Norman A Graebner. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
Zachary Taylor entered the world of politics fresh from his personal triumphs in the Mexican War. Leaders of the Whig party had condemned the war as an inexcusable aggression against Mexico, but they recognized in Taylor’s unassuming manner and immense popularity qualities that would make him an ideal presidential candidate to recapture the White House after four years of James K. Polk. The Whigs, no less than the Democrats, had principles, but many wondered whether Taylor, whose entire career had been in the army, either understood or accepted them.
In April 1848, while Taylor was still saying that he was a no-party candidate, several southern friends prepared a letter that he copied and sent to his brother-in-law, Captain John S. Allison. In it Taylor acknowledged that he was not sufficiently familiar with public issues to pass judgment on them. He wrote, “I reiterate … I am a Whig but not ultra Whig … If elected I would not be the mere president of a party—I would endeavor to act independent of party domination, & should feel bound to administer the Government untrammelled by party schemes.”
Taylor believed that Congress, not the president, should have complete control of the major issues before the country. The Allison letter was sufficiently Whig in doctrine to assure Taylor’s fourth-ballot nomination at Philadelphia in June 1848. Not all Whigs were pleased. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, termed the convention “a slaughterhouse of Whig principles.” To balance the ticket, the convention named Millard Fillmore, an old-line Whig from New York, for the vice presidency. The convention adopted no platform.
Whig leaders sought to capitalize on Taylor’s stature as a national hero and his broad appeal to Americans everywhere. Still Taylor was a man of the South, born in Virginia (24 November 1784) and raised in Kentucky in an aristocratic slaveholding family. A slaveholder himself at the age of thirty, he soon extended his planting operations into Louisiana and Mississippi. Despite a series of misfortunes caused by invalid land titles, falling cotton prices, bollworms, cutworms, and flooding, he managed by 1847 to enter the select company of planters who owned more than a hundred slaves. But Taylor was not ostentatious. He was of average height, muscular, and heavy-boned. His clothing was ordinary, often ill fitting. He had a temper and sometimes displayed it, but generally he conducted himself with unstudied ease, displaying simple good manners. His personal and family life was untouched by scandal. Despite his apparent wealth, Taylor lived modestly at his cottage in Baton Rouge or at his Mississippi plantation, Cypress Grove.
Political success in 1848 lay in the ability to neutralize a divisive sectional issue already tormenting the nation’s politics. Polk had decreed that the Mexican War would bring California and New Mexico into the Union, and the annexation of Texas in December 1845 as a slave state had conditioned the antislavery forces of the North against the further extension of slavery into newly acquired territories. In August 1846, David Wilmot of Pennsylvania moved to amend an administration request for $2 million to aid in negotiating a peace with Mexico by adding the proviso that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude” should ever exist in any territory acquired from Mexico “except for crime, whereof the party shall first be duly convicted.” Northern majorities carried the Wilmot Proviso through the House; Democratic managers kept the antislavery measure off the Senate floor. South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun met the sectional challenge in February 1847 with the argument that all states had equal rights in the territories, including the right of importing slaves into them. Congress, as the agent of the states, had no right to legislate slavery into or out of the territories. To prevent a serious disruption of their party, Democratic leaders bent on expansion searched for a compromise. Polk and Secretary of State James Buchanan favored the extension of the Missouri Compromise line of 36°30′ to the Pacific, but Lewis Cass of Michigan, leader of the administration forces in the Senate, produced the celebrated alternative of “popular sovereignty.” Cass’s plan would permit people of all sections to move freely into any new territory. When that region had sufficient population to warrant a territorial legislature, that legislature would decide the question of slavery in the territory.
Popular sovereignty became the official position of moderate Democrats everywhere, especially in the North and West. Proslavery spokesmen of the South saw immediately that popular sovereignty assured southerners no greater access to the territories than would the Wilmot Proviso. Cass’s doctrine, charged the Charleston Mercury in January 1848, would merely transfer political control of the territories from northern congressional majorities to “mongrel” territorial populations consisting largely of northerners. In mid-January, D. L. Yulee of Florida introduced a resolution in the Senate declaring that neither Congress nor a territorial legislature had the constitutional right to exclude slavery from any territory of the United States. William L. Yancey of Alabama carried these southern demands into the Democratic convention that gathered in Baltimore in May. When the Democrats nominated Cass for the presidency, northern proviso Democrats bolted the party and, joined by rebellious Whigs who distrusted Taylor, held a convention at Buffalo in August, formed the Free-Soil party, and nominated Martin Van Buren for the presidency.
Throughout the campaign Taylor’s doubtful allegiance to Whig principles troubled party leaders, especially when he accepted a local Democratic nomination. Thurlow Weed, the powerful Whig boss of New York, threatened to call a mass meeting to denounce the party’s candidate. Fillmore suggested rather that he and Weed address a letter to Taylor. Taylor replied on 4 September in the form of another Allison letter in which he again defined his principles as Whig. This held the party in line.
Taylor’s final victory was modest, with 1,360,000 popular votes to 1,220,000 for Cass and 291,000 for Van Buren. Taylor’s margin in the electoral college was more decisive (163-127). Van Buren did not carry one state, but his 120,000 votes in New York provided Taylor his victory margin in that key state. Taylor’s triumph at the polls did not assure a successful Whig administration. In the South, Whig orators had campaigned for Taylor as a southerner and Louisiana slaveholder, a man whom the South could trust, while in the North, Whig politicians portrayed him as a proponent of the Wilmot Proviso. Democratic editors advertised the discrepancy but without apparent effect. By avoiding the slavery-extension issue as a united party, the Whigs, unlike the Democrats, had no solid core of party stalwarts committed to a compromise solution of the territorial question. Any national decision on slavery in the territories could break up the Whig party completely.
