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Vice President Millard Fillmore

An 1848 campaign poster for the Whig candidates.
An 1848 campaign poster for the Whig candidates.

Millard Fillmore spent a little over a year as Vice President of the United States. In the role, he presided over the contentious Compromise of 1850 debate. Fillmore broke with his president over the compromise. He promised to vote in its favor in the event of a tie against President Zachary Taylor's wishes. As a result, Fillmore became another vice president isolated within his own administration.

The Whigs desperately wanted to oust the incumbent Democrats and win back the White House in 1848. As a result, they turned to a strategy that proved successful in 1840. They nominated a popular war hero for president, but split on who should be the vice presidential standard bearer. Anti-slavery forces within the party supported radical William Seward, but more practical politicians held sway. The Whigs chose Millard Fillmore as Taylor's running mate. Fillmore could carry New York, was a northerner to counterbalance the southerner Taylor, and held moderate views on slavery. The Taylor-Fillmore ticket won a three-way contest.

Vice President Fillmore's first order of business was a clerk. Richard Johnson employed a clerk during his tenure, but John Tyler and George Dallas did not. Fillmore experienced eyesight problems which made it difficult to read by candlelight. In response, he requested a clerk to assist him. Democrats objected to the expenditure, but relented when Whigs cited the Johnson precedent.

Fillmore planned to do more than hire a clerk. He hoped to be a more active vice president than his predecessors. New York machine politicians worried about his potential influence. They moved against him and severely weakened his hand. Fillmore complained to Taylor, but the president pushed him to the side.

Taylor had more on his mind than New York politics. The Mexican War led to a dramatic geographic increase in America's size. Taylor decided to allow California enter the Union as a free state without the usual slave state counterbalance. Southerners howled in protest and a firestorm developed. Henry Clay put forth a compromise to allow California enter a free state. Southerners would get a tough fugitive slave law in return. Additionally, the Washington D.C. slave trade would be ended, New Mexico and Utah would enter the Union without restrictions on slavery, and Texas would surrender any claims to New Mexico. Fillmore supported the compromise while Taylor opposed.

The vice president presided over a exceedingly dangerous senate debate over the compromise. At one point, Senator Thomas Hart Benton confronted an armed Senator Henry S. Foote. Foote surrendered his weapon to a fellow senator before the debate spiraled out of control. Taylor threatened to hang southerners if they seceded from the Union. Meanwhile, Fillmore agreed to support the compromise in the event of a tie. The vice president held the tie breaking vote. This position estranged Fillmore from Taylor as the country lurched toward a crisis.

President Taylor commemorated the Fourth of July holiday listening to a conciliatory speech by Senator Foote and laying a ceremonial stone at the Washington Monument. He appeared to experience a mild heat stroke and returned to the White House for refreshments. Taylor drank iced milk, ate some strawberries, and suffered a stomach ache. The president developed acute gastroenteritis and died on July 9, 1850. Vice President Fillmore took the oath of office on July 10. Fillmore's support helped lead to the passage of the Compromise of 1850. The office of vice president remained vacant until 1853.

Millard Fillmore joined the Whig ticket because he was a northern moderate. His moderation led to estrangement with the president over the Compromise of 1850. Fillmore struggled to maintain control of a contentious senate debate over the issue. However, he signaled his support for the compromise and intention to vote in its favor in the event of a tie. Taylor's death led to its passage and entry into law under President Fillmore.

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