Millard Fillmore was elected vice president largely because he was on the ticket with the very popular Gen. Zachary Taylor, hero of the Mexican War.
About 15 months into his presidency, President Taylor took ill after presiding over July 4 festivities in blazing heat. He died on July 9, 1850; Vice President Millard Fillmore took the oath as president the next day, and served out the term.
Taylor had encouraged New Mexico and California to draw up state constitutions, which would have disallowed slavery in those states. To southern leaders who threatened secession, Taylor promised to personally lead the army that would hold the union together by force, and personally hang those who had proposed rebellion.
Fillmore had presided over the Senate during months of furious debate on issues that always seemed to come down to slavery. Because he didn’t hold to the views of the Whig Party which had elected the Taylor-Fillmore ticket, even more than Taylor had strayed, the cabinet resigned. Fillmore appointed Daniel Webster as Secretary of State, and proceeded to push for compromise on issues to avoid war. His machinations helped get California admitted as a free state, but left New Mexico as a territory. His support of the Fugitive Slave Act alienated even more Whigs, and by 1852 the Whigs refused to nominate Fillmore for a term of his own. He left office in 1853, succeded by Franklin Pierce.
Fillmore’s greatest accomplishment as president, perhaps, was his sending a fleet of ships to Japan to force that nation to open up to trade from the U.S. The political furor over the Fugitive Slave Act, the Missouri Compromise, and other issues around slavery, tend to eclipse the memory of the good that Fillmore did.
Nota bene: Controversy surrounded the death of Taylor. Because he had threatened southern secessionists and incurred anger from several other groups, from the time of his death there were rumors he had been poisoned with arsenic. Officially, the cause of death was gastroenteritis; popular accounts note that he had, in the heat of July, drunk milk and eaten cherries and cucumbers. Certainly strep, staph or other bacteria in the milk could have created a problem. In 1991 a team led by George Washington University Law Professor James Starrs exhumed Taylor’s body from his Louisville, Kentucky burial plot, and tested his remains for arsenic at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Analysis presented to the Kentucky medical examiner indicated aresenic levels way too low for a poisoning victim.