Taylor could choose from a host of distinguished Whig leaders in filling his cabinet posts. Henry Clay and Daniel Webster scarcely concealed their resentment toward Taylor’s election. Both would attempt to manage the affairs of the nation from their seats in the Senate. Taylor asked his close supporter, John J. Crittenden, to join the cabinet, but Crittenden preferred the governorship of Kentucky. For the State Department, Taylor selected John M. Clayton of Delaware, a noted orator but undistinguished administrator. William M. Meredith, a leading member of the Philadelphia bar, became secretary of the treasury and one of the cabinet’s most popular members. Taylor placed the noted Ohio Whig, Thomas Ewing, over the Interior Department. He assigned the little-known George W. Crawford to the War Department. William Ballard Preston of Virginia, secretary of the navy, knew little about ships but much about politics. Jacob Collamer, the postmaster general, was a successful Vermont politician who would become Taylor’s chief dispenser of the federal patronage. Reverdy Johnson, a wealthy leader of the Baltimore bar, entered the cabinet as attorney general. Whig editors thought the cabinet moderate and able; at least all of its members appeared to be steadfast Whigs. From the outset Fillmore’s role in the new administration was almost nonexistent. He faced opposition not only in the cabinet but also in New York, where the two commanding Whigs, Weed and William H. Seward, fought him successfully for control of the New York patronage.
The California Statehood Question
Moderates in both houses of Congress hoped to dispose of the slavery issue in California and New Mexico even before Taylor entered the White House. In January 1848, James Marshall’s discovery of gold in the Sacramento Valley set off a rush for the gold-fields. Within weeks thousands of gold seekers moved toward California, some overland by covered wagon, some by ship around South America, and others across the Isthmus of Panama. Convinced that California would soon have more than the sixty thousand inhabitants required for statehood, such House leaders as Clayton and Preston, joined by Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois in the Senate, introduced measures advocating a state government for California. Because any state had the unquestioned right to determine the status of slavery within its borders, state-hood for California seemed a sure remedy for the slavery question there. Southern extremists blocked Douglas in the Senate; Preston’s measure remained alive until 27 February 1849, when, overloaded with amendments, the House killed it.
Taylor’s inaugural several days later contained no forthright approach to the territorial issue. Democratic editors complained that it shaped no policy at all, keeping the public as much in the dark as it had been at the time of Taylor’s election. Southerners suspected that the president’s failure to define an antiproviso position meant that he secretly favored a northern solution of the territorial question. Political observers noted, moreover, that most cabinet members leaned toward Free-Soilism.
Privately, Taylor, no less than Clayton and Preston as cabinet members, hoped to avoid a sectional conflict by disposing of the California statehood question as quickly as possible. By December 1849, California’s population would approach one hundred thousand. California’s loosely organized government, a legacy of Mexican rule, was inadequate to cope with the region’s crime and insecurity; indeed, California’s citizens were eliminating known criminals by administering justice themselves. Taylor planned to resolve all of California’s problems permanently by encouraging immediate statehood. As early as April 1849, Clayton predicted that California “will be admitted—free and Whig!” Taylor dispatched Thomas Butler King, a slaveholding member of Congress from Georgia, to California as his personal agent. King reached the west coast in June and proceeded to argue California’s need for statehood. Delegates met in Monterey in September to form a constitution. A third of them were southerners, but their addiction to states’ rights prevented them from raising the question of slavery. The constitution, adopted unanimously in October, prohibited slavery for all time. Without waiting for congressional approval, Californians elected state officials and a congressional delegation. Meanwhile, New Mexican leaders also demanded a new government. By the autumn of 1849 the president advocated immediate statehood for both California and New Mexico, revealing at last the antislavery outlook of his administration. During a trip through Pennsylvania in July, Taylor had declared at Mercer, “The people of the North need have no apprehension of the further extension of slavery.” Conscious of the growing sectional strife in the nation, Taylor would eliminate the territorial issue by bringing the entire Mexican Cession into the Union as states.
As the president planned the nation’s escape from the troublesome issue of slavery expansion, the spread of revolution across Europe following the overthrow of the French monarchy in February 1848 captured the American imagination. The outpouring of sympathy centered on Hungary, where the Magyar patriots, under Lajos Kossuth, were struggling against Austria. In June 1849, after the Hungarians had won a succession of victories, Secretary of State Clayton dispatched Ambrose Dudley Mann, then in Germany, to Hungary to report on the progress of the revolution and offer America’s encouragement. Crittenden was delighted. He wrote to Clayton,
Your readiness to recognize Hungary is a forward and bold step. I like it for the sentiment and resolution it implies. Go ahead!—it is glorious and will please our people to see the Majesty of our Republic exhibiting itself on all proper occasions, with its dignity and fearless front, in the eyes and to the teeth of misruling kings, or despots of whatever make or title they may be.
Such sentiments reflected the deep American animosity toward European repression, but the genuine interests of the United States in European politics lay in the balance of power, not in the self-determination of European peoples. Predictably the Taylor administration remained officially silent when Russian troops, coming to the aid of Austria, crushed the Hungarian uprising. Early in 1850, Cass proposed a resolution demanding that the administration sever diplomatic relations with Austria. Clayton, supported by Clay and other traditionalists, ignored Cass’s overture to American sentimentalism.
For the Taylor administration the region of immediate concern was Central America. During 1849, thousands of Americans poured across Panama and Nicaragua, traveling largely along two possible canal routes en route to California. Clearly the American interest, then or later, demanded the right to build a canal and control it. As early as June 1848, the Senate approved a treaty with New Granada (now Colombia) that granted the United States transit rights across the Isthmus of Panama. In return, the United States pledged to guarantee the neutrality of the route. The British possessed British Honduras and asserted a protectorate over the Indians of the Mosquito Coast. To offset the American treaty with New Granada, the British seized control of the port of San Juan del Norte, which commanded the entrance to the best canal route across Nicaragua; they renamed the port Greytown. Then, in October 1849, the British seized Tigre Island, near the possible western terminus of the Nicaraguan route. Despite Britain’s prompt release of Tigre Island, the British and the Americans were clearly on a collision course in Central America.
