History of the United States
Volume III


Chapter XIII
Administrations of Taylor and Fillmore, 1849-1853

The new President was a Virginian by birth, a Kentuckian by breeding, a soldier by profession. In 1808 he left the farm to accept a commission in the army. During the war of 1812 he distinguished himself in the Northwest, especially in defending Fort Harrison against the Red men. In the Seminole War he bore a conspicuous part, but earned his greatest renown in Mexico. His reputation, though strictly military, was enviable, and his character above reproach. His administration began with a violent agitation on the question of slavery in the territories; California, the El Dorado of the West, was the origin of the dispute.

In his first message President Taylor expressed his sympathy with the Californians, and advised them to form a State government preparatory to admission into the Union. The advice was promptly accepted. A convention of delegates was held at Monterey in September of 1849. A constitution prohibiting slavery was framed, submitted to the people, and adopted with but little opposition. Peter H. Burnet was elected governor of the Territory; members of a general assembly were chosen; and on the 20th of December, 1849, the new government ws organized at San Jose. At the same time a petition in the usual form was forwarded to Congress asking for the admission of California as a State.

The presentation of the petition was the signal for a bitter controversy. As in the case of the admission of Missouri, the members of Congress, and to a great extent the people, were sectionally divided. But now the position of the parties was reversed; the proposition to admit the new State was favored by the representatives of the North and opposed by those of the South. The ground of the opposition was that with the extension of the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific the right to introduce slavery into California was guaranteed by the general government, and that therefore the proposed constitution of the State ought to be rejected. The reply of the North was that the argument could apply only to a part of the new State, that the Missouri Compromise had respect only to the Louisiana Purchase, and that the people of California had framed their constitution in their own way. Such was the issue; and the debates drew more and more violent, until the stability of the Union was seriously endangered.

Other exciting questions added fuel to the controversy. Texas claimed New Mexico as a part of her territory, and the claim was resisted by the people of Santa Fe, who desired a separate government. The people of the South complained bitterly that fugitive slaves, excaping from their masters, were aided and encouraged in the North. The opponents of slavery demanded the abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia. Along the whole line of controversy there was a spirit of suspicion, recrimination, and anger.

The illustrious Henry Clay appeared as a peacemaker. In the spring of 1850 he was appointed chairman of a committee of thirteen, to whom all the questions under discussion were referred. On the 9th of May he brought forward, as a compromise covering all the points in the dispute, the Omnibus Bill, of which the provisions were as follows: First, the admission of California as a free State; second, the formation of new States, not exceeding four in number, out of the territory of Texas, said States to permit or exclude slavery as the people should determine; third, the organization of territorial governments for New Mexico and Utah, without conditions on the question of slavery; fourth, the establishment of the present boundary between Texas and New Mexico, and the payment to the former for surrendering the latter the sum of ten million dollars from the national treasury; fifth, the enactment of a more rigorous law for the recovery of fugitive slaves; sixth, the abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia.

When the Omnibus Bill was laid before Congress, the debates began anew, and seemed likely to be interminable. While the discussion was at its height and the issue still undecided, President Taylor fell sick, and died on the 9th of July, 1850. In accordance with the provisions of the constitution, Mr. Fillmore at once took the oath of office and entered upon the duties of the presidency. A new cabinet was formed, with Daniel Webster at the head as secretary of state. Notwithstanding the death of the chief magistrate, the government moved on without disturbance.

The compromise proposed by Mr. Clay and sustained by his eloquence was at length approved by Congress. On the 18th of September the last clause was adopted, and the whole received the immediate sanction of the President. The excitement in the country rapidly abated, and the distracting controversy seemed at an end. Such was the last, and perhaps the greatest, of those pacific measures originated and carried through Congress by the genius of Henry Clay. He shortly afterward bade adieu to the Senate, and sought at his beloved Ashland a brief rest from the arduous cares of public life.

