FILLMORE, Millard. Letter signed ("Millard Fillmore") as President, to Hugh Maxwell, Collector at the Port of New York, Washington, 12 November 1852. 5½ pages, 4to (9 11/16 x 7 5/16 in.), light blue paper, integral blank with repaired tear, tipped to a larger page, in fine condition.
CRISIS OVER CUBA: FILLMORE DEFENDS CONGRESS'S POWER TO WAGE WAR: "THE CONSTITUTION...HAS VESTED IN CONGRESS ALONE THE POWER OF DECLARING WAR... AND NEITHER THE EXECUTIVE...NOR MR. LAW HAS ANY RIGHT TO USURP THAT POWER"
A fascinating letter in which Fillmore deplores an American businessman's bellicose move against Cuba, resoundingly invoking Constitutional principles. In the late 1840s and early 1850s, the United States, pushed by southern slave-holding interests, made several efforts to buy the island of Cuba from Spain. When Spain refused to sell, several filibustering expeditions into the colony were mounted, in hopes of touching off a rebellion. George Law (1806-1881), a New York entrepreneur whose U.S. Mail Steamship Company had been awarded the bi-weekly mail route between New York, Havana, New Orleans and Chagres, became involved in Cuban intrigues when a purser on one of his ships furnished critical information about Cuba to the New York Herald, angering the Spanish Governor. When Cuban authorities vowed to bar Smith (the offending purser) from entering their harbor, Law reacted with threats to take military action himself.
Here, Fillmore attempts to thwart Law's bellicose plans: "...you learned that [Law's ship] 'Crescent City' will go to Cuba...in defiance of the Spanish Authority, and if fired upon she will be surrendered and that then he and others will immediately commence hostilities against the island...I do not admit the right of Mr. Law or any other citizen to threaten a war on his own account for the purpose of seeking redress for real or imaginary injuries." The President explicitly reminds Maxwell that "The Constitution of the United States has vested in Congress alone the power of declaring war and neither the Executive branch of the Government nor Mr. Law has any right to usurp that power by commencing a war without its authority; and if he should attempt it, it will be my duty, as it is my determination, to exert all the power confided to the Executive government by the Constitution and laws to prevent it. I am resolved at every hazard to maintain our rights in this controversy as against Spain, and I am equally resolved, that no act of our own citizens shall be permitted to place this Government in the wrong. Mr. Law has an undoubted right to pursue his lawful business, but when a question is raised between this government and a foreign nation as to whether the business which he pursues is lawful...the decision of that question belongs to the two governments and not to him."
Fillmore acknowledges that the embroglio is under discussion with the Spanish authorities, but firmly states that "the act of this government cannot be controlled by the interference of any individual." The President assures Maxwell that if Law persists and "violates the laws of a foreign nation...and thereby loses or forfeits his vessel, he can expect no indemnity for such an act of folly from this government." Law, he adds, "must wait the result of the negotiations between the two governments. This is a question not to be settled between him and Cuba nor even between the United States and Cuba, but between the United States and Spain...you are at liberty to make known the contents of this letter to Mr. Law, and to inform him that as a good citizen, I presume he will not attempt any violation of our neutrality laws by attacking Cuba."
Despite Fillmore's strong admonitions, and the removal of the government mail contract, Law defiantly sent Smith into Havana Harbor on multiple occasions. His intimidating stance was widely applauded by those who wished to annex Cuba, and Law was even considered as a Presidential candidate by the Know Nothing Party in 1856. When Fillmore received the nomination instead, Law joined the Republicans and launched public attacks upon the former President.
Provenance: Nathaniel E. Stein (sale, Sotheby Parke Bernet, 30 January 1979, lot 55).