“May God save the country, for it is evident that the people will not.” While many of us may echo the sentiment expressed as we contemplate the upcoming presidential election, our 13th president, Millard Fillmore, beat us to the punch. With the huge sums allotted to my Musings research team ($0), I didn’t uncover exactly what precipitated these words. But a cursory review of Fillmore’s career did remind me that this isn’t the first time that we humans are making a mess of things.
A favorite theme of science fiction literature imagines how history would have changed had certain things happened or not happened. What would have occurred if an assassination attempt against Hitler had succeeded? What if John Wilkes Booth had failed to kill Abraham Lincoln?
Millard Fillmore is one of our least known presidents. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of fans of the comic strip Mallard Fillmore have no idea of the word play involved in the duck’s name. While I would have recognized President Fillmore’s name a month ago, and probably could have even told you who preceded and followed him, I admit to knowing little about him. But one side effect of my year of mourning for my father is becoming a little more educated. Since I am not listening to music during this year I downloaded a number of podcasts, including one about our presidents.
I learned that although Zachary Taylor, the president before Fillmore, was a southern slave-owner he was leaning with sympathy towards the abolitionists. When he died in office, Vice-president Fillmore signed legislation that included the Fugitive Slave Act. With this act, every citizen of the country became responsible for returning runaway slaves to their owners. Imagine! A government demanding that people violate their beliefs and religious principles in order to remain within the nation’s laws. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)
In many ways, this legislation was one of the major sparks that lit the conflagration that became the Civil War. As passionately as many northern abolitionists felt, the reality of the sin of slavery hit home harder when they were turned into unwilling accomplices.
What would have happened if Zachary Taylor hadn’t died in office? Is it possible that he might have shown greater wisdom and understanding, possibly averting a tragedy that the founders foresaw when the United States declared independence and that is still making headlines today? We don’t know.
Both choices for president this year are so deeply flawed that, indeed, we must say, “May God save the country, for it is evident that the people will not.” Let us hope that like in the 1800s the country does survive, while praying that it does so with less devastation and death than took place previously.