Millard Fillmore (1850-1853): Neither Underground nor a Railroad

This article is a part of our series From Lighthouses to Electric Chargers: A Presidential Series on Transportation Innovations

The day after President Zachary Taylor died in July 1850, his vice president, Millard Fillmore of New York, was sworn into office. 

Fillmore would be the last Whig Party president. The party, formed in the 1830s in opposition to President Andrew Jackson, would only elect two of its members to the presidency: William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor. Since they both died before finishing their terms, two Whig vice presidents, John Tyler and Fillmore, completed them. 

On transportation policy, the Whigs were much more supportive than Jackson’s Democratic Party of using the federal government to build new infrastructure. Unlike many of his predecessors, Fillmore was certain that the constitution gave Congress the power to fund transportation improvements whether they cut across state boundaries or were located in just one state.  

In Fillmore’s first annual message, he said the constitutional power of regulating commerce gave Congress the power to fund a wide range of improvements from lighthouses and beacons to clearing harbors and building piers. He added, “Nor do I perceive any difference between the power of Congress to make appropriations for objects of this kind on the ocean and the power to make appropriations for similar objects on lakes and rivers, wherever they are large enough to bear on their waters an extensive traffic.” 

The most memorable transportation network of his term was not one authorized by Congress and the president, but rather one designed to thwart their will. 

Two months after taking office, President Fillmore signed legislation known as the Compromise of 1850. The bills had four components designed to appease representatives of both the slave and free states. First, California would be admitted as a free state. Second, Texas ceded areas that would become the territories of New Mexico and Utah, and its residents could decide whether or not slavery would be legal. Third, the slave trade, but not slavery itself, was abolished in Washington, D.C. 

The fourth bill was the most controversial. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 gave the federal government primary responsibility of returning runaway slaves no matter what state or territory they were found in. The act also allowed slave hunters to capture escaped slaves anywhere in the U.S. and return them without a trial. Outraged and emboldened, abolitionists ramped up their efforts to free slaves via the Underground Railroad. 

The Eno Center for Transportation often writes about subways and light rail lines like those in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. The underground railroad that flourished before the Civil War was a very different form of travel. It had no tracks, trains or stations; although it did use the same nomenclature. 

Conductors guided slaves (referred to as “cargo”) to private homes, churches and schoolhouses that were called stations or depots. The brave men and women operating them were called “stationmasters.” Harriet Tubman who made 19 trips into the South to free 300 slaves said, “I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say — I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.” 

Conductors pointed their cargo in many directions including towards northern U.S. cities, Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Most of the slaves who made it to safety escaped from plantations located near free states along routes that followed both natural and man-made modes including rivers, ferries and trails.  

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is just a few steps from the banks of the Ohio River where slaves crossed from the slave state of Kentucky to the free state of Ohio. The center’s principal artifact, shown here, is a slave pen built once used to house slaves before they were shipped to auction.  

Fillmore lost Whig support after the Compromise of 1850 and the party eventually splintered with pro-slavery defenders going one way and abolitionists forming the Republican Party. This new party would elect their first president in 1860.

This article is a part of our series From Lighthouses to Electric Chargers: A Presidential Series on Transportation Innovations

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