Clayton moved to resolve the burgeoning contest by opening negotiations with the able Sir Henry Lytton Bulwer, who reached Washington in late 1849. Neither the United States nor Britain would permit the other to have sole control of an isthmian canal. Both nations, moreover, feared that the other would attempt to strengthen its position in Central America by seizing territory. The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, signed on 19 April 1850, resolved the canal issue by asserting that neither country, should it build a canal, had the right to fortify it or exercise exclusive control over it. The territorial arrangements were more ambiguous. Both governments agreed never to occupy, fortify, or exercise any dominion over any part of Central America; neither would they assume any protectorate over a Central American government. Clayton agreed that these limitations did not apply to areas already under British control.
For Whigs and conservatives the self-denying aspects of the treaty served the immediate interests of the United States admirably. Britain, the world’s leading maritime power, had agreed not to monopolize a Nicaraguan canal or to extend its holdings along the Caribbean. Expansionist Democrats such as Cass and Douglas condemned the acceptance of the self-denying clauses as an act of national cowardice. Buchanan charged that Clayton, like Bulwer, merited a British peerage. To its partisan critics the Taylor administration had not answered the challenges either of revolutionary Europe or of British ambitions in the Caribbean.
The Territorial Issue
Long before Congress convened in December 1849, Taylor faced a rebellious South prepared to contest California’s admission as a free state. In 1849 there were fifteen slave and fifteen free states, giving the South equality in the Senate. The admission of California as a free state would shatter the balance irretrievably. Calhoun’s “Southern Address” of the previous January, a strong, uncompromising defense of slavery expansion, became the standard of southern loyalty for Democrats and Whigs alike. Southerners accused the president of manipulating the entire constitution-making process in California. Northern antislavery congressmen lauded Taylor’s initiative and returned to Washington determined to bring California into the Union as a free state. Sectional disagreements so splintered the parties that not until Christmas could the House elect a Speaker.
Robert C. Winthrop of Massachusetts was the leading Whig candidate for the speakership. Northern and southern Whigs had elected him in 1847; thereafter he had commanded the position with fairness and distinction. Assuming that Winthrop might face opposition in the South, northern Whigs sought a southern candidate who might appeal to the North. The likeliest candidate was Charles S. Morehead of Kentucky. On the Democratic side, Howell Cobb of Georgia towered over the rest. He inspired confidence not only as a skilled debater but also as a man of integrity. A Unionist, Cobb was one of the few southerners in Congress who had refused to sign Calhoun’s Southern Address.
When the voting began, Cobb secured a strong plurality, but could never gain the needed majority. As the voting continued week after week, no fewer than fifty-three Democrats received votes in the balloting. When Cobb and Winthrop failed to win the speakership, the Democrats turned to northerners while the Whigs turned to southerners. Nine Free-Soilers complicated the balloting. They held the balance of power and stood as a bloc against both Winthrop and Cobb. As the balloting continued, various moderate Democrats from the Old Northwest moved ahead only to reach a stalemate.
Finally, on 21 December, a Whig-Democratic conference agreed on a proposal that the House proceed to elect a Speaker and if no one received a majority in three ballots, then the one with the largest number of votes be declared the victor. Winthrop and Cobb now resumed their places at the head of the balloting. On the third ballot Cobb became Speaker with 102 votes to 99 for Winthrop. At the end, Cobb received one vote fewer than he had at the beginning. The voting demonstrated that no party or section could control the House. Taylor’s actions had driven some key southern Whigs into the opposition. Georgia’s two leading Whigs, Robert Toombs and Alexander Stephens, turned against the northern Whigs when the president refused to give them any pledge that he would oppose the Wilmot Proviso.
Taylor viewed the congressional turmoil at a distance, determined to do his duty when the time came. Visitors at the White House reported that he remained calm and relaxed. In his first annual message, dispatched to both the House and the Senate on Christmas Eve, Taylor advocated the immediate recognition of California’s statehood under its new constitution. He noted that New Mexico would be asking for admission to the Union shortly. To maintain the nation’s tranquillity, the president admonished that
we should abstain frown the introduction of those exciting topics of a sectional character which have hitherto produced painful apprehensions in the public mind; and I repeat the solemn warning of the first and most illustrious of my predecessors against furnishing “any ground for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations.”
Again Taylor asserted his belief that the executive had no authority to dictate to Congress or to counter its will with a veto. For northerners this meant that Taylor would not veto the Wilmot Proviso. The president still hoped that the admission of California and New Mexico as states would eliminate the proviso from congressional consideration. Taylor reminded members of Congress that their first obligation was to the nation and not to slavery. Much of the conservative press praised the president’s appeal to nationalism.
Editors predicted another congressional crisis when Senator Henry S. Foote of Mississippi, on 27 December, moved that Congress establish territorial governments for California, New Mexico, and Utah—a clear rejection of Taylor’s proposals. In a special message to Congress on 21 January 1850, Taylor explained to southerners his limited role in California’s decision to form a constitution. He had sent King to California, he admitted, but he had not instructed King to exercise any influence over the selection of delegates or the drawing of the constitution. Taylor again advocated the admission of New Mexico as a state, not a territory, to permit the residents of the region to settle the question of slavery permanently.