The year 1850 was marked by a lawless attempt on the part of some American adventurers to gain possession of Cuba. It was thought that the people of that island were anxious to throw off the Spanish yoke and to annex themselves to the United States. In order to encourage such a movement, General Lopez organized an expedition in the South, and on the 19th of May, 1850, effected a landing at Cardenas, a port of Cuba. But there was no uprising in his favor; neither Cubans nor Spanish soldiers joined his standard, and he was obliged to seek safety by returning to Florida. Renewing the attempt in the following year, he and his band of four hundred and eighty men were attacked, defeated, and captured by an overwhelming force of Spaniards. Lopez and the ringleaders were taken to Havana, tried, condemned, and executed.

In 1852 a serious trouble arose with England. By the terms of former treaties the coast fisheries of Newfoundland belonged exclusively to Great Britain. But outside of a line drawn three miles from the shore American fishermen enjoyed euqa rights and privileges. Now the dispute arose as to whether the line should be drawn from one headland to another so as to give all the bays and inlets to England, or whether it should be made to conform to the irregularities of the coast. Under the latter construction American fishing vessels would have equal claims in the bays and harbors; but this privilege was denied by Great Britain, and the quarrel rose to such a height that both nations sent men-of-war to the contested waters. But reason triumphed over passion, and in 1854 the difficulty was happily settled by negotiation; the right to take fish in any of the bays of the British possessions was conceded to American fishermen.

During the summer of 1852 the celebrated Hungarian patriot Louis Kossuth made the tour of the United States. Austria and Russia had united against his native land and overthrown her liberties. He came to plead the cause of Hungary before the American people, and to obtain such aid as might be furnished to his oppressed countrymen. Everywhere he was received with expressions of sympathy and goodwill. His mission was only partially successful, as the long established policy of the United States forbade the government to interfere on behalf of the Hungarian patriots.

About this time the attention of the American people was directed in a special manner to explorations in the Arctic Ocean. In 1845 Sir John Franklin, one of the bravest of English seamen, went on a voyage of discovery to the extreme North. He believed in the possibility of passing through an open polar sea into the Pacific. Years went by, and no tidings came from the daring sailor. It was only known that he had passed the country of the Esquimaux. Other expeditions were dispatched in search, but returned without success. Henry Grinnell, a wealthy merchant of New York, fitted out several vessels at his own expense, put them under command of Lieutenant De Haven, and sent them to the North; but in vain. The government came to Mr. Grinnell's aid. In 1853 a new Arctic suadron was equipped, the command of which was given to Dr. Elisha Kent Kane; but the expedition, though rich in scientific results, returned without the discovery of Franklin.

During the administrations of Taylor and Fillmore the country was called to mourn the loss of many distinguished men. On the 31st of March, 1850, Senator John C. Calhoun, of South Carolina, passed away. His death was much lamented, especially in his own State, to whose interests he had devoted the energies of his life. His earnestness and zeal and powers of debate have placed him in the front rank of American statesmen. At the age of sixty-eight he fell from his place like a scarred oak of the forest, never to rise again. Then followed the death of the President; and then, on the 28th of June, 1852, Henry Clay, having fought his last battle, sank to rest. On the 24th of the following October the illustrious Daniel Webster died at his home at Marshfield, Massachusetts. The place of secretary of state, made vacant by his death, was conferred on Edward Everett.

As Fillmore's administration drew to a close the political parties again marshaled their forces. Franklin Pierce, of New Hampshire, appeared as the candidate of the Democratic party, and General Winfield Scott as the choice of the Whigs. The great question before the country was the Compromise Act of 1850. But the parties, instead of being divided, were for once agreed as to the wisdom of that measure. Both the Whig and Democratic platforms stoutly reaffirmed the justice of the Omnibus Bill, by which the dissensions of the country had been quieted. A third party arose, however, whose members, both Whigs and Democrats, doubted the wisdom of the compromise of 1850, and declared that all the Territories of the United States ought to be free. John P. Hale, of New Hampshire, was put forward as the candidate of this Free Soil party. Mr. Pierce was elected by a large majority, and William R. King, of Alabama, was chosen Vice-President.


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