The following letter was penned by a self-professed “well wisher” of President Millard Fillmore who advised him that his life was in danger. There were men of “true steel,” he warned the President, who opposed the Chief Magistrate’s stated political position in support of the recently passed Compromise of 1850—with its odious Fugitive Slave Law—and his avowed determination to enforce it with the full force and might of the federal government. Though he personally opposed slavery, Fillmore “had no sympathy for the slave, for free blacks, or for the northern whites who did have sympathy for the slave.” 1 Fillmore’s defense of the omnibus bill was rooted in his belief that it was the only possible way for the Union to be preserved. He rightfully predicted that it would appease the Southerners but he miscalculated the firestorm it would cause in the North. Where once the average Northerner heard little and cared less about slavery, suddenly it became everyones business and an incendiary topic.
In Amherst, Massachusetts, where this letter was mailed (if not written), the majority of the Whigs shifted their allegiance to the Free Soil Party platform and joined in passing a series of resolutions that included an outright rejection of the notion that citizens should be compelled, by the Constitution, to engage in slave catching or suffer a penalty in failing to do so. A plethora of court cases challenging the law throughout the major Eastern seaboard cities dominated the papers and the daily citizen chatter on courthouse steps.
I have searched without success to find any citizen by the name of Charles Mulligan, Jr.—not only in North Amherst but in Massachusetts—who may have actually been the author of this letter. It is my conclusion that the name was fabricated and that the letter, offered to the President under the pretense of coming from a friend, was actually written by someone who opposed the President. The alleged threat of spies, looking for an opportunity to kill the President if he did not back down from his position in support of the Fugitive Slave Law, was not real, in my opinion. I believe it was only a rather crude and ineffectual attempt to intimidate Fillmore.
Whether Fillmore took the threat seriously or not is difficult to say. No American President had been assassinated up to that date though there was a half-hearted attempt on Jackson’s life in 1835. It seems he took it seriously enough to send the letter back to the deputy post master of N. Amherst asking him if he knew who mailed it. Curiously, he wrote this enquiry in his own hand.
[Note: This letter is from the personal collection of Richard Weiner and was transcribed and published on Spared & Shared by express consent.]
February 26th 1851
Excuse the liberty I take in addressing to you these few lines & take me if you please to be your well wisher while I say to you that I accidentally became aware that it is a notorious fact that by a private meeting in this vicinity, thy life is deliberately premeditated in case you say one word more in favor of that (as they call it) black slave till 2 & accidentally, as I before said, I find it to be a notorious fact that eight able-bodied men of true steel (as men) have been chosen to leave for Washington City tomorrow morning as spies to lay in wait for your life in case another move is [made] to favor slavery & only write you this short epistle that you may look out for them.
Yours very respectfully, — Charles Mulligan, Jr.
[docketed at bottom of letter in Fillmore’s own hand]
To the Deputy P[ost] M[aster] at North Amherst
Sir, Can you inform me who wrote the above. Respectfully yours, — Millard Fillmore
Washington City, March 2, 1851
1 Millard Fillmore: The American Presidents Series: The 13th, by Paul Finkelman, page 102.
2 I don’t understand the use of the word “till” here unless there was actually a slave named “Till” who was subject to the Fugitive Slave Law. I could not find any reference in the newspapers that would clear up this confusion. I’m inclined to believe that the author left out a word or two inadvertently.