum for the relief of disabled and destitute seamen; a moderate but permanent tariff, with specific duties where practicable, and discriminating in favor of American industry; the opening of communication between the Mississippi and the Pacific; a provision for settling disputed land titles in California, and an extension of the system of land laws over the newly acquired territory; a law to provide for the retiring of superannuated officers from active service in the army and navy; a board of commissioners for the adjustment of private claims against the government; and, in conclusion, “an adherence to the adjustment established by the compromise measures, until time and experience should demonstrate the necessity for future legislation to guard against evasion and abuse.” But his administration being in a political minority in both houses of congress, none of these recommendations were adopted, excepting those for the settlement of land claims in California and the survey of its public lands, and for an asylum for disabled and destitute seamen. During this session congress made an appropriation for the extension of the capitol according to such plan as might be approved by the president. Having adopted a plan, on July 4, 1851, he laid the corner stone of the extension, amid an immense concourse of people, who were addressed by Daniel Webster. Learning that an attempt was to be made to invade Cuba by lawless citizens of the United States, the president, on April 25, 1851, issued a proclamation warning them of the consequences. On Aug. 4, however, an expedition under Lopez, in the steamer Pampero, sailed from New Orleans by the connivance of the collector of that port and landed in Cuba. They were there captured; a number were executed, a few pardoned, and the remainder sent prisoners to Spain. Those sent to Spain were finally pardoned, and congress paid their expenses home. The collector of New Orleans was removed from office, and the steamer Pampero seized by the government, and condemned and sold for a violation of the neutrality laws. In his message of 1851, besides reiterating the views expressed in that of 1850, the president urged a revision of the fee bill of the United States courts, a thorough revision and codification of the laws of congress then in force, and a law prescribing the relative rank of officers in the army and navy. Mr. Fillmore's administration is distinguished by the expedition of Commodore Perry to Japan, in a squadron which sailed in the autumn of 1852, and which resulted in a favorable treaty with that country. During the years 1851 and 1852 treaties were also formed with Peru, Costa Rica, Brazil, and other South American states. A steamer was sent to explore the Plata and its confluents. An expedition was also ordered by the president to explore the valley of the Amazon. This accomplished its object, and instructive reports were made by Lieuts. Herndon and Gibbon. Mr. Fillmore carried out strictly the doctrine of non-intervention in the affairs of foreign countries, and frankly stated his views upon this subject in an interview with Kossuth. At the same time, however, it appeared clearly enough by the celebrated letter of Mr. Webster, secretary of state, to M. Hülsemann, how little the administration sympathized with Austria in its struggle with Hungary. Daniel Webster died Oct. 24, 1852, and Edward Everett was appointed his successor as secretary of state. His brief term of office was distinguished by his letter declining the proposition for a tripartite treaty with England and France, by which each country was to disclaim then and for the future all intention to obtain possession of the island of Cuba. But in his message to congress in December, 1852, the president expressed his opinion that the incorporation of Cuba into the Union would be a hazardous and impolitic measure. — Mr. Fillmore retired from the presidency March 4, 1853. He left the country at peace within and without, and in the enjoyment of a high degree of prosperity in all departments of its industry. In his cabinet there had never been a dissenting voice as to any measure of his administration; and upon his retiring from office a letter was addressed to him by all its members, expressing their united appreciation of his abilities, his integrity, and his devotion to the public service. At the whig convention of 1852 he was a candidate for nomination as president; but though his policy, the fugitive slave law included, was approved by a vote of 227 against 60, he could not command 20 votes from the free states. During the spring and summer of 1854 he made an extensive tour through the southern and western states. In the spring of 1855, after an excursion through New England, he sailed for Europe, where he remained until June, 1856. While at Rome he received the news of his nomination as candidate for the presidency by the American party. He accepted the nomination, but before the close of the campaign it became evident that the real struggle was between the democrats and the republicans. Very many of those with whom he was the first choice for president cast their votes either for Mr. Buchanan or Mr. Fremont, believing that there was no hope of Mr. Fillmore's election; and though he received the support of large numbers in all the states, Maryland alone gave him its electoral vote. Mr. Fillmore afterward resided in Buffalo, taking no prominent part in public affairs.