In January 1850, President Zachary Taylor peppered the air with language bluer than a Union uniform. He asserted that he would personally lead an army against traitors who threatened secession and would string ‘em all up with as much determination as he had demonstrated against deserters and spies during the late war with Mexico. Not one to suffer fools or pompous Whigs, Taylor refused to sign a legislative compromise that in his view pandered too much to Southern sensibilities on the issue of slavery in the newly acquired territories. Six months later, he was dead, and his successor, Millard Fillmore, eagerly signed a bill that included the fugitive slave clause and, among other things, temporarily settled territorial questions involving California and New Mexico. Fillmore boasted that the Compromise of 1850 constituted “a final settlement” of the country’s sectional problems, and then proceeded to lose the Whig nomination in 1852—and his historical reputation forever. A decade later, the country was at war.
The hapless president’s approach was neither unique nor unexpected. Indeed, from the founding of the republic to the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the institution of slavery hovered over national policy deliberations like a satanic entity, ready to scourge the continent at any provocation that hinted of sectional discord. And each time this demonic force threatened, American leaders staved it off by putting it off with that lovely process so dear to the hearts of democratic politicians: compromise.
Thus, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was followed by another one in 1850, signed by President Fillmore, which led further to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and perhaps the most despicable decision ever made by the Men in Black—Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857). By this time, the Civil War had already begun in “Bleeding Kansas,” and 70 years of procrastination, cowardice, and abdication yielded a decision that Congress had no power to do anything about—an issue that determined whether or not the “last best hope on earth” would survive. America paid dearly for all this, in a war that still ranks as the most destructive and bloodiest conflict the republic has ever experienced—all because the vast number of the people’s representatives refused to face an issue with courage and moral clarity. And symbolizing this whole sordid process stands Millard Fillmore, who, like those before him and national leaders during the decade after his term in office—Pierce, Douglas, Buchanan, for instance—declared that just one more meretricious “fix” would resolve the issue forever. Such was the lesson taught by Millard Fillmore.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and observe the brow-furrowing expressions that accompany proposals to deal with one of the worst domestic crises America has faced since Fort Sumter: a debt monster that threatens to swallow the republic in its massive maw and leave pitiful remains scattered across the North American continent like a confetti of Greeces. Government luminaries have ideas, all right; just as the framers of pre-Civil War (final settlement) compromises did, and nearly all their proposals involve the moral equivalent of punishing the slaves while leaving the institution of servitude itself intact.
For instance, both the Obama fiscal commission and the bipartisan task force, the latter chaired by Pete Domenici and Alice Rivlin, propose a wide array of spending cuts and tax increases in efforts to “reduce annual deficits to manageable levels” and to “stabilize the debt … at less than 60 percent of gross domestic product, an internationally recognized standard.”
Manageable levels? Stabilize the debt? Who’s kidding whom, here? Further, and more important, who sacrifices? The American people, the slaves, that’s who. Who or what does not sacrifice? Government; that is, a plethora of agencies and departments that should be abolished, like the IRS and the Department of Education.
It gets worse. President Obama’s deficit commission suggests a provision that would end “tax expenditures,” a term that refers to funds the government would collect, absent specific deductions. This concept is dictatorial in nature; it assumes government ownership of all social resources and considers an “expenditure” those amounts that the IRS graciously allows the private sector to keep. It is Dred Scott v. Sanford all dressed up for modern sensibilities. You want freedom? Fuggetaboutit, we own you.
In 1863, after the country had experienced a number of the most horrific battles in modern times, President Abraham Lincoln came to the realization that the war could no longer be justified on the basis of saving the Union and preventing the spread of slavery. The odious institution itself had to be abolished, which it was with the Emancipation Proclamation. In short, the Fillmore option was dead.
The same conclusion applies today. America needs a Lincoln, not another committee of Fillmores.