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The Fillmore Administration, Compromise of 1850 and a New Fugitive Slave Act

In early January 1851 black delegates of the annual Convention of the Colored Citizens of Ohio met to condemn the Fugitive Slave Act passed by Congress the preceding fall. Other issues were also discussed, including the pervasive racial discrimination that free blacks faced and the perennial issues of black unity, but the overwhelming concern was the impact of the Fugitive Slave Act. While a fugitive slave law had existed since 1793, the updated version included draconian features, most notably it allowed alleged masters to use mere sworn testimony to capture blacks claimed to be owned by them. The law included a built-in incentive for the commissioners to judge against the black and in favor of the slaveowner. The commissioners would receive $10 if they ruled in favor of the reputed owner and only $5 if they ruled in favor of the black. So alarming was the act that overnight thousands of African Americans left their homes and moved to Canada where they were much more secure from enslavement. John Mercer Langston termed the new law “a hideous deformity in the garb of law” while young H. Ford Douglass, who had escaped from slavery only four years before described it as an “engrafting on the Constitution a clause legalizing and protecting one of the vilest systems of wrong ever invented by the cupidity and avarice of man. . . . That instrument also provides for the return of fugitive slaves . . . a law unequaled in the worst days of Roman despotism, and unparalleled in the annals of heathen jurisprudence. . . .”

For many free blacks in Boston and elsewhere in the North, the new, tougher, Fugitive Slave Law proved to be the last straw. With the law’s passage occurring within the context of a historical period when African Americans were feeling more empowered and optimistic in considering their long-term prospects for advancement, it was a turning point forcing a reassessment. A contemporary black newspaper, The Pennsylvania Freeman, estimated that almost half of Boston’s 8,900 blacks immediately left for Canada where they would be secure from being enslaved. Plans to expand or build black churches were abandoned–institutional growth of the African American national community was momentarily stunted–and political positions by black leaders and organizations were reevaluated. The passage of the new Fugitive Slave law set the stage for a turbulent decade of struggle culminating in the Dred Scott decision and the run-up to the Civil War.

President Fillmore was pressed to vigorously enforce the new Fugitive Slave Act a measure that he played an important role in crafting. In October 1850, Fillmore was requested to authorize federal troops to seize an escaped slave from Boston where local activists had mobilized to aid him. Fillmore complied with the request, earning their anger. Fillmore, in doing so, wrote to Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster:

. . . God knows, that I detest slavery, but it is an existing evil, for which we are not responsible, and we must endure it, and give it such protection as is guaranteed by the constitution, till we can get rid of it without destroying the last hope of free government in the world. . . .

In February 1851 Boston progressive black and white activists forcibly removed a fugitive from slavery, Frederick “Shadrack” Wilkins, from a courtroom and successfully conveyed him to Canada and his freedom. This and other incidents caused the southern elite’s disillusionment with the Fillmore administration and the Compromise of 1850.

President Fillmore was outraged when he learned of the Shadrach rescue snarling:

Nothing could be more unexpected than that such a gross violation of law, such a high handed contempt of the authority of the United States should be perpetrated by a band of lawless confederates at noonday in the city of Boston and in the very temple of justice.

Fillmore ordered that “prosecutions be commenced against all persons who have made themselves aiders or abettors in this . . . violation of the law.”

Born to Nathaniel and Phoebe Fillmore January 7th 1800, Millard Fillmore’s early life was one of poverty, hard work and oppression. Attending school only three months a year, he helped his family try to wring a living from the hard, infertile soil. Apprenticed to a cloth dresser at the age of 14 where he carded wool and dressed cloth. Soon, the adolescent was forced to flee from him after being cruelly and harshly treated–the nearest equivalent for impoverished whites to a fugitive from slavery possible. This negative experience with routine oppression helped form his outlook on the world as he later recalled: “I think that this injustice which was no more than other apprentices have suffered and will suffer had a marked effect on my character. It made me feel for the weak and unprotected, and to hate the insolent tyrant in every station of life.”

Later, his father’s landlord helped young Millard study law leading to his admission to the bar in 1823 in Buffalo. Already, Fillmore had apparently concluded in the course of his rise from poverty that the surest path to success was to faithfully serve the powerful and wealthy. Entering politics after moving to Buffalo, New York and becoming an attorney, Fillmore was first elected to the New York State Assembly in 1828. In his unsuccessful campaign to be the Governor of New York in 1844 as a Whig, he opposed the annexation of Mexico maintaining that northern business interests were neglected in favor of the expansion of slavery territory.

Heroism in Christiana

The role for black and white abolitionist activists expanded during this decade as incidents such as this multiplied—each one adding to the accumulation of tension and hostility that arrayed the South against the North. Each such event heightened tensions and strained the threads of national unity binding the North and the South and were reflected in sporadic violence that reached as far as the corridors of Congress. Later in 1851, a Maryland slaveholder and his son attempted to recapture a slave who had escaped to southern Pennsylvania. They were thwarted by a militant rural black community that included the legendary William Parker. Comprised of many escapees from slavery, they were determined to resist with arms if necessary. Bolstered by a sophisticated system of communication designed to foil any designs of the men who would deliver them back to slavery in the South. The older man was killed while his son was wounded in what became known as the Christiana affair. Later, some forty blacks in the area were arrested and charged with high treason but were acquitted--a sign of growing Northern support for militant anti-slavery action and growing hostility to slavery.

