Millard Fillmore’s letter to Abraham Lincoln, December 16, 1861: The Trent Affair


First page of Millard Fillmore's letter to Abraham Lincoln on the Trent Affair, sent December 16, 1861, 155 years ago today. Library of Congress image.

First page of Millard Fillmore’s letter to Abraham Lincoln on the Trent Affair, sent December 16, 1861, 155 years ago today. Library of Congress image.

Sometimes ex-presidents get the bug to offer advice to the person holding the office at the time.

Most of the time they let the urge pass.

But on December 16, 1861, former President Millard Fillmore shot off a letter to Abraham Lincoln, 7 months into the Civil War, warning Lincoln that a breach of relationships with Britain was to be avoided. Britain complained when U.S. warships stopped a British ship and arrested two Confederate diplomats.

It’s known as the Trent Affair, after the name of the British ship that was stopped.

It’s an example of a foreign nation interfering in domestic affairs of the U.S. Do we ever face such circumstances in the 21st century? Do we expect different results today?

Fillmore’s letter, in transcript:

Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois.

Millard Fillmore to Abraham Lincoln, Monday, December 16, 1861 (Trent Affair)

From Millard Fillmore to Abraham Lincoln, December 16, 1861

Buffalo, Dec. 16. 1861.

Sir,

I have never, under any circumstances, presumed to offer any advice, as to men or measures, to those who have succeeded me in the administration of the Government; and I beg of you to consider the few crude suggestions which I am now about to make, as mere hints from one who will feel no mortification, personally, if they should be wholly disregarded.

I can in some measure appreciate the difficulties with which the administration of the Government is now embarrassed by this unholy rebellion; for I heard the muttering thunder, and viewed the gathering storm at a distance in 1850; and while I approve most cordially of the firm stand which you have taken in support of the constitution, as it is, against insane abolitionism on one side and rebellious secessionism on the other, and hope and trust that you will remain firm; yet, it was not to speak of this that I took up my pen, but of a new danger which threatens more immediately our Northern frontier, but in its consequences, most fatally, the whole country. You of course must anticipate that I refer to a threatened rupture with England;1 for if we are so unfortunate as to be involved in a war with her at this time, the last hope of restoring the Union will vanish, and we shall be overwhelmed with the double calamities of civil and foreign war at the same time, which will utterly exhaust our resources, and may practically change the form of our government and compel us in the end to submit to a dishonorable peace.

I perceive that the telegram of this morning announces the fact from semi-official sources that, the law officers of Great Britain have given it as their opinion that the arrest of Messrs. Mason & Slidell and forcibly taking them from the Trent, a British merchant or transport vessel, was not justified by the law of nations; and that the British Cabinet were united in sending a despatch to Lord Lyon,2 protesting against the act, and demanding satisfaction by the restoration of the prisoners and a suitable apology for the insult to the British Flag. I still cherish the hope, however, that this statement may be greatly exagerated– But suppose it be true– What then? It may be said that one of two things must happen– Either, this Government must submit to the demand thus made upon it by Great Britain, or take the hazards of a war at a most inconvenient time to settle a point of international law by resort to arms. This alternative should be avoided it it can be with honor, and I venture to suggest that it may be, by urging in a firm but conciliatory argument in reply to the demand of Great Britain, our views of the Belligerent right to arrest these men, but conclude by saying that although we feel assured that we are right, yet if Great Britain after weighing our argument still adheres to the opinion that we are wrong, then as this is a purely legal question, where no insult was intended to the flag of Great Britain, nor any intention to invade her rights, and as the point in dispute is one of international law in which all maritime nations are interested, we propose to submit it to one of the crowned heads of Europe for arbitrament, agreeing to abide its award. It seems to me that Great Britain can not refuse so fair a proposition. But if she does, and insists on an unconditional compliance with her demand or war, all Christendom will then hold her responsible for the consequences.

I trust you will pardon these suggestions, which are made on the spur of the moment, without consultation with, or the knowledge of, any one; and may remain in confidence between us if you prefer that they should.

I am with sincere respect &

great haste, Truly yours

Millard Fillmore

[Note 1 On November 8, 1861 Captain Charles Wilkes of the U. S. S. San Jacinto intercepted the Trent, a British ship, and arrested James Mason and John Slidell who were on their way to Europe as representatives of the Confederacy. This violation of Britain’s neutrality nearly led to a war with the United States.]

[Note 2 Lord Lyons was the British minister to the United States.]

Could students today translate that letter, written in cursive? Maybe, for the sake of knowing history, we need to teach students how to read cursive, if not write it. Is it possible to teach reading without the writing?

Page 2, Millard Fillmore to Abraham Lincoln, on the Trent Affair. Library of Congress image.

Page 2, Millard Fillmore to Abraham Lincoln, on the Trent Affair. Library of Congress image.

 

Page 3 of Fillmore letter to Lincoln. Library of Congress image.

Page 3 of Fillmore letter to Lincoln. Library of Congress image.

 

Page 4 of Fillmore's letter to Lincoln. Library of Congress image.

Page 4 of Fillmore’s letter to Lincoln. Library of Congress image.

 

Page 6, the last page of Millard Fillmore's letter to Abraham Lincoln about the Trent Affair. Library of Congress image.

Page 5, the last page of Millard Fillmore’s letter to Abraham Lincoln about the Trent Affair. Page 6 shows only the author and topic.  Library of Congress image.

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