Millard Fillmore / Millard Fillmore - Key Events

Millard Fillmore - Key Events

Zachary Taylor dies

President Zachary Taylor dies suddenly of cholera at the age of 55. Vice President Millard Fillmore is slated to assume the duties of the presidency.

Millard Fillmore inaugurated

Judge William Cranch administers the executive oath to Millard Fillmore, making Fillmore the nation's thirteenth President. Knowing that Fillmore's sympathies lie with the proposed congressional compromise, regarding the number of free and slave states, Zachary Taylor's cabinet resigns unanimously. Fillmore responds by appointing pro-Union, pro-compromise Whigs, including Daniel Webster as secretary of state, to his cabinet.

Fillmore supports Compromise of 1850

Fillmore announces his support of the compromise. He sends a message to Congress recommending that (1) Texas be paid to abandon claims to part of New Mexico and (2) that the Wilmot Proviso, which states that all land acquired from the Mexican War be closed to slavery, be overturned.

California becomes a state

As one of the recommendations of the compromise, California enters the Union as the thirty-first state. As a “free” state, its admittance gives non-slaveholding states a majority in the Senate. Simultaneously, the Texas and New Mexico Act establishes boundaries between the two. As a concession to the South, New Mexico's status -- free or slaveholding -- will be dependent on how its constitution reads at the time of admittance to the Union. Similarly, the Utah Act decides boundaries of Utah according to the principles governing New Mexico.

Fugitive Slave Bill

Congress passes the Fugitive Slave Bill, prohibiting individuals from aiding runaway slaves, and threatening fines and imprisonment to those who do. Escaped slaves will be returned to their owners, denied a jury trial, and prevented from testifying on their own behalf. Part of the Compromise of 1850 and an attempt to ease tensions within the fractious nation, the bill is a concession to the South but angers many Northerners.

Fillmore Signs Fugitive Slave Act

On September 18, 1850, President Millard Fillmore signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act, which enacted strict provisions for returning runaway slaves to their owners.

The act was part of the Compromise of 1850, which was designed to ease sectional conflict between the North and South, but the inclusion of the Fugitive Slave Law made that nearly impossible. Southerners and their allies in Congress designed the Fugitive Slave Law to end Northern interference in the capture and return of fugitive slaves. The law decreed that runaway slaves apprehended anywhere in the United States had to be returned to their masters if new federally appointed commissioners decided that they were in fact fugitive slaves. It denied any due process to such slaves and allowed authorities to arrest African American suspects and return them to slave territory–whether the arrested person was an actual slave or not. Finally, it empowered federal marshals to enforce the law. The Fugitive Slave Law also cited severe penalties for noncompliance.

The Fugitive Slave Act ignited a firestorm of protest across the North from both activists and the general public. Many Northerners who had previously paid little attention to slavery became stanch opponents after the passage of the law. Most importantly, the act greatly increased sectional animosities and renewed interest in antislavery politics in the North in the 1850s.

Fillmore personally opposed slavery but signed the Fugitive Slave Law for two reasons. First, he believed the South would secede if its demands, including a fugitive slave law, were not met. Second, Fillmore believed he could use the Compromise to unite the Whig Party behind a single national platform. Fillmore, a Whig from New York, tried to press other Northern Whigs to support the Compromise and the Fugitive Slave Law. He worked to prevent Northern Whigs who opposed the Fugitive Slave Law from winning elections and used his patronage powers to appoint pro-Fugitive Slave Law political allies to federal office.

While Fillmore's support for the Compromise of 1850 helped stall the Southern secessionist movement, his efforts to unite the Whigs behind the Compromise failed, in large part because of the Fugitive Slave Law. Antislavery Whigs, who thought the law unjust, refused to support Fillmore for President in the 1852. The Fugitive Slave Law, moreover, only deepened existing, and eventually fatal, divides within the Whig Party over slavery.

Compromise of 1850 passes

Congress passes the Compromise of 1850, written by Kentucky senator Henry Clay. California is admitted as a free state, the Utah and New Mexico territories are to be organized on the principle of “popular sovereignty,” and the slave trade is to be abolished in Washington, D.C. The deal settles the issue of slavery in the newly acquired territories, dividing the country along the thirty-seventh parallel, with slavery in the South and free states in the North. Northern “irreconcilables” refuse to forgive Fillmore for the act, catalyzing the sectionalism afflicting the United States.

Brigham Young becomes governor

President Fillmore names Brigham Young, president of the Mormon Church, governor of the Utah territory. From 1846 to 1847, Young leads thousands of disciples from Illinois to the central Utah valley, where he establishes Salt Lake City, the site for the Church's new temple. With hundreds of new arrivals each year, Young founds scores of colonies to provide the inhabitants with homes and land; at his death in 1877, nearly 400 Mormon colonies exist. Serving as governor until 1857, Young clashes with the “outside” federal employees who oppose many of the Church's stances.

National women's rights convention

Headed by feminists and abolitionists, a national women's rights convention is held in Worcester, Massachusetts, and is attended by delegates from nine states. Chosen for its accessibility by rail, the Worcester convention attracts hundreds of people. Among the main topics, participants discuss employment opportunities, political and legal rights, property rights after marriage, and educational opportunities for women, especially in medicine.

