Millard Fillmore, of Buffalo, became the second Vice-President to ascend to the Presidency after a death in office. Like his predecessor, Zachary Taylor, Fillmore believed in the Whig ideal that Congress should lead, not the President. But unlike Taylor, Fillmore didn’t try to stop the Compromise of 1850 from going through.
Privately against slavery, Fillmore believed that eliminating slavery would cause economic ruin. Therefore, he believed the Compromise was necessary. Cotton was king and Southern agriculture (of course using slave labor) accounted for 60% of the country’s exports.
Northern abolitionists were pushing to keep slavery out of all the territory added after the Mexican War and Oregon Treaty. Their demands inflamed debate in Congress. The Compromise of 1850 seemed to calm the tensions between the north and south by giving each something they wanted. A plan was put in place for the unorganized territory added by the Mexican Cession as the New Mexico and Utah Territories would use popular sovereignty to decide if they’d be admitted as free or slave when they were organized and ready for statehood. The north got California admitted as a free state. And the south got a law to help them try to stop the flow of runaway slaves north. This was the Fugitive Slave Act.
The Fugitive Slave Act was met with a huge backlash in the north. The law made it the legal responsibility of everyone to report, capture and return runaway slaves. Designed to stop the Underground Railroad, most northerners saw the law as a huge infringement on their rights. Before the law, most northerners were somewhat ambivalent to slavery. After it, most became suspicious of the institution. And it caused some people became actively involved in fighting it. The Whig party refused to nominate Fillmore for re-election because he signed the Fugitive Slave Act.
The Act inspired a northern school teacher to write a novel depicting the brutality of slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe, an abolitionist, published Uncle Tom’s Cabin (or the Life of the Lowly) in 1852 and it became an instant best seller. The book further galvanized abolitionists and the defenders of slavery alike. More importantly, it exposed many northern readers (as well as international ones) to the cruel realities of the “peculiar institution,” swaying more opinions against slavery’s expansion into the territories. And Southerners decried the book as fabrication and distortions of reality, cooked up by abolitionists seeking to destroy their entire way of life.
Fillmore is also remembered for ordering the United States Navy under Commodore Matthew Perry to “open” Japan. The Japanese, intensely isolationist to this point, were forced to accept a letter from Fillmore, asking them to begin trade with the United States. Though sent during Fillmore’s Presidency, Perry delivered the letter after the beginning of Franklin Pierce’s administration. Perry returned the next year with an even bigger fleet to sign a treaty with the Japanese Shogun, opening trade.