The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Remembering the sins of Millard Fillmore

A little-remembered president's most notorious act.

Millard Fillmore’s role in passing the Fugitive Slave Act had major consequences for his home town of Buffalo. (Associated Press)
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Although the anniversary of the birth of one of America’s least-remembered presidents will go unnoticed by most of the country, the city of Buffalo will honor its favorite son in ways that sometimes border on the bizarre, as CBS correspondent Mo Rocca discovered in 2014. Braving frigid temperatures, representatives from the city’s leading cultural institutions will gather at Millard Fillmore’s graveside to lay wreaths and ponder his legacy.

They will linger over his time in office as well as his role in founding the University of Buffalo, where Fillmore served as chancellor until his death in 1874. But one aspect of his life usually elicits little more than a fleeting mention in this ceremony — his role in the passage of the notorious Fugitive Slave Act.

By pushing this compromise, Fillmore capitulated to the demands of the slave-holding South, fractured his party and helped set the stage for secession a decade later. But he also triggered acts of defiance among many in his home town of Buffalo — a defiance that deserves commemorating at least as much as his own actions.

This  “new and improved” law, signed  by Fillmore on Sept. 18, 1850, added radical new enforcement measures to the original Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.

State and local officials who refused to cooperate with slave owners or their agents could be penalized with hefty fines or even jail time. To give officials an incentive to comply, the act provided for monetary bonuses when a suspected fugitive was successfully returned to the South. Private citizens also could be compelled to aid in the rendition process on penalty of imprisonment and fines.

A bounty hunter needed only to present an affidavit to a designated federal magistrate authorizing him to act on the behalf of his client to claim a person as a fugitive. The accused had no right to trial or to speak on his or her own behalf. As a result, the act nullified the doctrine of habeas corpus, at least as it applied to African Americans. Even freeborn blacks now faced the prospect of legalized kidnapping from the “Bloodhound Law,” as it was called in the abolitionist press.

Despite the outcries from constituents within his own party, Fillmore supported the bill as a potential end-run around the perennial threats of secession upon which Southern Democrats had come to rely to receive congressional protections for slavery.

An infrastructure-loving Whig to the core, Fillmore hated slavery only to the extent that it detracted from his modernizing agenda. With Southerners pacified, the president hoped to gain their support for various Whig economic policies and move the country toward more important issues. At least that’s how he saw the issue of slavery: a distraction from the real work of American politics.

So he worked to pass the Fugitive Slave Act to do just that. To ensure the bill’s passage, Fillmore cajoled his colleagues, threatening to withhold his (and thus the party’s) endorsement from Whig congressmen who did not come aboard the compromise train. He even threatened to send federal troops to put down protests against the bill in cities such as Philadelphia. Hostage to Southerners’ ever-increasing demands, Fillmore was determined to see the Fugitive Slave Act enforced.

The compromise, however, tore apart the Whig Party, ultimately costing Fillmore the party’s nomination in 1852. After the party splintered, Fillmore found a place with the nativist American Party, commonly known as the Know-Nothings. Anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic, the Know-Nothings represented a particularly virulent form of white nationalism in an era defined by it. Fillmore accepted their nomination in 1856.

Sounding a refrain that we commonly hear today from politicians allied with nativist populist movements, Fillmore denied that he himself hated immigrants or Catholics — a significant number of whom populated his home town of Buffalo. But he revealed once and for all that, at the very least, he had no problem allying with rabid bigots if it would further his political and policy goals.

Despite his protestations, Fillmore’s actions reverberated among free African Americans in his home town. Buffalo was uniquely endangered by the new law. As a terminus of the Underground Railroad, the city had harbored runaway slaves for decades as they made their way to nearby Canada.

On several occasions in the 1830s and ’40s, locals had helped fugitive slaves elude bounty hunters, in some instances liberating captives by force and ferrying them across the Niagara River to St. Catherines, Ontario, where a sizable community of former slaves waited. The Fugitive Slave Act directly challenged Buffalonians: Would they follow the newly passed national law, one signed by their favorite son-turned-president? Or would they continue to harbor fugitives seeking refuge in their city?

Both, as it turned out. In August 1851, a judge refused to comply with the act and issued a writ of habeas corpus for a captured runaway from Kentucky named Daniel Davis, allowing him to escape before the slave-catcher could challenge the ruling.

Others were not so fortunate. The 17-year-old Harrison Williams ran away from slavery in Virginia to find a home and work on a farm near the small village of Busti just south of Buffalo, where he worked alongside several other fugitives who were hired by the Storums, a free black family. When Virginia slave-catchers arrived in a convoy led by the local sheriff, acting in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act, they caught the boy unaware as he was milking a cow.

Although faced with a posse of no fewer than six heavily armed men, the Storum family came to Williams’s defense. The family’s grown daughter, Marinda, suffered a severe beating in the attack as she attempted to aid his escape. While they could not save Williams, they did manage to slip another fugitive out a rear door during the kerfuffle.

A small band of local abolitionists attempted to intercept the convoy and free Williams, but a federal commissioner in Buffalo allowed his captors to take him away. His master sold him in New Orleans.

Some years later, during the Civil War, a soldier from Busti encountered Williams in an army camp near Brandy Station, Va. Having once again escaped, Williams became a “contraband of war” and served in the Union Army. The Civil War offered an opportunity for enslaved men like Williams to seize their freedom and force Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

And while Williams fought for his country and his freedom, former president Fillmore was at home in Buffalo speaking out against the Lincoln administration’s emancipation policy and in favor of allowing the seceded states to return to the Union as if nothing had happened.

An estimated 100 people, including Harrison Williams, were condemned as the result of the Fugitive Slave Act. Countless others lived in fear, looking over their shoulders for the slave-catcher who might be coming for them. But resistance to the bill — and slavery generally — grew, both in Buffalo and across the country.

It is time that the city of Buffalo, and the institutions that President Millard Fillmore helped establish, look for newer, more accurate ways to commemorate his legacy. Perhaps this year, as they gather in the cold at the hilltop gravesite in Forest Lawn Cemetery, they at least will spare a moment of silence for Harrison Williams and the other fugitive slaves who once sought refuge in their city, and for the citizens who challenged the very decree Fillmore signed.