Published January 9, 2018
UB and community partners gathered Friday at the gravesite of Millard Fillmore for the annual ceremony honoring the university’s first chancellor and the nation’s 13th president. But this year’s commemoration in Forest Lawn Cemetery differed significantly from those of previous years.
For in addition to celebrating Fillmore’s founding role in many of Buffalo’s greatest civic institutions, much of the ceremony focused on his signing of the Fugitive Slave Act as president in 1850, and the suffering that law caused among African-Americans.
“Fillmore’s legacy is critically important in light of contemporary debates about slavery,” said William J. Regan, director of special events at UB and host of the ceremony marking Fillmore’s 218th birthday on Jan. 7. “As students and citizens across the nation weigh the merits of the historical legacies that conflict with contemporary norms of equity and inclusion, an informed understanding of Millard Fillmore’s career is more important than ever.”
The proceedings included a wreath-laying at Fillmore’s gravesite, conducted in zero-degree cold. Later, Fillmore’s mixed legacy was addressed by Carole Emberton, associate professor of history, and the Rev. Joan Montagnes of the Unitarian Universalist Church in speeches delivered in Forest Lawn's Margaret L. Wendt Archival and Research Center.
Also present were representatives from 11 local civic institutions that Fillmore helped found or foster: the Buffalo History Museum, Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, The Buffalo Club, Buffalo Public Schools, Buffalo Science Museum, Buffalo General Medical Center, Hodgson Russ LLP and SPCA Serving Erie County, as well as the Unitarian Universalist Church and UB.
Ceremonies honoring Fillmore, who was chancellor of UB from 1847 until his death in 1874, have been held in Forest Lawn since 1937. UB has led the commemoration since 1965.
Fillmore, a four-term congressman from Western New York, rose to the vice presidency of the United States in 1848 with the election of Zachary Taylor. When Taylor died two years later, Fillmore became president of a country riven by the question of slavery.
In an effort to head off the secession of pro-slavery states and a civil war, he signed a series of measures called the Compromise of 1850, which guaranteed the continued existence of slavery in the South and its potential spread to newly acquired territories. One of the measures, the Fugitive Slave Act, penalized officials who did not arrest runaway slaves, made it a federal crime for any citizen to assist a runaway and prohibited accused fugitive slaves from contesting their capture in court.
Fillmore signed the laws even though he was personally opposed to slavery. As a young attorney in Buffalo, he had even defended an accused fugitive slave against extradition to the South.
“Today,” Montagnes said in her invocation, “we cannot evade Fillmore’s decision to compromise when his moral compass pointed elsewhere.”
Emberton spoke about the effect of the Fugitive Slave Act on the approximately 900 blacks living in Buffalo in the 1850s. At least two were extradited to the South, where they were enslaved.
“We’re all grateful for the great contributions that Millard Fillmore has made to our society here in Buffalo,” Emberton said. “But it’s also a great opportunity to think about aspects of his legacy that we’re less proud of.”
Presidential historians place Fillmore near the bottom in rankings of the nation’s chief executives, largely because the Compromise of 1850 strengthened slavery and ultimately failed to prevent the Civil War. However, in Buffalo he is held in high esteem for his remarkable civic engagement, and previous commemorations have focused on this facet of his accomplishments, with brief reference to the Fugitive Slave Act.
But this year’s ceremony was a departure, part of a general reassessment of historical figures in the context of human and civil rights that, among other things, has seen the removal of Confederate statues in Southern cities. Emberton called Friday’s event at Forest Lawn another “moment in our own national history” when Americans are confronting “contested legacies.”
Regan, who has hosted several Fillmore commemorations, said it is appropriate for UB to play a leading role in reappraising Fillmore’s legacy in the context of slavery. “This is the first time it was addressed so directly,” he said after Friday’s ceremony.
“Building an inclusive future requires a nuanced understanding of the past.”
The Compromise of 1850 delayed the Civil War by 10 years. If there had been war in 1850, the South would have won, seceded and slavery persisted. In 1861 the North could economically and militarily prosecute its cause.
Reappraising legacies is one thing, revisionism another. One must confront unpalatable fact. No 1850 compromise meant secession and civil war in 1850.
Fillmore had to choose between the Union and maintaining an evil. His leadership must be seen in its historical context. Fillmore made an unpopular decision that he knew would end his career. The U.S. owes its existence to him. He was a patriot of the first order. No one denies he was also a very able administrator.
How this makes him the worst president confounds me.
Historical context from Lachlan Williams is appreciated! Those of us in the engineering professions do not have enough opportunities to learn about these political nuances.
Robert E Baier
Bravo to Bill Regan for selecting Professor Carole Emberton, a prominent historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, as the UB speaker at the Millard Fillmore commemoration this year.
As noted by Mr. Regan, it is appropriate and certainly timely for the university to contribute to "a nuanced understanding of the past." Professor Emberton offered an appropriately balanced view of Millard Fillmore's legacy, happily free of the usual platitudes that, with few exceptions, have been offered up on this annual occasion.