Ron Paul invokes the … Millard Fillmore doctrine?

Let’s face it. When Millard Fillmore, the undistinguished, uninspiring 13th president of the United States, comes up in political conversation these days, it’s usually as the butt of jokes. "When five of your six candidates could not be elected president if they were running against Millard Fillmore, I think you can presume there will not ...

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images and National Archive/Newsmakers
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images and National Archive/Newsmakers
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images and National Archive/Newsmakers

Let's face it. When Millard Fillmore, the undistinguished, uninspiring 13th president of the United States, comes up in political conversation these days, it's usually as the butt of jokes. "When five of your six candidates could not be elected president if they were running against Millard Fillmore, I think you can presume there will not be much serious issue discussion," New York Times columnist Gail Collins quipped last week in a primer on the upcoming South Carolina primary. If only the rags-to-riches Whig, whose 212th birthday was recently celebrated with much fanfare in his native Western New York, were around to defend his record.

But last night, during the GOP debate in South Carolina, Ron Paul issued a full-throated endorsement of Fillmore's approach to foreign policy, whether he realized it or not. "If another country does to us what we do to others, we aren't going to like it very much," Paul explained in the context of his opposition to war with Iran. "So I would say maybe we ought to consider a Golden Rule in foreign policy," he continued placidly, as he was eaten alive by boos and jeers. "We endlessly bomb these other countries and then we wonder why they get upset with us?" Paul has trotted out this Golden Rule line several times during the campaign, drawing laughter in New Hampshire after asking, "What if the Chinese came into the Gulf of Mexico and took over the Gulf of Mexico? I know we in Texas would be pretty annoyed."

OK, but what does all this have to do with Millard Fillmore? The former president, it turns out, expressed nearly the same sentiments in 1850 during his first State of the Union address, in a formulation of foreign policy that sounds an awful lot like Paul's noninterventionist, empire-shunning worldview (key lines in bold):

Let’s face it. When Millard Fillmore, the undistinguished, uninspiring 13th president of the United States, comes up in political conversation these days, it’s usually as the butt of jokes. "When five of your six candidates could not be elected president if they were running against Millard Fillmore, I think you can presume there will not be much serious issue discussion," New York Times columnist Gail Collins quipped last week in a primer on the upcoming South Carolina primary. If only the rags-to-riches Whig, whose 212th birthday was recently celebrated with much fanfare in his native Western New York, were around to defend his record.

But last night, during the GOP debate in South Carolina, Ron Paul issued a full-throated endorsement of Fillmore’s approach to foreign policy, whether he realized it or not. "If another country does to us what we do to others, we aren’t going to like it very much," Paul explained in the context of his opposition to war with Iran. "So I would say maybe we ought to consider a Golden Rule in foreign policy," he continued placidly, as he was eaten alive by boos and jeers. "We endlessly bomb these other countries and then we wonder why they get upset with us?" Paul has trotted out this Golden Rule line several times during the campaign, drawing laughter in New Hampshire after asking, "What if the Chinese came into the Gulf of Mexico and took over the Gulf of Mexico? I know we in Texas would be pretty annoyed."

OK, but what does all this have to do with Millard Fillmore? The former president, it turns out, expressed nearly the same sentiments in 1850 during his first State of the Union address, in a formulation of foreign policy that sounds an awful lot like Paul’s noninterventionist, empire-shunning worldview (key lines in bold):

Among the acknowledged rights of nations is that which each possesses of establishing that form of government which it may deem most conducive to the happiness and prosperity of its own citizens, of changing that form as circumstances may require, and of managing its internal affairs according to its own will. The people of the United States claim this right for themselves, and they readily concede it to others. Hence it becomes an imperative duty not to interfere in the government or internal policy of other nations; and although we may sympathize with the unfortunate or the oppressed everywhere in their struggles for freedom, our principles forbid us from taking any part in such foreign contests. We make no wars to promote or to prevent successions to thrones, to maintain any theory of a balance of power, or to suppress the actual government which any country chooses to establish for itself. We instigate no revolutions, nor suffer any hostile military expeditions to be fitted out in the United States to invade the territory or provinces of a friendly nation. The great law of morality ought to have a national as well as a personal and individual application. We should act toward other nations as we wish them to act toward us, and justice and conscience should form the rule of conduct between governments, instead of mere power, self interest, or the desire of aggrandizement. To maintain a strict neutrality in foreign wars, to cultivate friendly relations, to reciprocate every noble and generous act, and to perform punctually and scrupulously every treaty obligation — these are the duties which we owe to other states, and by the performance of which we best entitle ourselves to like treatment from them; or, if that, in any case, be refused, we can enforce our own rights with justice and a clear conscience.

So, what was Millard Fillmore’s foreign policy? While his term in office was dominated by a congressional debate over slavery, Fillmore did adopt a "foreign-policy agenda that emphasized expanding trade while limiting American commitments outside the Western Hemisphere," according to the University of Virginia’s Miller Center (Ron Paul claims he’s not isolationist because he’s a free trader who simply doesn’t want the United States to be the "policemen of the world"). Fillmore cultivated closer commercial ties with Japan, (ineffectually) opposed a Bay of Pigs-style invasion of Cuba, and refused to confront oppressive imperial governments in Eastern Europe — all stances Paul might have taken had he been in Fillmore’s shoes (we’re not sure where Paul would have come down on securing bird dung from Peru, which Fillmore pursued zealously).

Here’s footage of the crowd’s hostile reaction to Paul’s remarks last night:

Might Paul have pacified the crowd by explaining that, hey, he was only echoing Millard Fillmore? Something tells us he wouldn’t have received a standing ovation. But bewildered silence might have done the trick.

Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF

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