Southern orators spent January churning the emotions of Congress. Even the moderate Whig Thomas L. Clingman of North Carolina termed Taylor’s proposals “impudent.” They would bring California, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Minnesota into the Union as free states, giving the North a majority of ten votes in the Senate and two-thirds of the House. With the South shorn of its power, the North would abolish slavery in the states. The South wanted a “fair settlement.” Clingman would give California to the North in exchange for the extension of slavery into New Mexico. Southerners accused the president of adopting Cass’s popular sovereignty, permitting northern majorities to resolve the slavery issue. Elected by southern votes, the president had turned on the South. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri further antagonized the South when he declared that Texas’ claims to New Mexican lands extending to the Rio Grande were unwarranted. Only the federal government, Benton argued, could resolve this controversy. He recommended a boundary 4° east of Santa Fe. Southerners noted that Benton’s proposal would reduce the area of slavery in the Southwest. Even the future Texas boundary had become a subject of serious sectional dispute.
Clay’s Compromise Measure and the Great Debate
Such a maze of conflicting sectional interests called for a political compromise. In the waning days of January, Clay, the elder statesman of the Whig party who had recently returned to the Senate, pondered the issues in search of some formula that would resolve the numerous controversies between the free and slave states. One evening he walked to Daniel Webster’s quarters to obtain the advice and support of his noted Whig rival, like Clay nearing the end of a long career in public life.
On 29 January, Clay presented eight resolutions to the Senate. One endorsed the president’s plan to admit California under its free constitution. The second would establish territorial governments for New Mexico and Utah without regard to slavery. The third and fourth would redraw the Texas boundary to exclude all lands claimed by New Mexico but would compensate Texas with the federal assumption of the Texas debt. The fifth and sixth would abolish the slave trade in the District of Columbia but would guarantee slavery there unless the people of Maryland and the District consented to its abolition with just compensation to the owners. The seventh favored an effective fugitive slave act. The last guaranteed the slave trade between slaveholding states against congressional action. Clay combined these measures into an omnibus bill, hopeful that it would restore health to the Union and strength to the Whig party.
After submitting his resolutions, Clay explained and defended them. He appealed to members of Congress to show “mutual forebearance” and accept a peaceful resolution of the sectional conflict. Clay admitted that his major appeal was to the North. He had asked for more concessions there because the North was numerically more powerful and therefore could afford to be magnanimous. The southern concern over slavery, moreover, was far more pervasive than that of the North. “In one scale, then,” said Clay, “we behold sentiment, sentiment, sentiment alone. In the other property, the social fabric, life, and all that makes life desirable.” He asked senators to avoid behavior destructive of the Union. Clay returned to the Senate floor on 5 February to open the formal debate on the omnibus bill. Sensing the importance of the occasion, people of power and eminence packed the galleries and floor of the Senate chamber. The House adjourned so that its members could join the throng. Clay spent more than two hours in presenting every argument to uphold his measures. At the end he appealed to the Union now threatened with destruction. Dissolution and war, he cried, were “identical and inseparable.”
Clay had challenged Taylor for the leadership of the Whig party and the nation. The attempt was futile. In the North, Clay had the support of Webster and James Cooper of Pennsylvania, but not one other northern Whig followed him. In the South, Clay had four or five staunch Whig supporters, no more. Successful in avoiding the compromise principles of the Democratic party, the Whigs, in the burgeoning crisis, would avoid the territorial question by following the president. The core of compromise strength lay in the Democratic party. Indeed, the majority of Democrats backed Clay completely; it was there that he received four-fifths of his support. Sam Houston of Texas, a Jacksonian Democrat, followed Clay in the Senate with a ringing defense of popular sovereignty and an appeal to the Union. Clay had done nothing to win the adherence of such Democrats, but his measure reflected so substantially the dominant Democratic approach to the sectional controversy that some believed Douglas the real author of the Clay proposals. Taylor Whigs and southern extremists, however, constituted a bloc of opposition that Clay and the Democrats could not overcome.
Northerners expected little of Clay because he was not one of them. It was the South that Clay’s moderation offended. Georgia’s John M. Berrien, a well-known conservative Whig, opened the southern offensive. Accepting Calhoun’s argument, he asserted that he, as a slaveholder, had the right to enter the West with his slave property. Nothing in the Constitution, he argued, denied that slavery could exist in any territory that was the common property of the United States. He would employ his best efforts to avert disunion, but he owed his allegiance, he avowed, to Georgia. One day later, on 13 February, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi drew a packed gallery when he launched the southern Democratic attack. In perhaps the major forensic effort of his career, Davis pledged to uphold the Southland, now losing its traditional role in American life. He accused the North of sowing the seeds of disunion by attacking southern institutions and society.
Calhoun’s famous reply to Clay came on 4 March. Near death and so weak that he could not speak, Calhoun asked James M. Mason of Virginia to read his final plea for the Union—a Union that recognized the rights and institutions of the South. As Mason read, Calhoun sat in his chair directly in front of him, his hands clinging to the armrests like claws. Calhoun, like Davis, saw danger to the South in the gradual destruction of the old balance between the sections. Once, in the days of Washington and Jefferson, the South had felt secure in the Union. Now the North, with its augmented numbers, was on the verge of creating a consolidated government to pursue its advantage. Having gained the admission of Iowa and Wisconsin, northerners now demanded that all the new territories be carved eventually into free states. Against such aggression the South asked for simple justice—equality in the territories, the faithful return of fugitive slaves, the end of agitation on the slavery question, and an amendment that would restore the guarantees of the Constitution. In the absence of such assurances, Calhoun concluded, the future of the Union was fraught with peril. Together Berrien, Davis, and Calhoun reminded the nation that the South had a heavy financial and social investment in slavery, which it would defend at all costs against the onrush of northern numbers, power, and sentiment.
Meanwhile, Taylor’s Whigs had not remained silent. Jacob W. Miller of New Jersey took up the defense of Taylor’s simple program on 21 February. He supported the president’s behavior toward California, arguing that Congress had the right to bar slavery from the territories; but, he added, the question was academic because California would enter the Union as a state. If the South denied Congress the right to act on the question of slavery in the territories, it should permit the people of the West to settle the matter under the president’s program. The South would gain nothing and defy its own principles by resisting. That day Taylor visited Richmond to dedicate the cornerstone for the Richmond monument to Washington. His cordial reception in Virginia demonstrated that the debate in Congress had not marred his popular image, although Democrats attributed Taylor’s good reception to the country’s appreciation of his office, not his leadership.
