Millard Fillmore and the Fall of the Omnibus

I left off on the Road to War with Zachary Taylor’s death on the Fourth of July, from tainted food in the midst of an incipient border war between the federal garrison in New Mexico and the state forces of Texas over that state’s disputed western claims. The day prior, delegates from nine southern states convened at Nashville to weigh their section’s future, inside the Union or out.

Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore

Taylor took No Territory to the grave with him. Clay’s measures had already seized the initiative from his plan and Old Rough and Ready’s political mentor, William H. Seward, spoke in the Senate on his own program instead of his pupil’s. Into the White House came the Vice-President, a New York Whig like Seward in party and home state but unlike him in policy. Millard Fillmore, notable to most Americans probably only for his obscurity, no more shared Taylor’s No Territory position than he did Seward’s Higher Law position. The two men shared a party but hailed from different factions therein.

Fillmore pocketed Taylor’s orders for the New Mexico garrison, ignored its application for statehood, accepted the resignations of Taylor’s entire cabinet, and threw his support behind the Clay Measures. By then the real work on the compromise took place in the Clay-chaired Committee of Thirteen, to which the Senate referred all measures on resolving the crisis. Therein Clay took up a strategy suggested by Henry Foote (D-MS) to combine all his resolutions into a single bill in the hopes that it would have enough to offer to each side for them to take the bitter pill of concessions that came together, which they could never take on their own.

Clay’s omnibus strategy had its merits. It removed the risk of voting for one measure based on the promise of support for a separate, later measure. No one had to rely on the good faith of their opposites, always scarce in politics and rarer still in times of such deep division. It did honestly offer up something for everyone and did honestly require of everyone serious concessions. Perhaps the North got more concrete and immediate benefits, but the South received some assurances and at any rate sought more theoretical goals like a slaveholding southern California state which they did not have the ability to realize in the near future regardless.

In May, the Committee of Thirteen reported out essentially Clay’s plan, despite earlier protestations that he considered and intended something compatible with Taylor’s vision. The sense of progress bolstered the position of the moderates at the Nashville convention, who passed a resolution in favor of extending the Missouri Compromise line and adjourned with the passing threat to reassemble if it did not receive satisfaction from Congress.

James A. Pearce

James A. Pearce

At the end of July, with Taylor’s body barely cold and matters in New Mexico still tense, the omnibus came up for a full Senate vote. Past revisions of the Texas-New Mexico section of the omnibus leaned somewhat in Texas’s direction. Maryland’s Whig James A. Pearce wanted to remove those revisions and fell for a scheme to do so in two steps, first removing the entire New Mexico section of the omnibus and then reinserting the original version. He won the vote for removing the section, but promptly lost on reinserting 28 to 29, then lost on putting back in measures for a New Mexican territorial government.

So the omnibus collapsed. Southerners who might have unwillingly supported California’s admission as part of the package scented blood in the water and moved to have its part of the omnibus deleted as well, leaving only provisions for a territorial government in Utah within the bill. That eviscerated bill, stripped of the substantive measures designed to resolve the conflict, limped through the Senate to the cheers of anti-compromise senators from Seward to Jefferson Davis. Six months of exhausting effort spent the aged Clay. He vowed to switch to a separate bill strategy and persist, but ultimately surrendered to age and the tuberculosis that would kill him in the summer of 1852, leaving Washington two days later to rest and recover in Rhode Island.

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