On the expanding list of canceled honors for the perpetrators of slavery and racism—think Andrew Jackson, Robert E. Lee, John C. Calhoun, and Woodrow Wilson—the name Millard Fillmore is notable for its very obscurity. If the 13th president of the United States is remembered at all, it is usually as the answer to a trivia question or the punchline to a joke about historical insignificance. Nonetheless, students at the University at Buffalo (part of the State University of New York) have persuaded the administration to remove Fillmore’s name from an Academic Center that includes faculty offices, dormitories, and a theater. A son of Buffalo, Fillmore was a founder of the university and its first chancellor. He was also the president who signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. And therein lies his disgrace.
Elected vice president as a Whig in 1848, Fillmore ascended to the presidency upon the death of Zachary Taylor in 1850. At the time, the United States seemed to be verging on dissolution over the extension of slavery into territory acquired in the Mexican War. Various compromises between the free and slave states had been proposed in Congress, most recently a package of bills sponsored by Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky. President Taylor had opposed the compromise as too favorable to the “Slave Power,” but Fillmore embraced it.
The most infamous provision of the Compromise of 1850 was the enhancement of the Fugitive Slave Act, first signed by George Washington in 1793. The original act, which left enforcement up to state courts, proved unenforceable when anti-slavery sentiment increasingly developed in the North, thus leading the southern states to demand a more effective law. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 accomplished that goal by federalizing the rendition of runaways. It created a new class of U.S. commissioners to preside over summary “removal” hearings, conducted without juries and with no right of appeal. Warrants from slave states were presumptively valid, to be executed by federal marshals, and alleged fugitives were not allowed to testify in their own defense. Commissioners received a $10 fee for each decision in favor of a slaveholder, but only $5 for setting someone free.