Through his control of the Whig party, Taylor possessed the power to prevent a compromise on the territorial question, but he could in no way defuse the mounting sectional and legislative crisis. When the Whigs Toombs and Clingman urged Taylor to settle the California question by accepting Clay’s compromise, the president retorted that the country would accept his formula for avoiding the territorial issue or end in disunion. He reminded the dissenting South that the federal government would use force to snuff out any rebellion. As in his election campaign, Taylor rejected any necessity to bridge his Unionist, antislavery appeals to the North and his rejection of southern demands.
Daniel Webster entered the debate on 7 March with the year’s most memorable oration. The crowd jammed the corridors demanding admittance to the galleries. At sixty-eight, Webster suffered from poor health, but his presence remained commanding. He would not speak, he began, “as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American … I speak to-day for the preservation of the Union. ‘Hear me for my cause.’ “Using historic argument, Webster cautioned extremists of North and South alike to be wary of their claims to righteousness. Webster could be magnanimous to the South in favoring constitutional guarantees of slavery in the states, because he knew that nature had declared both California and New Mexico free. Slavery could survive nowhere in the Mexican Cession. On the matter of fugitive slaves, he agreed with the South. His peroration was a magnificent appeal to the Union. He ridiculed the idea of peaceful secession. I would rather,” he said, “hear of … war, pestilence, and famine, than … hear gentlemen talk of secession … To break up this great Government! to dismember this great country!” Disruption would not be peaceful; it would produce a war, a war that he would not describe. Webster gave ringing affirmation to Clay’s arguments, something that the Democrats could not do. Webster’s remonstrance to both sections to forgive and forbear in the interest of national harmony antagonized those northerners who expected more of him. Ralph Waldo Emerson rebuked the senator: “Every drop of blood in this man’s veins has eyes that look downward.” Still, the favorable response to Webster’s appeal suggested that much of the country favored compromise.
Several other speakers followed Webster during March and April, but they offered little new to the arguments. Douglas’ address was important, not because it changed the trend, but because it revealed the Democratic ties to Clay. Douglas challenged Webster on a minor point and then turned on Taylor, accusing him of cleverly avoiding the territorial issue in 1848 in order to make people of each section believe that his opinions harmonized with their own. Now the president favored nonintervention, permitting him to defend the Wilmot Proviso without asking Congress to act on the issue. Douglas insisted that the situation called for action, that the administration, in dwelling only on California, was exposing the West to anarchy. Like Webster, Douglas acknowledged that geography had settled the question of slavery in New Mexico and Utah. Finally, Douglas praised Clay for proposing a solution of the issues before the country.
Douglas had long been active behind the scenes. Since February he had been negotiating an understanding between House Whigs and Democrats on the territorial issue. He arranged for his Illinois lieutenant, John A. McClernand, to report out of the House Committee on Territories bills providing for the territorial organization of New Mexico and Utah under the principle of popular sovereignty, California’s admission as a free state, and slavery’s retention in the District of Columbia. Douglas prepared similar bills for the Senate’s territorial committee. He avoided the issues of fugitive slaves and the slave trade. In Douglas’ preparations lay the foundations of the Compromise of 1850. On 31 March, Calhoun died, and the southern extremists were thus deprived of their most powerful and revered leader.
During April the Senate debate became ill-tempered and personal. Foote, as associate of Calhoun, pressed the Senate to refer the plans of Clay, Douglas, and others to a select committee of thirteen for the purpose of creating a new master plan. Clay and Cass supported the proposal. Benton favored a compromise but opposed Clay’s omnibus arrangement. On 17 April the Missourian, whose previous exchanges with Foote had become heated, accused Foote of attempting to blackmail the Senate into action by magnifying the crisis with abstractions. The Mississippian rose to defend the southern leaders as patriots whose names would be venerated when their “calumniators” would be recalled only with contempt. At that statement Benton left his desk and strode toward Foote, who retreated toward the clerk’s table, pointing a cocked revolver at Benton. Seeing the weapon, Benton tore open his coat and dared Foote to assassinate him. Senators surrounded the two men and restored order. To recover its dignity, the Senate appointed a committee to study the incident. The committee recommended no action.
On 18 April the Senate provided for the Select Committee of Thirteen to prepare a compromise measure and appointed Clay as chairman. Douglas refused to join the committee, convinced that a compromise would be possible only if the individual bills were voted separately. On 8 May, Clay presented the committee’s report to the Senate. The three bills in the committee proposal modified and rearranged the original Clay compromise, but the differences were slight. After presenting the majority report, Clay turned to the minority members to present their objections. The result was confusion.
For three weeks the debate raged while the Taylor forces remained silent. Clay insisted that his committee desired to cooperate with the executive and that his program and the president’s were reconcilable. But Taylor stood firm, advocating statehood for California and New Mexico as an independent measure. Against the northern Whigs and the possibility of a presidential veto, Clay had no chance. By July he was no closer to gaining a compromise than he had been in January. Clay faced strong opposition in the South, but the real barrier to his success was in the executive mansion. As the debates in Congress continued with no end in sight, rumors from the White House indicated that the president was ill. Indeed, Taylor had become afflicted with cholera and died on the evening of 9 July 1850.
Fillmore and the Compromise
Vice President Fillmore was spending a sleepless night when the cabinet informed him of the president’s death. He took the oath of office the following day at noon in the House of Representatives. The chamber was crowded, but Fillmore made no speech. Newspapers across the country paid tribute to Taylor. The funeral ceremony at the White House on 13 July lasted until early afternoon. Taylor’s body was placed in a vault at the Congressional Burying Ground. That evening Mrs. Taylor moved out of the White House. Later the Taylor family moved the body for final burial outside Louisville, near the president’s first home.
