One could credibly argue that the roots of lingering angst between law enforcement and Black Americans, and the problem of moderate whites who claim to disavow systemic racial oppression while being comfortable with racists and systemic racism, stems back to the administration of one of the most obscure figures in American political history, Millard Fillmore, the 13th President of the United States.
Fillmore was serving as Vice President to Zachary Taylor when the latter died a few days after the Fourth of July holiday in 1850. A Whig with a declared personal dislike of slavery, Fillmore was more than willing to appease Southern Democrats who used the threat of secession during his administration to push through the Fugitive Slave Act.
Upon its passage, a popular poster contained the words in all caps: “Caution! Colored People of Boston, One & All, you are hereby respectfully cautioned and advised to avoid conversing with the watchman and police officers of Boston for since the Order of the Mayor and Aldermen, they are empowered to act as Kidnappers and Slave Catchers.” I have often wondered whether such words, distributed by abolitionists, sowed the earliest seeds of mistrust in urban areas between blacks and law enforcement?
Perhaps, but what we do know is that the Fugitive Slave Act (FSA) was as praised in the South as it was derided in the North. Some historians even note that the FSA served as perhaps the last straw before the Civil War, which began 10 years later in 1861.
When Fillmore became president in 1850, it was but a few years after the war with Mexico had ended and the United States had won territories that would eventually become the States of New Mexico, Arizona and California. The key issue for Southern politicians was extending slavery out west, and with that being mostly a non-starter with Northern and Midwestern Whigs, the South grew far more anxious that enslaved Blacks would increasingly escape North and West to gain freedom. To that end, the 1850 version of the FSA actually strengthened a 1793 version of the same, one that the United States Supreme Court upheld in its 1842 decision in Prigg vs. Pennsylvania. The problem, however, was enforcement, as most Northern police officials lacked the resources to house or ship captured slaves back to the South.
Thus the 1850 version of the FSA compelled Northern cooperation with sending Blacks back South to enslavement. The law denied any semblance of due process to captured fugitives as they were denied the right to testify on their own behalf or have their cases heard before a jury. Further complicating matters was the fact that the commissioners who made the determinations received their pay directly from the very slave holders making the claims, thus creating an obvious pecuniary incentive for commissioners to deny as many claims of legitimate freedom as possible.
The FSA also punished any person harboring or aiding a fugitive $1000.00 and threatened incarceration of up to 6 months–a fact that scared off some who previously had served as conductors along the Underground Railroad that ushered escaped slaves to Northern states and Canada. As such, both free Blacks and escaped enslaved Blacks held a palpable fear of law enforcement officers and vigilantes that a chance encounter with one or the other could lead to enslavement, a return to enslavement, or death. Fears that arguably remain to this day in the form of false incarceration, a return to incarceration, or death.
Fillmore’s robust support of the FSA is perhaps his greatest legacy, but not the only ignominious racial aspect of his administration. During his brief tenure, as more White settlers moved out West, conflicts with Native American tribes increased–as did an American military that brokered treaties–and broke treaties–to the natives eternal chagrin.
Fillmore’s brief tenure was so uninspiring that in 1852, the Whigs did not nominate him for a new full term–that nod went instead to General Winfield Scott. Scott lost the 1852 race to Democrat Franklin Pierce, thus leading to the break up of the Whig Party. In 1856, Fillmore embraced the white supremacy, anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic platform of the “Know-Nothing” Party and ran as its presidential nominee against Democrat James Buchanan and Republican John Fremont. After finishing third, Fillmore retired to private life where over the next 18 years, he would help lead opposition to Abraham Lincoln’s decision to emancipate the enslaved and allow Blacks to serve in the Union Army. Fillmore was also one of the strongest Northern proponents of allowing the Confederate States to return to the Union with full amnesty and leniency, a position that was juxtaposed to Radical Republicans who wanted the rebellious Southerners to suffer.
These last points are important to remember in a time in which so many people seek to suggest that “they are not racist” when their public and private positions tell a different story. Similarly, Fillmore’s personal aversion to slavery did little to assuage the fact that free and escaped Blacks alike were stalked and returned to slavery, that Native Americans were slaughtered and had their properties taken with impunity and without just compensation, and that the slavery defending and war-mongering Confederate soldiers and leaders were still considered to be “very fine people” by the same 13th President who claimed to oppose slavery.