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Why can’t Donald Trump be more like Millard Fillmore?


Facing his waning days in office, President Trump has released a virtual torrent of pardons, many of them going to perjurious pals, corrupt political allies, extended family and outright war criminals. A much earlier lame-duck president, also resentful over the denial of a second term, took a different approach to pardons. Rather than exploit his power to taunt his opponents, or retaliate against them, he chose to exercise it mercifully and humanely for the benefit of his political adversaries. Millard Fillmore was one of the worst presidents in U.S. history, having signed into law the odious Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. And yet one of his final acts in office was the pardon of two ardent abolitionists, imprisoned for participating in the greatest attempted slave escape of the antebellum era. 

The events began in Washington, D.C., late at night on April 15, 1848, when 77 enslaved persons, including men, women and children, slipped away from their masters’ homes and quietly made their way to a wharf on the Potomac River. Waiting for them was a schooner named the Pearl, under the command of two white men, Daniel Drayton and Edward Sayers, both of whom detested slavery. The mass escape was organized by a free Black man named Paul Edmondson, who had married an enslaved woman and whose eleven children had been born enslaved under the laws of Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Six of Edmondson’s children were among the soon-to-be fugitives who crowded onto the ship.

All seemed to be going well as the Pearl cast off from the dock and soon entered Chesapeake Bay, on course for New Jersey. Tragically, a strong headwind arose, causing the Pearl to run aground after only a few hours en route to freedom. An alarm had by then been raised, and a posse managed to locate the Pearl near Point Lookout, Maryland. The passengers and crew were roughly dragged back to Washington to face the consequences of their escape. 

Once returned to their enslavers, the fugitives were sold to plantations in the deep South, a common punishment that consigned them to harsh treatment, bleak conditions and family separation. Drayton and Sayres were jailed and indicted on 77 counts of larceny and illegally transporting slaves, with bail set at an impossible $77,000.

The defendants were represented by Massachusetts Rep. Horace Mann, recently elected to fill the seat of John Quincy Adams. The prosecutor was Philip Barton Key, a slave owner, the son of Francis Scott Key and nephew of Chief Justice Roger Taney. Following multiple trials and appeals – extending over a year with both defendants in jail – Drayton and Sayres were acquitted of the more serious charge of larceny but convicted on 74 counts of illegally transporting slaves. Sayres was fined $7,400 and Drayton, who was thought more culpable, was fined $10,600. Neither defendant could raise such an exorbitant amount, so they remained incarcerated in lieu of payment.

With no prospect of ever paying the enormous fine, half of which was earmarked to compensate the slave owners, the hopes of Drayton and Sayres lay with a presidential pardon. Led by recently elected Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, many luminaries of the anti-slavery movement entreated President Fillmore to release the two prisoners. 

Fillmore, however, was in a precarious political position. Having been elected vice president on the Whig ticket in 1848, he ascended to the presidency upon the death of Zachary Taylor. He had his eye on the Whig nomination for 1852, and he needed support in both the party’s northern and southern wings. Although nominally opposed to slavery himself, Fillmore had already angered many northerners by signing the Fugitive Slave Act. He was not about to alienate southern Whigs, and kill his chances for the presidency, by freeing a couple of convicted slave stealers. “So long as President Fillmore remained a candidate for reelection,” lamented Drayton, “there was little ground to expect from him a favorable consideration.”

Fillmore’s hopes were dashed at the Whig convention in Baltimore. The only two successful Whig candidates had been William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, both southerners and former generals (and both of whom had died in office). The party reflexively turned to General Winfield Scott, a Virginian and a hero of the Mexican War.

Rejected by his party and with an uncertain political future – he would be the Know Nothing presidential candidate in 1856 – Fillmore became able, as Drayton wrote in his memoir, “to listen to the dictates of reason, justice and humanity.” The Pearl defendants had already been jailed for over four years for an offense punishable only by a fine. On August 12, 1852, Fillmore, in partial redemption for signing the Fugitive Slave Act, pardoned the two men who had attempted to free 77 slaves.

Fillmore’s magnanimity extended only so far. He expressed no concern for the 77 enslaved persons who had been sent south in chains. Paul Edmondson, the initiator of the escape plan, enlisted Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, in raising sufficient funds to buy freedom for his children. The fate of the other enslaved persons has been lost to history.

Millard Fillmore is remembered today, if at all, for the worst aspect of his presidency — signing (and then enforcing) the Fugitive Slave Act. It would be hard to identify the worst features of Donald Trump’s presidency, which include caging children, minimizing a pandemic and spreading lies and conspiracy theories about a free, democratic election. In defeat, Fillmore at least had the decency to exercise his pardon power with some generosity of spirit and without regard to political cronyism. Is it unsurprising that Trump has displayed no such grace?

Steven Lubet is Williams Memorial Professor at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and the author of “The ‘Colored Hero’ of Harpers Ferry: John Anthony Copeland and the War against Slavery.”

Tags Donald Trump Fugitive Slave Act Millard Fillmore presidential pardons Slavery in the United States Underground Railroad

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