Fillmore was a man of dignity, good manners, and conciliatory disposition. He was moderately tall, somewhat portly, with attractive features and sparkling eyes. Born in Locke, New York (7 January 1800), into a family of poor farmers, Fillmore was largely self-educated and self-made. He became an apprentice to two carders and cloth dressers; both men added to his early misery. His exposure to books was so limited that at the age of seventeen he could scarcely read. He purchased a dictionary and stole occasional minutes to read it while tending his machines. After attending an academy at New Hope and studying law briefly under a local judge, Fillmore moved to Buffalo, where he entered a law firm to complete his legal preparation. In 1824 he entered the New York bar, enjoying immediate success as a lawyer. In 1826 he married Abigail Powers, the daughter of a clergyman.
In 1833, Fillmore entered the House of Representatives as a member of the Anti-Masonic-National Republican coalition, soon to merge into the new Whig party. As a three-term member of the House, he developed a reputation for reliability and devotion to Whig causes. As chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, he steered the Whig Tariff of 1842 through the House. Fillmore was a candidate for the vice presidential nomination in 1844. That year he received the Whig nomination for the governorship of New York but lost by a narrow margin. In 1847 he returned to politics as comptroller of New York. His nomination for vice president in 1848 on the second ballot met the needs of the party by adding a northerner and an old associate of Clay to the Whig ticket.
For sixteen months Taylor locked Fillmore out of his councils. The vice president had questioned the administration’s effort to dispose of the territorial question by dividing the entire Mexican Cession into states and admitting them to the Union without slavery. The cabinet had proscribed Fillmore’s friends and had scarcely been civil to him. With Fillmore’s inauguration all members of Taylor’s cabinet offered their resignations; Fillmore accepted them without hesitation. The old cabinet agreed to remain in office for one week while Fillmore organized his own administration.
The new president wanted only Whigs of national outlook in his cabinet. Webster now became secretary of state. Crittenden, having accepted the need for compromise, entered the cabinet as attorney general. William Alexander Graham of North Carolina, a staunch Whig on national issues, became secretary of the navy. Thomas Corwin, a popular Ohio Whig, became secretary of the treasury. Fillmore named his former law partner, Nathan K. Hall, as postmaster general. For secretary of war he chose Charles Magill Conrad, a sound Louisiana Whig. Ultimately the Interior Department went to Alexander H. H. Stuart, a Virginia Unionist.
With Fillmore’s presidency the drift toward political chaos ended abruptly. Compromisers now controlled the government. Fillmore’s cabinet appointments, all reflecting his preference for a compromise settlement, altered wholly the political climate in Washington. Northern Whig delegations that once supported Taylor now shifted to Fillmore. Southern Whigs such as Toombs and Stephens moved back into the Whig mainstream.
Clay, studying the trend, concluded that he could now push his omnibus bill through the Senate. On 29 July, Clay’s committee, to strengthen the bill’s appeal in the South, offered to modify the proposed Texas boundary and even encouraged southern extremists to believe that Texas would extend westward to the Rio Grande. Fillmore objected to this change and insisted on the restoration of Clay’s original measure. The vote to reassert the original proposal failed. Now enemies of the bill struck out the California section, leaving ultimately only the territorial organization of Utah. Douglas’ prediction that the omnibus bill would fail proved to be accurate. Clay, disappointed and exhausted, departed for Newport, Rhode Island, to recuperate by the sea.
Douglas was in control. On 3 August he predicted that the Senate would now pass the territorial measures he had reported out of committee four months earlier. By introducing the bills piecemeal, Douglas counted on varying combinations of Democratic and Whig moderates to carry them. The voting began on 9 August with the Texas boundary measure. Texas received more than Clay’s committee had planned originally: it got $10 million from the federal government but conceded the Rio Grande above El Paso to New Mexico. That measure carried easily, 30 to 20. Several days later the California state-hood bill passed, 34 to 18. The New Mexico territorial bill, which organized the region under the principle of popular sovereignty, won overwhelmingly, 27 to 10. Another bill organized Utah as a separate territory. The fugitive slave bill passed after a week of vigorous debate. Finally the Senate adopted the District of Columbia bill, which abolished only the slave trade, not slavery, in the District, by an ample majority of 33 to 19.
The House, under Douglas’ guidance, passed the compromise measures against futile opposition. During September, Congress completed its work on the Compromise of 1850 and adjourned after the then longest session on record. Avoiding the question of the rightness or wrongness of slavery, the Compromise settled the status of the institution on every square foot of United States soil. Douglas and his colleagues had gained a remarkable legislative triumph, one meriting, they believed, the nation’s approbation.
Most Americans, sharing no interest in a sectional conflict, rejoiced over the Compromise of 1850. The individual decisions were direct and uncompromising, but they distributed the costs of accommodation. That some favored the North and others the South, however, enabled the extremist minorities of both sections to condemn what in the arrangement they did not like and attribute it to the determination of their sectional opponents to command the country’s future. To some southern editors Fillmore had degraded the South and destroyed its equality in the Union. Taylor’s moderate proposal on California and New Mexico might have served southern interests far more effectively than did the extreme proslavery demands of Calhoun and his southern adherents. Had the South accepted Taylor’s assumption that slavery could not expand and that the territorial issue merely served to strengthen the antislavery movement in the North, it might have avoided much of the subsequent assault on its institutions.
