By Robert Biniszkiewicz
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was ugly. Millard Fillmore’s most notable piece of legislation influences historians to rate him among the very poorest of presidents. Our hometown hero: history’s goat.
In the recent past, local groups so offended by Fillmore’s Southern compromise have argued that no public monument, building or place should henceforth carry Fillmore’s name. It is embarrassing to acknowledge that Buffalo’s first president was so willing to criminalize all compassionate assistance to escaping slaves.
Slaves were devoid of rights we in today’s society routinely afford dogs and cattle. There were no punishments for cruelty inflicted upon slaves, no legal refuge for them. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 endorsed slavery’s horrors while forcibly mandating conscientious objectors’ complicity in the contemptible practice. It’s easy to understand why we in 2016 view Fillmore’s compromise of 1850 with revulsion and shame.
But compromise, however ugly, is often not the capitulation it is portrayed to be. And Fillmore’s legislation was a compromise with significant upside. We, in this more enlightened age, should consider offering thanks to Fillmore for his horrific law, as distasteful and jarring as that may sound.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 kept the South in the union for 10 crucial years. That solitary decade of rapid development in the North allowed the North to prevail in the Civil War – a war the North surely would have lost if the South had seceded in 1850 instead of 1860.
In the solitary decade of the 1850s, industrial production in the North doubled. The number of railroad miles in service in the North tripled. Without this newfound industrial might and the means to deploy it, the North could not have prosecuted and ultimately won the war. As it was, the North barely won.
In 1864, Abraham Lincoln’s opponent in the presidential race ran on a platform calling for cessation of hostilities with the South and recognition of Southern secession. The Civil War had become so expensive and unpopular in the North that the Democratic Party of 1864 believed (as did the vast majority of the day’s pundits and even Lincoln himself) that Lincoln was destined to lose that election. Imagine the unpopularity of that war if it had been fought 10 years earlier, before the North had doubled its industrial might. Imagine how much more expensive the war would have been in terms of blood and treasure without the industrial production to prosecute it.
Fillmore’s compromise was ugly. But the benefit was that by postponing secession for one decade, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 allowed the North to enrich itself sufficiently to defeat the South.
Robert Biniszkiewicz is a former economics major.