Vice President Fillmore was spending a sleepless night when the cabinet informed him of the president's death. He took the oath of office the following day at noon in the House of Representatives. The chamber was crowded, but Fillmore made no speech. Newspapers across the country paid tribute to Taylor. The funeral ceremony at the White House on 13 July lasted until early afternoon. Taylor's body was placed in a vault at the Congressional Burying Ground. That evening Mrs. Taylor moved out of the White House. Later the Taylor family moved the body for final burial outside Louisville, near the president's first home.
Fillmore was a man of dignity, good manners, and conciliatory disposition. He was moderately tall, somewhat portly, with attractive features and sparkling eyes. Born in Locke, New York (7 January 1800), into a family of poor farmers, Fillmore was largely self-educated and self-made. He became an apprentice to two carders and cloth dressers; both men added to his early misery. His exposure to books was so limited that at the age of seventeen he could scarcely read. He purchased a dictionary and stole occasional minutes to read it while tending his machines. After attending an academy at New Hope and studying law briefly under a local judge, Fillmore moved to Buffalo, where he entered a law firm to complete his legal preparation. In 1824 he entered the New York bar, enjoying immediate success as a lawyer. In 1826 he married Abigail Powers, the daughter of a clergyman.
In 1833, Fillmore entered the House of Representatives as a member of the Anti-Masonic-National Republican coalition, soon to merge into the new Whig party. As a three-term member of the House, he developed a reputation for reliability and devotion to Whig causes. As chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, he steered the Whig Tariff of 1842 through the House. Fillmore was a candidate for the vice presidential nomination in 1844. That year he received the Whig nomination for the governorship of New York but lost by a narrow margin. In 1847 he returned to politics as comptroller of New York. His nomination for vice president in 1848 on the second ballot met the needs of the party by adding a northerner and an old associate of Clay to the Whig ticket.
For sixteen months Taylor locked Fillmore out of his councils. The vice president had questioned the administration's effort to dispose of the territorial question by dividing the entire Mexican Cession into states and admitting them to the Union without slavery. The cabinet had proscribed Fillmore's friends and had scarcely been civil to him. With Fillmore's inauguration all members of Taylor's cabinet offered their resignations; Fillmore accepted them without hesitation. The old cabinet agreed to remain in office for one week while Fillmore organized his own administration.
The new president wanted only Whigs of national outlook in his cabinet. Webster now became secretary of state. Crittenden, having accepted the need for compromise, entered the cabinet as attorney general. William Alexander Graham of North Carolina, a staunch Whig on national issues, became secretary of the navy. Thomas Corwin, a popular Ohio Whig, became secretary of the treasury. Fillmore named his former law partner, Nathan K. Hall, as postmaster general. For secretary of war he chose Charles Magill Conrad, a sound Louisiana Whig. Ultimately the Interior Department went to Alexander H. H. Stuart, a Virginia Unionist.
With Fillmore's presidency the drift toward political chaos ended abruptly. Compromisers now controlled the government. Fillmore's cabinet appointments, all reflecting his preference for a compromise settlement, altered wholly the political climate in Washington. Northern Whig delegations that once supported Taylor now shifted to Fillmore. Southern Whigs such as Toombs and Stephens moved back into the Whig mainstream.
Clay, studying the trend, concluded that he could now push his omnibus bill through the Senate. On 29 July, Clay's committee, to strengthen the bill's appeal in the South, offered to modify the proposed Texas boundary and even encouraged southern extremists to believe that Texas would extend westward to the Rio Grande. Fillmore objected to this change and insisted on the restoration of Clay's original measure. The vote to reassert the original proposal failed. Now enemies of the bill struck out the California section, leaving ultimately only the territorial organization of Utah. Douglas' prediction that the omnibus bill would fail proved to be accurate. Clay, disappointed and exhausted, departed for Newport, Rhode Island, to recuperate by the sea.
Douglas was in control. On 3 August he predicted that the Senate would now pass the territorial measures he had reported out of committee four months earlier. By introducing the bills piecemeal, Douglas counted on varying combinations of Democratic and Whig moderates to carry them. The voting began on 9 August with the Texas boundary measure. Texas received more than Clay's committee had planned originally: it got $10 million from the federal government but conceded the Rio Grande above El Paso to New Mexico. That measure carried easily, 30 to 20. Several days later the California state-hood bill passed, 34 to 18. The New Mexico territorial bill, which organized the region under the principle of popular sovereignty, won overwhelmingly, 27 to 10. Another bill organized Utah as a separate territory. The fugitive slave bill passed after a week of vigorous debate. Finally the Senate adopted the District of Columbia bill, which abolished only the slave trade, not slavery, in the District, by an ample majority of 33 to 19.
The House, under Douglas' guidance, passed the compromise measures against futile opposition. During September, Congress completed its work on the Compromise of 1850 and adjourned after the then longest session on record. Avoiding the question of the rightness or wrongness of slavery, the Compromise settled the status of the institution on every square foot of United States soil. Douglas and his colleagues had gained a remarkable legislative triumph, one meriting, they believed, the nation's approbation.
Most Americans, sharing no interest in a sectional conflict, rejoiced over the Compromise of 1850. The individual decisions were direct and uncompromising, but they distributed the costs of accommodation. That some favored the North and others the South, however, enabled the extremist minorities of both sections to condemn what in the arrangement they did not like and attribute it to the determination of their sectional opponents to command the country's future. To some southern editors Fillmore had degraded the South and destroyed its equality in the Union. Taylor's moderate proposal on California and New Mexico might have served southern interests far more effectively than did the extreme proslavery demands of Calhoun and his southern adherents. Had the South accepted Taylor's assumption that slavery could not expand and that the territorial issue merely served to strengthen the antislavery movement in the North, it might have avoided much of the subsequent assault on its institutions.
For the North's antislavery forces, the Compromise was scarcely a triumph at all. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 proved to be the major source of sectional bitterness. The act placed federal enforcement agencies at the disposal of the slave-holder. Any black accused of being a runaway slave lost the right of trial by jury and even the right to testify in his own behalf. A federal judge or commissioner could remand him to slavery on the presentation of merely an affidavit of anyone claiming to be the owner. The law required federal marshals to uphold the act and levied heavy penalties against anyone who assisted a slave to escape. For southerners the Fugitive Slave Act was no more than legal recognition of their property rights and their only compensation for the admission of California as a free state. Actually Fillmore's effort to enforce the act produced what one critic termed "an era of slave-hunting and kidnapping."
Throughout the North mass meetings protested against the hated law. Many northern abolitionists refused to obey it. Blacks, aided by vigilance committees and a more effective underground railroad, made their way into Canada. The legislatures of all New England states, as well as those of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin, passed "personal liberty laws", which, in one form or another, forbade judges to assist southern claimants and extended to blacks claimed as slaves the rights of habeas corpus and trial by jury. These laws placed the burden of proof on the pursuer.