Treaty with El Salvador

Acting on long-held interest in gaining influence in Central America, the United States ratifies its first commercial treaty with El Salvador.

Three-cent pieces

The coinage of three-cent pieces, the smallest coin in weight and thickness ever issued, begins to facilitate postal payments.

Uncle Tom's Cabin published

Appearing in serialized form, the first installment of Uncle Tom's Cabin (or Life Among the Lowly), by Harriet Beecher Stowe, is published in the National Era; the book form appears in 1852. Coupled with Northern anger over the Fugitive Slave Bill, this book generates more support for abolitionist causes. Years later, President Abraham Lincoln will call Stowe “the little lady who caused the Civil War.” By 1853, with more than 300,000 copies of Uncle Tom's Cabin sold, the novel becomes a play in New York; it is dramatized by George Aiken and runs for more than 100 nights. Southerners denounce the work while Northerners embrace it as a true depiction of slavery.

Gold discovered in Oregon

Gold is found in Oregon along the Rogue River, a prospective new territory for the California gold rushers of 1849. The discovery leads to the arrival of thousands of individuals in search of the metal.

Moby Dick published

The first American edition of Melville Herman's Moby Dick is published. The work does not become widely accepted for another seventy years.

Uncle Tom's Cabin Published

On March 20, 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin: or, Life among the Lowly, an antislavery novel written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, was first published as a book. It initially appeared in serial form in National Era, an abolitionist newspaper, from June 1851 to April 1852. The novel focuses on the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery by centering on the horrifying travails of the pious, Christian slave Uncle Tom. A cruel and vicious plantation owner, Simon Legree, buys Tom, and Tom's innate goodness and Christian faith repel Legree who repeatedly mistreats Tom and his other slaves. In the end, Legree orders his overseers to beat Tom severely after he refuses to reveal the hiding place of two runaway slaves. Tom dies just as his former owner arrives to buy him back.

Uncle Tom's Cabin galvanized Northern opposition to slavery in the 1850s, which was Stowe's intention; she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin in response to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which mandated the return of runaway slaves to their owners. The book appeared as the nation debated the merits of slavery, and the public's reaction was extraordinary. Its emotional appeal incensed Northerners and rallied many of them against slavery. Southerners, too, read the book, but it often evoked a different reaction. Some believed it was a fabrication, and others sought to ban it. And by inflaming public opinion concerning slavery, the novel made it much more difficult to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. Years later, Abraham Lincoln reflected on the influence of Uncle Tom's Cabin as a cause of the Civil War. According to legend, when Lincoln met Stowe, he remarked, “So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”

Stowe's portrayals of slavery and African Americans were complicated. Slavery was seen as the source of vice, cruelty, and human depravity, with Legree as its embodiment. In her main character Tom, Stowe created a humane, honorable, and brave person; Tom even forgave Legree in a final act of Christian compassion. But critics have also pointed out that the book largely reinforced 1850s-era stereotypes about African Americans. For example, Stowe portrayed only light-skinned blacks as intelligent, while characterizing dark-skinned blacks as docile and submissive. Still the book sold about 300,000 copies in 1852 alone and was a best seller throughout the 19th century.

DNC nominates Franklin Pierce

The Democratic National Convention nominates Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire for the presidency and William R. King of Alabama for the vice presidency.

Whigs nominate General Winfield Scott

The Whig National Convention nominates General Winfield Scott of New Jersey for the presidency and William Graham of North Carolina for the vice presidency. Both adhere to the strict enforcement of the Compromise of 1850.

Marx published in New York Tribune

Karl Marx, a German exile living in London, makes his first appearance in print with a series called “Revolution and Counter-Revolution,” in the New York Tribune. Over the next decade, Marx will write a series of news articles that appear in the newspaper about European events and affairs.

Democrats gain seats

In Congressional elections, Democrats gain three Senate seats for a 38-22 majority over the Whigs. The Democrats also pick up 19 seats in the House for a 159-71 majority. Meanwhile, following Pierce's election over the Whig candidate Scott, the Whig Party splits with Southern Whigs defecting and abstaining to protest the party's antislavery leadership. The emergence of both the Know-Nothing (1853) and Republican (1854) parties, coupled with the 1852 deaths of Whig leaders Henry Clay (June) and Daniel Webster (October), eventually lead to the party's demise.

Franklin Pierce elected

Franklin Pierce is elected President of the United States with William R. King as his vice president.

Washington territory formed

The territory of Washington is formed after its separation from the Oregon Territory.

Transcontinental railroad authorized

With direct rail service from New York to Chicago beginning in the previous year, Congress authorizes the transcontinental railroad survey one day prior the expiration of Fillmore's term as President. Six years later, in May 1869, the railroad is officially completed in Utah.

Pierce appoints James Campbell

Pierce's appointment of James Campbell of Pennsylvania for postmaster general marks the first Catholic cabinet officer and touches off a political storm that leads to the growing prominence of the nativist American Party (commonly referred to as the Know-Nothing Party -- in response to questions about their views, members frequently reply that they “know nothing”). Party adherents lament the numerous arrivals of immigrants, particularly Roman Catholics. Member will seek to exclude from office all who are not native-born and urges the repeal of naturalization laws. The movement enjoys success in the 1850s, most notably electing governors in Massachusetts and Delaware. The party collapses after the 1856 elections.