April 08, 1852

Millard Fillmore, Perusing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in 1852, Reflects on Slavery, Civil War, and the Recolonization of Slaves to Africa

Autograph Letter Signed
3 pages
SMC 1072
A superlative letter in which President Fillmore, ruminating over a new novel just sent him, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, discusses the “‘vexed’ subject of Slavery” and the “dark future” of this “deep and anxious” problem. “Who can…say whether this ever disturbing subject may not send this Union asunder,” he wonders, or,

whether the war of races may not result in the final overthrow and extermination of the weaker, or whether by wise and brilliant counsels the bonds of the slave may not be gradually relaxed and as they drop off, the blackman find a home in his native Africa, and bear with him to that benighted region the blessings of Christianity and civilization.

Fillmore’s deus ex machina - to send all the slaves back to Africa or ship them to the West Indies – held a fascination for many opponents of slavery, including Lincoln: but nothing ever came of it, not even in Fillmore’s administration. As he concluded his term, he wrote a long address warning that slavery would bring race war, political disruption, and continued agitation: the solution, he proposed, was to recolonize the slaves. His cabinet, however, talked him out of publishing it, and so he left the White House, as he writes in closing here, unable to “look without apprehension to the future…”

Of particular note is that Fillmore and his wife were avid readers who, having left their 4,000 books at home in Buffalo, were horrified to find that the White House had no library - so immediately set to build one, filling the upstairs Oval Room with classics of literature, history, travel, law and fiction. Mrs. Fillmore – mentioned in this letter as enjoying Stowe’s incendiary bestseller – was a schoolteacher, and her love of books may well have been in part professional, but Fillmore grew up with only three books in his childhood home - a Bible, a hymn book, and an almanac - and he was seventeen before he saw a dictionary or a map. The act of reading, literally, made his life possible, and it was always for him, as is demonstrated here, a serious and thoughtful endeavor. Fillmore is uncommon in handwritten letters as president.
Autograph Letter Signed, as President, 3 pages, recto and verso, octavo, Washington, April 8, 1852. To Mrs. L. M. Greeley.
Accompanied by a steel-engraving of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
View American Civil War Manuscripts.
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