For the North’s antislavery forces, the Compromise was scarcely a triumph at all. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 proved to be the major source of sectional bitterness. The act placed federal enforcement agencies at the disposal of the slave-holder. Any black accused of being a runaway slave lost the right of trial by jury and even the right to testify in his own behalf. A federal judge or commissioner could remand him to slavery on the presentation of merely an affidavit of anyone claiming to be the owner. The law required federal marshals to uphold the act and levied heavy penalties against anyone who assisted a slave to escape. For southerners the Fugitive Slave Act was no more than legal recognition of their property rights and their only compensation for the admission of California as a free state. Actually Fillmore’s effort to enforce the act produced what one critic termed “an era of slave-hunting and kidnapping.”
Throughout the North mass meetings protested against the hated law. Many northern abolitionists refused to obey it. Blacks, aided by vigilance committees and a more effective underground railroad, made their way into Canada. The legislatures of all New England states, as well as those of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin, passed “personal liberty laws”, which, in one form or another, forbade judges to assist southern claimants and extended to blacks claimed as slaves the rights of habeas corpus and trial by jury. These laws placed the burden of proof on the pursuer.
Taylor’s administration had responded to the challenges of revolutionary Europe and British-American rivalry in the Caribbean without resolving either of them permanently. Austria sought to instruct the United States on its proper relationship to Europe’s revolutions when its chargé d’affaires in Washington, Chevalier J. G. Hülsemann, lodged a protest with the United States government. He accused Washington of displaying far too much interest in Hungary’s liberation. Fillmore agreed that the United States could not make every European broil an affair of its own. In his annual message of December 1850, he restated the traditional American doctrine that each nation possessed the right “of establishing that form of government which it may deem most conducive to the happiness and prosperity of its citizens. The people of the United States claim this right for themselves, and they readily concede it to others.”
In his famous reply to Hülsemann of 21 December 1850, Secretary Webster asserted that the American people had the right to cheer the forces of freedom in Europe, but assured Hiilsemann that the United States would engage in no action that might give weight to its words. Neither was Europe to interpret the sympathy of the American people for struggling humanity as a sign of hostility toward any of the parties in the great national uprisings in Europe. Indeed, declared Webster, the United States desired amicable relations with all countries. Webster’s references to the growing power of the United States and its right to voice its opinions toward events abroad were designed less to antagonize Austria than to foster Unionism in the United States with an appeal to national pride.
In 1851, Congress invited the exiled Kossuth to visit the United States. His triumphal reception on 5 December set off a Kossuth craze from the Atlantic to the Middle West; articles on Hungary filled the press. American orators used the occasion of his presence to express sympathy for the oppressed of Europe, but critics noted that Kossuth’s open appeal for American support exceeded the limits of acceptable international behavior.
Then Kossuth set out for Washington, Webster revealed his deep reluctance to meet the Hungarian or to attend the congressional dinner planned in his honor. When, at the White House, Kossuth failed to resist the temptation to make a statement in behalf of his Hungarian cause, Fillmore responded with a mild rebuke. He reminded Kossuth that the United States had no intention of interfering in Europe’s internal affairs. At a subsequent White House dinner, Kossuth’s scarcely concealed anger embarrassed all who attended. To protect the administration from congressional charges that it had no concern for humanity, Webster attended Congress’ festive dinner for Kossuth. There he exclaimed, “We shall rejoice to see our American model upon the Lower Danube and on the mountains of Hungary.” But the obligation to establish that model, Webster added, belonged solely to the Hungarian patriots.
Jacksonian Democrats organized the Young America movement to exploit the cause of Europe’s oppression. Douglas made a dramatic appeal for a more effective foreign policy before a Jackson Day audience in January 1852: “I think it is time that America had a foreign policy … a foreign policy in accordance with the spirit of the age—but not such a foreign policy as we have seen attempted to be enforced in this country for the last three years.” On 20 January, Cass introduced a resolution in the Senate declaring that the United States could not again witness, without deep concern, the efforts of European powers to crush an independence movement. Cass’s resolution aroused the fury of congressional conservatives, who reminded him that words and resolutions such as his demeaned the dignity of the country because the moral influence they sought to wield would prove impotent in affairs among nations.
Even before Kossuth left Washington for a tour of the Middle West, the enthusiasm aroused by his presence in the country had begun to evaporate. Clay reminded him pointedly that even if the United States declared war on Russia it could not transport men and arms effectively into the heart of Europe. Kossuth’s receptions became more perfunctory the longer he remained in the country. In the South he faced indifference, if not open hostility. At the end he became the victim of the very enthusiasm he had created. Democratic politicians had used him in their appeals to American nationalism, but they would not offer him any effective support any more than Clay would. When, later in 1852, Kossuth sailed for England, he had collected about $90,000; otherwise, his mission had been a failure.
Democrats who had condemned the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty assumed that Britain intended to extend its influence in Central America. When the British in 1852 converted the tiny Islas de la Bahía of Honduras, long under their control, into a crown colony, Democrats charged the British with aggression in the Caribbean. Cass and Douglas declared the British action a defiance of the Monroe Doctrine and demanded that the United States defend the sacred doctrine. Cooler heads in the administration could see no danger to American interests in the British decision and refused to act.
As the debate over the Bay Islands raged on, the Jacksonians found another issue with which to belabor the conservative Fillmore administration. During 1849 and 1850 a Venezuelan adventurer, Narciso López, engaged in filibustering activities against the island of Cuba with the intention of overthrowing the Spanish regime. Polk had tried unsuccessfully to buy Cuba in 1848. When the Senate later that year voted on a purchase resolution, the South revealed a surprising unanimity in favor of acquisition. Thereafter southern expansionists supported López in his efforts to extend American control over the island of sugar and slaves. Among them were Mexican War veterans in search of adventure, planters in search of new lands, and proslavery elements who feared a Spanish policy of emancipation.
