Editor's Notes: This article, "Mr. Fillmore and His Friends" was originally published on August 18, 1856 in the Albany Evening Journal. It is a stinging critique of Millard Fillmore and his support for the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Fillmore was born in 1800 in Moravia, New York and served in state politics before entering Congress as the Representative for NY's 32nd District. Winning the Vice-Presidency in 1848 on the Whig ticket, Fillmore became president in 1850 upon the death of President Zachary Taylor. Although he was not chosen as a candidate by any party during the election of 1852, he ran as a third party candidate in the election of 1856 under the Know Nothing party. This article was almost certainly in response to his candidacy. He ultimately lost to Democrat James Buchanan, a staunch proponent of state's rights who exacerbated tensions around slavery and made way for the four-way-split Presidential election of 1860, resulting in the victory of Abraham Lincoln.
The article also sharply critiques the Fugitive Slave Act. Passed by Congress in 1850 and signed into law by President Fillmore, the Act was a concession to Southern states in an effort to preserve the Union as part of the Compromise of 1850. Many Northern states had passed state or local ordinances requiring jury trials for fugitive slaves, denying use of jails or state officials in their retrieval, and otherwise attempting to protect fugitive slaves, or at least keep from getting involved. Tens of thousands of enslaved people made their way to freedom on the Underground Railroad in the 1830s and '40s, joining free Black communities in Northern states and building lives and families.
But Southern states were angry about the lack of cooperation from their Northern counterparts and the attrition of enslaved people to the North, especially in slaveholding states that bordered free states. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was designed to force compliance of state officials, overrule state and local laws, fine state officials who did not arrest fugitive slaves, and fine and imprison anyone who aided or abetted a fugitive slave - a clause specifically designed to target abolitionists. Because habeus corpus was suspended in fugitive slave cases, Black Americans had little recourse to dispute accusations, no matter how much evidence proved them false. Several cases found in lower courts for the accused were overturned by the Supreme Court as a violation of federal law. Disturbingly, the Act also provided rewards for officers who captured fugitive slaves, regardless of whether or not they were actually fugitives.
These clauses not only led to some of the unjust events outlined in the article below, but angered many Northerners and turned more to the abolitionist cause. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852 in response to the law. The novel went on to become one of the best-selling books of the century (surpassed only by the Bible). Although the Compromise of 1850 did temporarily hold the United States together, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a concession to slaveholding states that only exacerbated the divisions over slavery, and helped inflame the tensions that would lead to the Civil War.
"Mr. Fillmore and His Friends"
Mr. Fillmore’s supporters in the present canvass endeavor to palliate his signing the Fugitive Slave Law, by alleging that he disapproved of many of the provisions of the act. His own course proves the contrary. If he objected to any details of the bill, it was his privilege and his constitutional duty to return it with a statement of those objections. Instead of so doing, instead of even hesitating, he signed it immediately upon its passage, endorsed it in his subsequent Messages and Proclamations, lauded it in his speeches, rewarded those who voted for it with Offices and Patronage, and was constantly urging during the whole time he remained in office, that it ought never to be repealed, but should stand forever, as a “finality.”
In his Message of Dec., 1850, he alludes to it thus: -
“I believe those acts to have been required by the circumstances and condition of the country. I believe they were necessary. By that adjustment we have a firm, distinct and legal ground to stand upon.”
In his Message of Dec., 1851, after having tried the working of the Law for a year, he said: -
“It is deeply to be regretted that in several instances officers of the Government, in attempting to execute the law for the rendition of fugitives from labor, have been openly resisted. Prosecutions have been instituted against the alleged offenders so far as they could be identified, and are still pending. I have regarded it my duty in these cases to give all aid legally in my power, to the enforcement of the law.
“* * The Act of Congress for the return of fugitives from labor is one required and demanded by the express words of the Constitution.”
A brief review of the “several instances” which he alludes to will show not only the character of the act, but the spirit in which the acting President viewed it.
On the 27th of September, 1850, the same month in which the Law was passed, JAMES HAMLET, a laborer in New York, was seized in the street, handcuffed, thrust into a coach, carried to the Marshal’s office, and in two hours time, without having witnesses, a Judge, or a Jury, was in the hands of his alleged “Master,” on his way South. This was the first instance of the “legal ground” “stood upon” by Mr. Fillmore.
On Oct. 12th, a man named ROSE, who had come North by his owner’s permission, under an agreement to pay $100 per annum for his freedom, and had actually paid it for the first year, was seized in Detroit, and consigned to Jail until he could be sent back to Tennessee. The “Scotch Guards” and the “Grayson Light Guards” were paraded with a hundred fixed bayonets around the Jail, to keep the negro in, and to exemplify the “reign of peace and quiet,” induced by Mr. Fillmore’s Law.
On the 24th of October, William Harris, his wife and child, who had escaped from South Carolina, were aboard a Canal Boat in this State. When at Lodi Lock, near Syracuse, word was given that the pursuers were upon them. They all jumped overboard. The man and his wife were caught again, but the child was drowned - its death having been, as Mr. Fillmore remarks, “required and demanded by the Constitution.”
On the 8th of November, Election Day, when the freemen of this Republic were turning out to exercise their highest privilege, those of them who lived near Beechwood, Ohio, were regaled by the spectacle of a bleeding Mulatto on horseback, flying before half a dozen other horsemen at full gallop, who fired five times at him, while running, with more or less success. A peaceable Quaker standing by had a pistol presented to his head with the information that if he refused to join the chase, his brains would be blown out. This, we presume, was also “required and demanded by the Constitution.”
