Heritage Moments: The Shunning of Millard Fillmore

Jul 5, 2016

It seems hard to believe now, but Millard Fillmore, 13th president of the United States, was one of the most respected statesmen of his time, widely celebrated for his ability to find compromise. Yet that very quality would ultimately ruin his reputation -- both in the eyes of history and, long before that, in the eyes of his fellow Buffalonians.

The compromise that undid Fillmore was over slavery. He was personally opposed to it. As a young lawyer he defended, pro bono, a man accused of being a fugitive slave and facing return to his “owner,” Fillmore saying it was “his duty to help the poor fugitive.” But as a U.S. president trying to head off the bloodshed of a civil war, Fillmore tried to find a middle way that would stop the spread of slavery while preserving it for Southerners.

“God knows that I detest slavery,” Fillmore said, “but it is an existing evil, and we must endure it and give it such protection as is guaranteed by the Constitution.”* How he implemented that compromise led many Buffalonians to hate him.

Fillmore’s steady rise to prominence took place entirely within the orbit of Western New York. In 1828, at age 28, he was elected to the state assembly and sponsored the law that abolished debtors’ prisons in New York. In 1832 Western New Yorkers sent him to the House of Representatives, where he served four terms. In 1846 he helped found the University of Buffalo and became its first chancellor. In 1847 he was elected New York State comptroller, and during his brief tenure modernized the state banking system. In 1848 the national Whig Party nominated him for vice president. When Zachary Taylor won the election, Fillmore stood a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Taylor died in July 1850, and Fillmore took over as president of a nation wracked by crisis and the looming threat of civil war. Southerners wanted slavery established in the territories gained in the recent Mexican War; Northerners wanted slavery prohibited in the new territories. The country was split, and rebellion was in the air.

Fillmore’s solution was to sign off on what became known as the Compromise of 1850. Its main provisions: California would be admitted as a free state, the territories of Utah and New Mexico would vote on whether to allow slavery and – the most controversial measure of all – a new Fugitive Slave Law made it a crime not to aid in the apprehension of runaway slaves. After all, Fillmore reasoned, slavery, however abhorrent, was guaranteed by the Constitution, and slaveholders had the right to their property.

Sallie Holley was one of many in Buffalo outraged by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, part of President Fillmore’s compromise meant to head off a civil war. She quit the First Unitarian Church, Fillmore’s congregation, in protest, and went on to a long career as an abolitionist and proponent of civil rights.
Credit Lithograph from the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

In the North, abolitionists and moderates alike were outraged at what they called the “bloodhound law.” It made them criminally liable for not actively taking part in capturing fugitive slaves, even if they were not part of the Underground Railroad aiding black men and women seeking freedom in Canada. They blamed Fillmore. 

The president was still a member of the Unitarian Church on Franklin and Eagle streets, which he helped found almost 20 years earlier. The church and its pastor, George W. Hosmer, were opposed to slavery, as was Fillmore on a personal level. But one fellow congregant, a 32-year-old Oberlin College student and American Anti-Slavery Society activist named Sallie Holley, could not stomach the idea of Fillmore’s presence there.

“I cannot consent,” she wrote to Reverend Hosmer, “that my name shall stand on the books of a church which will countenance voting for any pro-slavery presidential candidate. Think of a woman-whipper and a baby-stealer being countenanced as a Christian! My anti-slavery sentiments burn stronger and stronger.” With that, she quit the congregation.

Holley was not the only person in Buffalo who felt that way about the city’s most prominent citizen.

“Wherever the friends of the negro were at work on Underground lines, Mr. Fillmore was denounced in most intemperate terms,” the great Niagara Frontier historian Frank Severance wrote in 1899. “In his home city of Buffalo, some who had hitherto prided themselves upon his distinguished acquaintance, estranged themselves from him, and on his return to Buffalo he found cold and formal treatment from people whom he had formerly greeted as friends. Insults were offered him; and the changed demeanor of many of his townsmen showed itself even in the church which he attended.”

Fillmore lost his bid for the Whig nomination in 1852, and the party broke up over North-South lines. He would go on to do much more for his hometown. He was a leading force behind establishing Buffalo General Hospital, the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, the Fine Arts Academy (now the Albright-Knox Art Gallery) and the Buffalo Club. But in 1856 he took one last stab at national politics and ran unsuccessfully for president as standard bearer of the Know-Nothing Party, even though he disagreed with its anti-immigrant platform. That penchant for pushing aside his personal principles was, unfortunately, typical of Fillmore.

After Holley quit the Unitarian congregation (the building still stands today, at 110 Franklin Street), she continued her abolitionist work right through the Civil War. In 1868 she and her lifelong companion, Caroline Putnam, founded the Holley School in Northumberland County, Virginia, dedicated to offering educational opportunities to black Virginians. Despite the hostility of local whites, Holley continued to live and work at the school until her death in 1893 – her life a counterpoint to that of Fillmore, another Buffalonian caught up in the whirlwind of slavery and equal rights.

* The most comprehensive biography of Fillmore is Millard Fillmore by Robert J. Scarry.  

Cast (in order of appearance):

Sallie Holley: Lisa Ludwig

Narrator: Susan Banks

Sound recording: Omar Fetouh (WBFO)

Sound editing: Micheal Peters (WBNY, Buffalo State)

Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)

Performed by Aaron Dai

Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project

Written by Jeff Z. Klein

Assistant producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Casting: Darleen Pickering Hummert (Pickering Hummert Casting, 234 Carmel Rd., Buffalo)

Special thanks to:

Brian Meyer, WBFO news director

Nick Lippa, WBNY general manager, 2015-16 academic year

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)