Millard, We Hardly Knew Ye

When I saw the eponymous title of a new book by a less-than-admired president, I knew I wanted to read more. Millard Filmore is a new book by Paul Finkelman that explains the background of how a barely-known comptroller of New York became President of the United States.

His fortune was to be the VP for Zachary Taylor, war hero and slave owner who died in office. He died in 1850 and then it was Filmore’s turn. The big news at the time was that the Mexican war had given the US a huge new swath of territory, from Texas all the way to the Pacific.

In the book, Finkelman discusses the biggest mistake that slavery proponents made, one that turned even the relatively racist northerners against the practice. The law was the result of a complicated series of deals that created a free California, and in turn made New Mexico and Utah as official territories, where the future settlers could decide on slavery at a later date.

For agreeing to this arrangement, the South’s reward was the Fugitive Slave Law, which made the federal government responsible for the arrest of freedom-seekers everywhere in the North. The feds could draft any citizen to help them catch slaves on the loose.

Northerners were incensed with this huge grab of federal power, and rebelled…”in several cases abolitionist crowds literally ripped fugitives from the hands of federal commissioners and sped them to safety in Canada via the underground railroad.”

The law dominated Fillmore’s short presidency. That was too bad, because after he left office in 1853, he was credited by Finkelman for visionary ideas…like the transcontinental railroad, the building of the Panama canal, and asserting American power in Hawaii.