The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War

By Michael F. Holt | Go to book overview

Chapter 17
"Fillmore . . . Is Precisely the Man for the Occasion"

"MY ONLY OBJECT IS TO save the country [and] to save the Whig party, if possible," Millard Fillmore assured Hamilton Fish on November 21, 1850. Fillmore wanted no quarrel with angry northern Whigs who vilified him. He shared their hatred of slavery. He understood their outrage at the Fugitive Slave Act, but, he explained, Whig principles regarding the veto required him to sign that deeply flawed law. Most important, because he owed his present position to his beloved Whig party and had no interest in its 1852 nomination, "I should regard any attempt on my part to divide the Whig party as suicidal." 1

Yet Fillmore's commitment to party reunification clearly had limits. Saving the country, not the Whigs, was his top priority. Northern Whigs, he believed, focused too selfishly on their own resentments and electoral fortunes. They did "not fully appreciate the dangers to which we are exposed from the South, and the infinite importance of setting an example of maintaining the Constitution in all its parts." The fugitive slave law "must be executed" and "sustained against attempts at repeal." Henceforth, he would therefore regard as good Whigs all who "sustain me in sustaining the laws." Whigs who opposed that effort were enemies of the Whig party "and would be treated accordingly." 2

By dangers from the South, Fillmore meant more than southern Whigs' electoral welfare, about which he was genuinely solicitous. As soon as Congress admitted California, hotheads in several southern states initiated formal steps toward secession. To blunt that threat, Fillmore was prepared "to bring the whole force of the government" to sustain the fugitive slave law in the North. Its determined implementation might do more than undermine popular support for secession. As Fillmore told Fish, enforcement would set an example; it would show Southerners that, if necessary, he would use force to stop secession in order to save the country. 3

This course only earned Fillmore execration from many northern Whigs, who pooh-poohed talk of secession and blamed Fillmore's needless capitulation to southern pressure for their rout at the polls in 1850. Tens of thousands of other Whigs, however, recognized that Fillmore was pro-Union, not a prosouthern doughface, and they esteemed him precisely because they took disunionism se-

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