For his part, Fillmore complied with the slaveholders’ wishes in vigorously pursuing African-Americans who escaped from slavery. Slaveholders judged presidential candidates by their responses to particular issues of burning concern to them, especially so with respect to the issues of the prohibition of slavery in the territories; the restoration of the Missouri Compromise line; the restriction of slavery in Missouri; the equal admission of new slave states; and the repression of abolitionist agitation. Not surprisingly, the slaveholder-accorded political legitimacy accounts for the consensus among contemporary African Americans that their policies were backward and bankrupt. Frederick Douglass’s dismissal of the two “ruling parties” captures the range of contemporary informed black opinion on the state of the nation’s politics during the post-Compromise of 1850. Addressing the Free Democratic Convention in Ithaca, New York on October 14, 1852, only a few weeks prior to the presidential election, Douglass stated:

President Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore. 13th President

1850 to 1853

Birth: January 7, 1800, Summerhill, New York

Death: March 8, 1874

Education: Minimal, apprentice, law clerk

Religion: Unitarian

Profession: Lawyer

Political Party: Whig, American Native Party (the "Know Nothings")

Primary Form of Relationship with African Americans: Politician

Important Online Works

Biography by Appleton's and Stanley L.Klos

Life Portrait of Millard Fillmore June 11, 1999

The ruling parties of the country have now flung off all disguises, and have openly and shamelessly declared war upon the only saving principles known to nations. Their platforms, adopted at Baltimore, embrace the whole slave system, as worthy of their regard and support. To expose those platforms, and to rebuke those parties, becomes the duty of every intelligent and patriotic voter in this republic.

Attacking the Whig and the Democratic parties, both of which had convened in Baltimore, Douglass stressed the lack of honesty and candor among the leading politicians of both parties that sought to gain pro-slavery votes from South and anti-slavery votes in the North. Declaring “honesty “ to be “the best policy even in dealing with slaveholders,” Douglass stated, “[U]pon this theory, the Whig slaveholders may vote for Scott, because he is on the platform, and the Whig abolitionists may vote for him because he is too good to be on the platform, and because he will cheat the South if he shall be elected.”

Frederick Douglass, the preeminent African American leader of his era, summed up the stakes in the election of 1852:

. . . There is, in this country, a system of injustice and cruelty, shocking to very sentiment of humanity a crime and scandal, making this country a hissing and a bye word to the world, and liable to the judgements of a righteous God. This stupendous iniquity, this giant crime, this murderous system is, Slavery. There is nothing to which we can liken it. It is barbarous, monstrous, and bloody. Crushed beneath this most horrible institution, are three millions of our countrymen. These are subject to the terrible inflictions of the fetter, the lash, and the chain. These suffering men and women have been held, and are now held, to gratify the pride, to indulge the indolence, to minister to the lust and pleasure of three hundred thousand slaveholders.

Fillmore's stated sympathy for enslaved blacks had little practical value for those languishing under the whip and yoke of slavery. The high value Fillmore placed on national unity was accorded far more importance than any principles he adhered to that abstractly favored a future black emancipation. His primary objective was to avoid the continual sectional disputes that might eventually spiral into a conflict that would make disunion or civil war inevitable. In this effort he was more than willing to concede key points to the slaveholders of the South. Despite this, on occasion Fillmore incurred the wrath of the southern elite as shown by the reaction to his refusal to support a plot to conquer Cuba by a group of pro-slavery adventurers.

In 1852, President Fillmore lost his bid to be nominated by his Whig Party for president to General Winfield Scott. Scott’s subsequent crushing electoral defeat marked the end of the Whig Party as a significant force in American politics and created space for a new Republican Party to emerge a few years later. Fillmore’s last message to Congress as a lame-duck was perhaps his most important one. Fearing both the disintegration of national unity and the vengeance of African Americans, he urged bold steps to avert catastrophe predicting a bloody racial revolution in American similar to that which had transpired six decades earlier in Santo Domingo if blacks were not expelled from the nation. The outgoing president advocated colonization to stave off a future racial civil war, recommending shipping 100,000 blacks per year from America to the Caribbean or Africa. The subsequent shortage of labor could be resolved by immigration from Asia.

Garrison condemned President Fillmore and his legacy:

But for him there had been no merciless slave hunters prowling through the North for their prey, carrying consternation and unutterable anguish into every negro family, rendering insecure every free colored person as well as every veritable fugitive, and compelling a heart breaking exodus of multitudes to a foreign territory and an inhospitable clime. But for him there had been no pitiless Slave Commissioners, before whom the kidnappers could bring their impious claims, and, through intimidation, bribery, favoritism or summary authority, secure an approving verdict, and drag their terror stricken victims to torture, stripes and hopeless bondage . . .

By the culmination of the Fillmore administration, the nation and its political elite in particular, were hungry for peace and stability and weary over the constant crises over slavery. The situation only worsened, however, during the administration of Franklin Pierce as the nation was more polarized than ever. Zealous defenders of slavery pushed through the Kansas-Nebraska Act neutralizing the Missouri Compromise of 1820. This 1854 legislation threw open the land north of the old 36 30 line of demarcation to slaveholders outraging opponents of slavery’s expansion. Soon President Pierce would condone the undemocratic pro-slavery practices of the Kansas settlers in 1856 deepening the sense of crisis.