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The parallels to todays TOTUS are remarkable.MA

By Jeff Jacoby Globe Columnist February 19, 2017
HISTORY DOESN’T REPEAT itself. But it has an unnerving tendency to rhyme.
Consider, on this first Presidents’ Day under Donald Trump, another New Yorker
who occupied the highest office in the land.
When Millard Fillmore became the nation’s 13th president upon the death of
Zachary Taylor in 1850, he immediately plunged the White House and the Whig
Party — one of the nation’s two dominant political parties — into turmoil. On the
day he took the oath of office, Fillmore petulantly dismissed every member of
Taylor’s Cabinet, which he resented for having ignored him when he was vice
president. As a result, it took weeks — in one case, more than two months —
before the new president’s Cabinet members were approved. The Whigs, already
riven by patronage quarrels and North-South tensions, grew even more polarized
over Fillmore’s policies. He was off to a bad start.
To an American looking back from 2017, the disorder that followed Fillmore’s
accession might almost prefigure the pandemonium in the Trump White House.

There are other echoes.

John Tyler is a good reminder: Running mates matter
When President William Henry Harrison died in April 1841, Tyler took control by
declaring he was more than just a caretaker.
Fillmore presented himself as a loyal Whig, but his political career had begun with
the Anti-Masons, a political movement tied to a bizarre hostility toward
Freemasons. He was attracted, writes Paul Finkelman, a legal historian at Albany
Law School, “to oddball political movements, conspiracy theories, and ethnic
hatred.” Even after becoming a Whig, he trafficked easily with anti-Catholic and
anti-immigrant groups.
Fillmore served four terms in the House of Representatives, where he energetically
supported higher tariffs. When he ran for governor of New York in 1844, he kept
talking about tariffs — mostly, suggests Finkelman, to avoid talking about slavery.
Though antislavery sentiment was strong in New York, and though Fillmore, like
most Northern Whigs, was conventionally opposed to the practice, he shunned the
abolitionists. The most urgent moral issue of the day left him personally unmoved.
He seemed to believe that Whigs could avoid the controversial politics of slavery
altogether.
His unwillingness to condemn the spread of black servitude helped Fillmore lose
the governor’s race. So did his hostility to Irish immigrants and his coziness with
nativists. Nonetheless, Fillmore had a following, and at the Whig convention in
1848, he captured the vice presidential nomination. The ticket was headed by
Taylor, a hero of the Mexican War and a Southern planter, and Fillmore was seen
as an ideal ticket-balancer: He was from a key antislavery state, which would
appeal to Northerners, but had never been actively antislavery, which would
reassure Southerners.
Taylor was president for only 16 months; he died of cholera after eating tainted
food. During his brief administration, however, he turned firmly against the
Southern “fire-eaters” who had expected him, a fellow slaveholder, to sympathize
with their cause. The nation was being roiled by sectional bitterness, especially
over the extension of slavery to the vast territories that had been wrested from
Mexico. In Congress, Henry Clay proposed a series of bills that came to be called
the Compromise of 1850, but it was a lopsidedly pro-slavery package, and Taylor
refused to support it.
Vice President Fillmore, on the other hand, was in favor of appeasing Southern
interests. He backed Clay’s legislation; if it came to a tie in the Senate, he said, he
would vote against Taylor and in favor of the compromise.
With Taylor’s sudden death, pro-slavery forces thus found themselves with an
unlikely friend in the White House — a Northern Whig from an abolitionist state,
who was willing to open the Southwest to slavery. The Compromise of 1850,
passed by Congress and signed by Fillmore, undid the 30-year-old Missouri
Compromise, which had permanently barred slavery north of Missouri’s southern
border. Clay’s legislation did clear the way for California to enter the union as a
free state, and it shuttered the slave markets of Washington, D.C. But those sops to
Northern sentiment did nothing to halt the advance of slavery, or to restore
harmony to a Whig Party increasingly at war with itself.
But of all the components of the compromise, the worst was the Fugitive Slave
Act.
Rarely has there been a more repugnant law. For the first time in US history, the
Fugitive Slave Act created a national system of law enforcement. Its purpose:
hunting escaped slaves and returning them to bondage. Federal commissioners
were appointed nationwide, and empowered not only to adjudicate fugitive slave
claims, but to assemble local posses to capture slaves on the run. The law imposed
harsh penalties on anyone caught aiding a fugitive slave. And even free blacks
were at risk of being seized and charged as runaways, since the law, with grotesque
disregard for due process, forbade accused fugitives from testifying in their own
behalf.
Fillmore enforced the law with determination, and dispatched federal troops to
prevent opponents from interfering. He denounced Northern communities that
vowed to resist the law — “sanctuary cities” aren’t a 21st-century innovation —
and piously proclaimed that “without law there can be no real practical liberty.”
Scores of fugitives were captured and returned to the South during Fillmore’s
presidency. When antislavery activists in Boston rescued a captured slave from the
US marshals holding him, Fillmore repeatedly ordered that the rescuers be
prosecuted. In a Pennsylvania case, the administration went further, charging 41
Americans with treason for refusing to join a slave-catching posse.
Fillmore denounced Northern communities that vowed to resist the Fugitive Slave
Law. ‘Sanctuary cities’ aren’t a 21st-century innovation.
By the end of Fillmore’s term, the Whig Party was fractured beyond repair.
Democrats won the 1852 election in a landslide. The Whigs vanished from US
politics, supplanted by a new, unequivocally antislavery Republican Party.
Fillmore, however, turned elsewhere. He migrated to the anti-immigrant, anti-
Catholic “Know-Nothing” Party, running as its presidential nominee in 1856. His
slogan was “Americans Must Rule America.” Five years later, Americans were
ripping America apart in a ghastly Civil War that Fillmore had helped make
inevitable. As Abraham Lincoln labored to preserve the union and emancipate the
slaves, Fillmore watched from the sidelines, harshly criticizing.
Today, the 13th president is lost in obscurity. Fate has been kinder to him than he
deserved.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com

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