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Millard Fillmore: “America deserves good shit”.

9 January 2019

I’m afraid I got tied up yesterday with preparing to move yesterday, and completely missed Millard Fillmore’s 219th birthday.  FIllmore, born in a log cabin on the edge of civilization (in the Finger Lakes of New York), a self-educated lawyer, and frontier politician.  As a Whig member of the 30th United States Congress (1846) he was a leader in his party’s opposition to the Mexican War.  Like the freshman congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, opposition to the war would cost Fillmore his seat, but… like Lincoln… he would emerge from defeat to become President of the United States.

Fillmore, chosen as his party’s Vice-Presidential candidate not only to balance the Whig ticket geographically (the Presidential Candidate, Zachary Taylor, was from Lousiana; Fillmore… about as far from Lousisiana as you can get, called Buffalo, New York his home) but also ideologically (Taylor was the hero of that unheroic war in Mexico, and opposed slavery, whereas FIllmore … to his discredit… was neutral on the subject) when Taylor was felled by a bowl of cherries (9 July 1850).

Fillmore’s has a reputation as one of the worst U.S. presidents, mostly because he signed the Fugitive Slave Act (which, somewhat like laws proposed today requiring local governments to assist in tracking down “illegal aliens”, required local governments in free states to assist in returning escaped slaves to their owners in other states), but is being reassessed based on his administration’s foreign policy successes.

Although the actual transfer of the almost 30,000 square miles of what is now southern Arizona and New Mexico did not take effect until after he left office, Fillmore does get the credit for seeing through the diplomatic initiatives that led to the The Gadsden Purchase.  As Santa Anna, who was the Mexican president who approved the sale, noted, there was a very real danger of the region becoming another Texas — overrun with U.S. squatters who would simply seize the region, and as much of the surrounding area as they could — and Mexico was broke after the US invasion a few years earlier.  That the 10 million dollars for what was then seen as marginally worthless desert was seen as “too generous” by Fillmore’s opponents, but on the other hand, the United States’ mere 17 million for the third of Mexico seized during the war was more symbolic than anything else… writing down “debts” supposedly owed the United States (for supporting Mexico’s own invasion).  That the 10 million is said to have disappeared into Santa Anna’s pockets is another story altogether.  At least it avoided another war and put some ready cash back into Mexico.

Fillmore’s term also saw the United States opening relations with Japan (the first “western” nation to do so since the 17th century) and, something of an anomaly in U.S. history, he sought to treat the governments to the south of the United States as the south as equals and partners.  His administration took a particularly dim view of “filibustros”… those free-lance practicioners of “Manifest Destiny” who sought to grab chunks of usually Mexico, but Central America was also a favored target… going so far as to apologize to the Mexican government for William Walker’s crack-pot scheme to set up the Republic of Sonora (which was never able to get into Sonora for more than a few days, though it lasted in Baja California for a week or two) and to state that, as policy, the United States had no designs on Mexican territory.

He devoted a good portion of his first”state of the Union” address to South American affairs, particularly those of Peru and Chile?  Why?  The British, Spanish, and French were all vying to control the governments of those nations, seeking the most important new commodity on the market… guano.  Peru and Chile had the best guano deposits in the world.  Ever since Alexander von Humbolt had alerted Europeans to the value of bird shit as a fertilizer (and better yet, as a source of nitrates for explosives… useful stuff in a continent addicted to blowing up their neighbors on a regular basis) there’d been a shit-rush of interest in acquiring guano.

The British, French, and Spanish were, by 1850, worried as much about a “guano gap” as the U.S. and Soviets worried about the “missile gap” a century later.  The United States was a guano crazed as any other up and coming power (and it would need that nitrates for explosives the following decade when everything went ot shit) and, in a fit of guano-mania mixed with a dose of Manifest Destiny, the Senate passed a bill automatically annexing any island covered with bird crap not claimed by some other country as part of the United States.  Wisely, FIllmore never gave any support to the bill, and it quietly died.  But, with Chile and Peru the primary guano suppliers of the time, and the Brits, French, and Spanish doing everything they could to subvert the two governments and impose administrations more amiable to their country’s own guano buyers (which would lead to the first great proxy war for resources, the South Pacific War — involving Chile, Bolivia, and Peru… as standins for Spain and England), the United States for the brief few years of Fillmore’s presidency, approached the guano supplying nations with open offers to buy.  Not so shitty a free trade agreement, considering such agreements usually involved gunboats in the harbors of the coutries being solicited to join in those days.

Maybe because he focused his energy on foreign affairs, or more likely because of the Fugitive Slave Act, Fillmore as not even nominated to run for a full term of his own.  WIth the Whigs in northern states being absorbed into the new Republican Party, he attemped a comeback via the American Party, the “know-nothings” (his defenders say he wasn’t so much anti-Catholic or anti-immigrant as he was just looking for an alternative for southern Whigs and others outside the dominant Democratic Party, and not comfortable with the Republican’s “radical” abolishionist wing).

Out of politics, he shuffled off to Buffalo… about the only place that remembers him and that brief shining moment when an American President stood up and defended the shit-holes.

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