Three days after (Nov. 11th) a perfectly white woman and her daughter, old and well known residents, were taken before the Commissioner at New Albany, Indiana, on a charge of being chattels of DENNIS FRAMEL of Arkansas, and only escaped sentence to plantation life, by paying the Arkansas swindler $600. But this was doubtless “required by the circumstances and condition of the country,” as Mr. Fillmore remarked.
On the 21st of December, ADAM GIRSON of Philadelphia, was hauled up before Commissioner Ingraham, on a charge of being the slave of one Knight of Cecil county, Maryland. He brought witnesses who conclusively proved him to be a freeman. Nevertheless the Commissioner, after a hasty examination, lasting only from noon till dusk, sent him under charge of a bodyguard of 25 policemen down to Cecil county, Md. When they got him there and delivered to Mr. Knight, that gentleman declared he had never seen him before, and that having no claim on him, he would not take him. Only by the honesty of this Marylander was Adam Gibson released from the malicious imprisonment put upon him by Mr. Fillmore’s Law, and Mr. Fillmore’s Commissioner.
On Christmas Day, when the bells of New York were pealing anthems in honor of the birth of Him who came to “break all bonds, and let the oppressed go free” - HENRY LONG, a waiter at the Pacific Hotel, was seized while at work in the Dining Room, carried before Commissioner Hall, and was sentenced to bonds for the remainder of his life.
During the same month, the Tennessee papers exultingly announced that “Mr. MARKWOOD of Greenville in that State, and his friend THOMAS CHESTER have returned from a tour in Michigan with seven slaves” caught there, by the assistance of Millard Fillmore.
The Memphis Eagle also boasted that “five fugitives had within a few weeks been brought back with as little trouble as would be had in recovering stray cows.” Rather less, in fact, for a man cannot recover his Cow without witnesses and a jury. But he can get a Slave without either.
On the 5th of January 1851, Daniel Fossbeuner of Baltimore, a member of the Methodist Church South, came into Court, and claimed a young man and two girls, free since their birth, on the ground that their mother had been his slave nineteen years before! She had been allowed the trouble and expense of bringing them up during these nineteen years, by Mr. F., and he now estimated their worth in the market at $1,800. As the Judge pronounced their doom of her children, the bereaved Mother fell in convulsions on the floor of the Court room. This too, says Mr. Fillmore, is “required and demanded by the circumstances and condition of the country.”
On the 12th of January, 1851, Hamilton Jackson, a colored barber in Cincinnati, born and bred a free man, was seized and taken to Jail on a charge of being a runaway Slave. The jailor, however, happened to have known him all his life, and to know him to be no fugitive. So he “escaped,” which was one of the “circumstances” “deeply regretted” by Mr. Fillmore.
On January 23d, a man known as William Baker, was arrested while sawing wood, and taken before Commissioner Ingraham. He was accused of being Stephen Bennet, slave of Capt. E. B. Gallup of Baltimore. Without time to prepare or make any defence, without time to see his wife and child, after an examination of only two hours, he was hurried off, whether rightfully or wrongfully, will never be known in this world. This also was “required and demanded” by Mr. Fillmore.
Need we go on to relate how the “Chivalry” in Maryland presented a Service of Plate to the captors of Henry Long? - how the captor of Adam Gibson was unluckily detected in kidnapping a white child named Joel Henry, and prevented from selling it into slavery in order to save this glorious Union? Need we tell how Helen and Dick, wife and son of a boatman on the Pennsylvania Canal, were, in the absence of the husband and father, dragged - the mother from her wash-tub, the boy from the hay-field - and consigned to slavery by Judge KANE, and put in custody of sixty officers, who marched with them to the Ferry lest the man should unexpectedly return and save them? Need we recall the case of Shadrach, when the whole military and civil force of Boston turned out to catch a single negro, and when Millard Fillmore caused to be arrested and imprisoned, for treason, his counsel, and several respectable Lawyers, Clergymen and Merchants of that city, because the negro slipped through the slave-catchers’ fingers?
Need we quote the Special Message, in which Millard Fillmore consoled the defeated pursuers and promised them better luck next time, assuring them “that, so far as depends on me, the law shall be faithfully executed, and all forcible opposition to it suppressed,” and “deeply lamenting that the Massachusetts law forbids Massachusetts officers and jails” to help in catching runaway negroes? Or his Proclamation of Feb. 18th, calling on “all well disposed citizens” to ally to the support of the “Fugitive Slave Law,” and to “assist the civil and military officers,” and “especially directing prosecutions to be commenced against all persons who have made themselves hiders and abettors” of runaways, and “commanding the District Attorney to prosecute and arrest all persons who shall be found to have harbored or concealed a fugitive?”
Such is a brief summary of only the first six months of Millard Fillmore’s “execution” of the Slave Law. During the other two years of his term, similar scenes increased and were multiplied ten fold. These are the acts of which he boasts in his Messages. These are the scenes he urged ought to endure as “finalities” for ever. These are the grounds upon which he now asks the suffrages of American citizens. No President before him ever could be found debased enough to sign an Act containing such atrocious provisions. No President before him ever summoned the officials of the Union and “all good citizens” to assist in such degrading offices. Still less did any President but him, ever deem such scenes as these “required and demanded by the Constitution,” or that it “was his duty to give them all aid legally in his power.”
This article was located and shared by Hudson River Maritime Museum volunteer researcher George A. Thompson and transcribed by Sarah Wassberg Johnson. All spelling, capitalization, quotations, and italics are reproduced here as in the original.
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