DescriptionMillard Fillmore Historically Important Autograph Letter Signed: The President explains to his friend, fellow New York Whig Hamilton Fish, that "it would be unsafe in the present critical state of the country" to amend the Fugitive Slave Act to appease the North and reiterates what he had said in his annual message to Congress two days earlier.
Signed: "Millard Fillmore" as President, one page, 7.75" x 9.75". Washington, December 4, 1850. To His Excellency Hamilton Fish. Marked "Private" by Fillmore. In full: "My dear sir, Your letter of the [blank space] ult. came duly to hand but did not arrive until my message was in the hands of the printer. I have consulted several of my senators, and we all concluded that it would be unsafe in the present critical state of the country, to attempt to specify amendments to the Fugitive Slave Bill. That it was not wise to select that from the other measures for unification, but leave all to stand until time and experience should show that by their abuse or evasion, a change was necessary. This course has not been adopted without the most careful and anxious consideration, and has the unanimous concurrence of my cabinet and I hope and trust that it will receive the united support of your Whig friends. I am in great haste, truly & sincerely your friend."
The issue of slavery was dividing the nation. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the Mexican War added territory to the United States: Texas, California, and land which eventually became parts of six states. Would slavery be allowed in these new territories? On the floor of the U.S. Senate, on January 29, 1850, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay had submitted eight resolutions for consideration, which comprised what has become known as the Compromise of 1850. He began, "It being desirable, for the peace, concord, and harmony of the Union of these States, to settle and adjust amicably all existing questions of controversy between them arising out of the institution of slavery upon a fair, equitable, and just basis."
As Zachary Taylor's Vice President, New Yorker Millard Fillmore presided over the Senate during the months of debates over the Compromise of 1850. He made no public comment on the merits of the proposals, but intimated to the President, a Southerner who opposed the Compromise, that if there should be a tie vote, he would vote in favor of it. A few days later, on July 9, 1850, President Taylor died and Vice President Millard Fillmore became President.
Three of the greatest Senators in U.S. history led the debate of the five bills that made up the compromise: Henry Clay of Kentucky, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. With the help of Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the bills passed the Congress and were signed into law by President Fillmore. Generally, Northern Democrats and Southern Whigs supported the Compromise of 1850. Of all the new laws of the Compromise, it was the Fugitive Slave Act signed on September 18, 1850, that was the most controversial. It mandated that citizens assist in the return of fugitive slaves apprehended anywhere in the nation.
As open defiance of the law in the North grew, so did the anger in the South. Escaped slaves were not being returned. President Fillmore had to send the army to quell some mobs and to aid in the return of former slaves caught in the North. Hamilton Fish and the President were good friends. They were both Whigs from New York. Fish had supported Fillmore in his unsuccessful campaign for Governor in 1844. He was Lieutenant Governor of New York when Fillmore was State Comptroller. Fish had written to the President about the opposition of northern Whigs to the Fugitive Slave Act with suggestions for Fillmore's first annual message to Congress. From Jefferson's first annual message in 1801 until Taft's final message in 1912, the State of the Union was a written report sent to Congress and when Fillmore received Fish's letter, his "message was in the hands of the printer."
In his annual message, dated December 2, 1850, Fillmore refers to those who oppose laws comprising the Compromise of 1850: "It may be presumed from the opposition which they all encountered, that none of those measures was free from imperfections, but...they formed a system of compromise the most conciliatory and best for the entire country that could be obtained from conflicting sectional interests and opinions. For this reason I recommend your adherence to the adjustment established by those measures until time and experience shall demonstrate the necessity of further legislation to guard against evasion or abuse." In this letter, President Fillmore asks that Fish and his Whig friends "leave all to stand until time and experience should show that by their abuse or evasion, a change was necessary."
Hamilton Fish (1808-1893), Whig Congressman from 1843-1845, served as Governor of New York from November 7, 1848, to November 5, 1850. In a message to the state legislature, Governor Fish declared, "If there be any one subject on which the people of the State of New York approach near to unanimity of sentiment, it is in their fixed determination to resist the extension of slavery over territory now free...[New York] regards slavery as a moral, a social and a political evil." Fish later served as President Grant's Secretary of State (1869-1877).
Fish replied to this letter agreeing with President Fillmore who wrote back on December 27, 1850, that he was "gratified to learn that you 'acquiesced in the wisdom and foresight which dictated my last message.' I felt at the time, that if I am acting only for the North, your policy was the true one; but the public mind was inflamed north and south. No attempted modification of the fugitive Slave law would be conceded at that moment by the south that would be satisfactory to the North. It was therefore not the proper time to attempt it."
The Compromise of 1850 split the President's party. Northern Whigs would not forgive Fillmore's signing of the Fugitive Slave Law and succeeded in denying the President his party's nomination in 1852. Henry Clay had died in June, 1852, and Daniel Webster, who had been appointed by Fillmore as Secretary of State, was 70 (he died in October), so Mexican War hero General Winfield Scott was selected as the Whig candidate for President. He was soundly defeated by Democrat Franklin Pierce. The Whig Party fell apart. Northern Whigs (like Fish and Lincoln) and Free Soilers (like Salmon P. Chase and Charles Sumner) helped form the Republican Party in the mid-1850s. Most Southern Whigs became Democrats. Within ten years, they were part of the Confederacy.
On March 13, 1862, the Senate and House, in Congress assembled, passed an act prohibiting "all officers or persons in the military or naval service of the United States" from returning fugitive slaves, effectively annulling the Fugitive Slave Law.
This extremely important letter is in extra fine condition. Its significance in American history cannot be underestimated. The North was outraged by the Fugitive Slave Act and demanded it be changed. This letter reveals that President Fillmore was considering amendments to the Compromise of 1850. He consulted "several of my senators" (there were 27 Whig Senators) before deciding to let all measures in the Compromise of 1850 "stand until time and experience should show that by their abuse or evasion, a change was necessary" and had "the unanimous concurrence of my cabinet."
History would have changed dramatically if the Fugitive Slave Law had been amended to appease the North. The Civil War would undoubtedly have started sooner and the name "Abraham Lincoln" would be lost to history. This magnificent letter, with historically significant content, would be the cornerstone in a collection of presidential, slavery, American historical, Black Americana, or Civil War-related documents. With two photographs of engraved portraits of Hamilton Fish. From the Gary Grossman Collection.
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