Thursday, June 16, 2011

"Millard Fillmore" by Paul Finkleman

Millard Fillmore is one of the least studied of the US Presidents. Yet, the years in which he served were marked by some of the main decisions and mistakes, that would lead to the Civil War. By 1844 the Whig Party was just about finished. The divisions in the country had become so sharply defined concerning slavery, that a new Party was formed. It was called the American Party, or the American Anti Catholic Party, and later on the Know Nothings. This is interesting in that the political situation in America today is almost the same. The biggest difference is that instead of the Know Nothing Party, today we have the Tea Party.

Millard Fillmore was not opposed to slavery, nor to it's expansion into the new territories and states. This was a most highly charged issue, which arose from the Founding Father's neglect to abolish slavery, leaving it, like today's National Debt, swinging in the wind for future generations to tackle. The band aids of the Missouri Compromise, and the Fugitive Slave Act, among others, merely served to stoke the flames of discontent that would eventually erupt into a full blown conflict which still defines our nation today.

Some of the most interesting parts of this book concern my own native state of New York, and New York City in particular. Governor Seward, who would later go on to purchase Alaska from Russia during the Lincoln Administration, repealed the 1799 Nine Months Law, which allowed Southerners visiting the free state of New York, to bring their servants with them, and then take them home again, like property. After 1841 this law was no longer valid. There were many free states who were beginning to ignore the Constitutional requirement to honor the laws of the Southern States where slavery was concerned. (The Full Faith and Credit stautes, under Artcle 4 in the Constitution, required that they do so.)

In 1852, while Fillmore was in the White House, New York freed 8 slaves who had been locked up overnight in a hotel room while their owner waited for a ship. This case was known as Lemmon vs. the People. During this same time, Governor Seward refused to extradite 3 Seaman who helped a slave stowaway aboard their ship, landing in New York. Virginia took the position that the slave was stolen, and that the 3 men had aided and abetted in this crime. New York took the position that human beings are not property and hence no crime was committed. When rebuked by the State of Virginia, Seward skillfully argued that Virginia's own stance on States Rights applied to New York as well, and since New York did not recognize slavery, there could be no extradition. Virginia withdrew it's claim.

A very thoroughly researched book, this is a must read in understanding just how we got to the tragedy of the Civil War, and how it still affects us as a nation today. Filled with the type of history not taught in school, this book further proves the assertion that "the only thing new is the history you don't know."

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