During 1849, federal officials prevented López from leaving the United States, but in the spring of 1850, with several hundred followers, he slipped out of New Orleans and landed at Cárdenas. The invaders burned the governor’s mansion but failed to ignite a revolt. Soon they retreated to Key West, Florida. Facing only limited reprisals in American courts, the conspirators soon planned another invasion of Cuba. The movement picked up additional support from Cuban juntas in New York and New Orleans. Democratic editor John L. O’Sullivan, who in 1845 coined the phrase “manifest destiny,” lent his pen to the crusade. Articles proclaimed the desire of Cubans to free themselves from Spanish rule, awaiting only a propitious occasion to mount their revolt. Much of the northern press denounced the enterprise and predicted its failure. Fillmore issued a proclamation condemning the plan to plunder Cuba. New York authorities prepared to prevent any expedition from leaving that port.
López again transferred his activities to New Orleans. Upon receiving reports of a Cuban uprising, he set off for Cuba with five hundred recruits in August 1851. Again the expedition found itself isolated. Spanish forces overwhelmed the invaders; executed many of them, including López; and sent others into slavery or penal servitude. Southern editors rebuked the Fillmore administration for preventing a successful invasion. Extremists staged anti-Spanish demonstrations, highly destructive of Spanish property, in both New Orleans and Key West. Even northern Jacksonians took up the issue. Douglas denounced Fillmore’s policy of neutrality toward Cuba:
They employ the American Navy and Army to arrest the volunteers and seize the provisions, ammunition, and supplies of every kind which may be sent in aid of the patriot cause, and at the same time give free passage and protection to all men, ammunition, and supplies which may be sent in aid of the royalist, and THEY CALL THAT NEUTRALITY!
Britain and France entered the controversy by sending naval vessels to Cuban waters with the warning that they would stop any further adventuring from the United States for the purpose of conducting hostile operations against the government in Cuba. The State Department objected. At the suggestion of Madrid, Britain and France, in January 1852, offered a tripartite guarantee of Spanish rights in Cuba. Despite Webster’s total disapproval of southern filibustering, his replies to London and Paris were not encouraging. Finally, following Webster’s death in the autumn of 1852, the administration, working through the new secretary of state, Edward Everett, sent a firm rejection. Everett assured British and French officials that the United States had no intention of seizing Cuba, but he reminded the two European powers that Cuba barred the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi, that it stood astride the chief American route to California. Under certain contingencies, wrote Everett, the island “might be almost essential to our safety.” Everett’s letter was sufficiently nationalistic in sentiment to win the approval even of the Jacksonians.
The Election of 1852 and Retirement
Long before Everett disposed of the tripartite offer, Fillmore faced the question of his reelection. Unfortunately his own Whig party was rapidly disintegrating as a national organization. As early as the election of 1850, it had become evident that the Whig party would pay a heavy price for any compromise settlement. In several key Massachusetts, New York, and Ohio elections, antislavery politicians replaced well-known Unionists, while much of the South moved toward moderation on the sectional issues. Only in Mississippi and South Carolina did key leaders persist in the belief that the Compromise of 1850 was a betrayal of southern interests. Southern Whigs accepted the compromise but warned the North that any infringement of this settlement would terminate in disunion. Thus, the Compromise of 1850 was the only platform on which the Whig party could remain united. Yet so unpopular was the compromise among northern Whigs that no one even remotely associated with the Fugitive Slave Act could win northern support. What was to southern Whigs the final measure of forbearance was for the North totally unacceptable. The mass of southern Whigs nevertheless maintained their party allegiance in the caucus of 1852 and secured a campaign platform affirming the compromise.
Fillmore had long regarded his accession to the presidency sufficient reward for his political endeavors; he had little desire for another term. He remained silent on the matter of his candidacy and engaged in no political maneuvering to assure his nomination in 1852. When Webster announced his candidacy, Fillmore decided to withdraw formally from the race. Yet his friends prevailed on him to sustain his candidacy, at least passively, until by campaign time his public support rendered a withdrawal of his name almost impossible. Shortly before his death in 1852, Clay endorsed Fillmore. The Whig convention opened in Baltimore on 16 June. From the outset it was at an impasse as Fillmore, Mexican War hero General Winfield Scott, and Webster, supported only by New England, divided the vote. Finally, on the fifty-third ballot, Pennsylvania bolted to Scott, permitting him to win the Whig nomination. Fillmore accepted the decision with magnanimity; the party did not. The widespread distrust of Scott among the party faithful left the Whig standard in shreds. No longer was the national Whig party capable of fulfilling the political ambitions of its adherents. Weed admitted gravely, “There may be no political future for us.” In the subsequent election Scott carried four states—Massachusetts, Vermont, Tennessee, and Kentucky. The Whig party had entered its last presidential campaign.
Fillmore’s conservatism on sectional issues had alienated the northern Whigs, but his reputation for earnestness and integrity remained high among the party moderates. Franklin Pierce, who succeeded Fillmore as president, could not prevent the further sectionalization of American politics. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which opened Kansas to slavery expansion, sent northern antislavery forces into open rebellion; most joined the new Republican party. By 1856 the Whig party was dead. Its moderates entered the Know-Nothing party, known in 1856 as the American party. Meeting in Philadelphia in February 1856, the American party endorsed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and nominated Fillmore, then traveling abroad, for the presidency. The northern delegates withdrew, limiting the party largely to conservative southern Unionists. The Republicans now dominated the North. The Democrats, in control of the South, gained enough northern votes to elect James Buchanan. Fillmore carried only one state, Maryland.
Fillmore never ran for public office again. He returned to Buffalo to become that city’s leading citizen, devoting himself to educational and charitable affairs. He became the first chancellor of the University of Buffalo and the first president of the Buffalo Historical Society. In 1858 he married Caroline McIntosh, the widow of Ezekiel McIntosh of Albany. (His first wife, Abigail, had died in March 1853 as he was preparing to leave the White House.) Fillmore died on 8 March 1874 and was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo.