On this day in 1850, Vice President Millard Fillmore is sworn in as the 13th president of the United States. President Zachary Taylor had died the day before, five days after falling ill with a severe intestinal ailment on the Fourth of July.
Fillmore’s manner of ascending to the presidency earned him the nickname His Accidency. He was only the second man to inherit the presidency after a president’s death. The first was John Tyler, who had assumed the presidency in 1841 after William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia 30 days into office.
Fillmore was born in 1800 and came from humble beginnings in New York. As a young man, he worked as a wool-carder, cloth-dresser and school teacher. In 1823, he became a lawyer and rose to political prominence in the Whig Party as New York’s representative to Congress between 1832 and 1842. In 1847, he was elected New York state comptroller and a year later was chosen as Taylor’s vice-presidential running mate.
As vice president, Fillmore quietly expressed his support of a compromise in slavery legislation and thus appeared sympathetic to slave-owning interests. However, President Taylor opposed slavery and vowed to use force against southern states who threatened to secede if denied the right to use slave labor. During Fillmore’s single term as president, he passed the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), which made it a crime to support slaves trying to escape to free territories. He also presided over an era of increased settlement across the western part of the continent. As white settlers clashed with indigenous peoples, Fillmore approved one-sided treaties that forcibly placed Native Americans onto government reservations. During this time, millions of Native Americans died from disease and starvation and in wars with government-funded militias.
After losing the support of his northern anti-slavery constituency, the incumbent Fillmore was defeated by the Democrat Franklin Pierce in the 1852 presidential race. After making two more unsuccessful bids for the presidency in 1856 and 1860, he retired to Buffalo, New York, where he served on various legal and historical committees until his death in 1874.