Elbert B Smith. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
James Buchanan was neither exciting nor charismatic, but the power of his office and his character, principles, beliefs, and affinities blended with the extraordinary situations and events of his administration to make him a highly significant president. Historians may argue forever over whether or not the Civil War had become inevitable by the time Buchanan took office, but he clearly exercised a powerful influence on the crises leading to war.
When Buchanan was inaugurated in 1857, prosperity and economic expansion marked all sections, but the North and South were bitterly divided over the question of slavery in new territories, most of which were unsuited for slavery because of climate and geography. Most northerners, usually living in states that practiced severe forms of racial discrimination, were willing to tolerate slavery where it already existed but would not risk its expansion into new areas or give it moral approval by granting the legal right of expansion even into areas where it could not exist. Most southern leaders would not settle for tolerance and indeed craved moral approval in the form of equal rights for slavery whether or not any practical advantage was involved. Conversely, the denial of equal rights was a moral condemnation and a threat to the self-esteem of a proud and sensitive people.
Many northerners believed that the South was trying to spread slavery not only westward but even to the northern states. Many southerners feared that the restriction against slavery in such remote places as Oregon and New Mexico was the first step toward total abolition. Both perceptions were false, and an eloquent president able to understand the situation and the feelings of each area might have contributed much to sectional peace. Harmony was Buchanan’s primary goal, but his predilections helped make his dream impossible.
Character and Convictions
Born on 23 April 1791 to hardworking Scotch-Irish parents near Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, Buchanan graduated from Dickinson College in 1809. After a successful legal career in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and a term in the state legislature, he spent forty years, with brief interruptions, as congressman, senator, secretary of state under James K. Polk, and minister to Great Britain under Franklin Pierce.
Probably eyeing the presidency from the beginning, Buchanan carefully and shrewdly maneuvered his way through numerous controversies and crises, and usually either emerged on the popular side or avoided any public commitment at all. Some historians have considered him indecisive and weak, but his decisions and actions usually served a clear-cut purpose. In 1824 he strongly supported Henry Clay for president, but even after contradicting Andrew Jackson publicly, he was on Old Hickory’s winning side by 1828. As a representative and senator, he was regularly elected first as a Federalist and then as a Democrat in a state where each party was usually divided bitterly on both issues and personalities. As secretary of state, he opposed President Polk’s demand for 54°40′ as the boundary of Oregon; prepared a brilliant argument for 54°40′ refused to support his own argument and advocated a compromise; and, finally, on the grounds that 54°40′ was correct, refused to help prepare the message submitting 49° to the Senate. During the Mexican War he advocated only limited annexations, opposed Polk’s effort to send a prestigious peace commission for fear it would not demand enough territory, and finally opposed the actual peace treaty because it did not annex more territory to the United States. Perhaps he was indecisive, but he emerged from the bitterly controversial Polk administration with no serious political scars.
Buchanan, however, was not without strong feelings and convictions. As a young man he had vowed to remain a bachelor when his fiancée died shortly after an unexplained estrangement. He was an extrovert who craved affection and companionship, and as a congressman and senator he formed close personal friendships with southern colleagues who often left their wives at home and tended to dominate Washington’s boardinghouse society. His dearest friend and longtime roommate was Senator and later Vice President William R. King of Alabama, and Howell Cobb of Georgia and Jefferson Davis also occupied strong places in his affections. Buchanan was also the patriarch and chief financial supporter of an enormous brood of orphaned cousins, nieces, and nephews and could appreciate the southern defense of slavery as a paternalistic institution. He ultimately accumulated a fortune of some $300,000 as a lawyer and investor, but his most cherished possession was Wheatland, a manorial estate near Lancaster. He could understand the psychic rewards of a marginally profitable plantation because he shared them. For these and perhaps other reasons, James Buchanan by 1857 had thoroughly identified himself emotionally with the South and its fears and ambitions. He occasionally expressed a dislike for slavery, but at no time did he publicly oppose its expansion or express any repugnance against such a possibility. In 1826 he denounced slavery as a political and moral evil that could not be remedied without the “introduction of evils infinitely greater.” Emancipation, he opined, would turn the slaves into masters, and “who could for a moment indulge in the horrible idea of abolishing slavery by the massacre of the high-minded, and the chivalrous race of men in the South? … For my own part I would, without hesitation, buckle on my knapsack, and march … in defense of their cause.”
In 1850 Buchanan supported the Compromise and condemned the Wilmot Proviso, which would have forbidden slavery in the territories taken from Mexico. Serving as minister to England from 1853 to 1857, he avoided the bitter debates over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery north of 36°30′. With the U.S. ministers to France and Spain (both southerners), however, he co-authored the Ostend Manifesto, which urged the annexation of Cuba by force if necessary to protect American slavery against the threat of abolition in Cuba.
The President and His Administration
In 1856 Buchanan won the Democratic nomination in a grueling convention that rejected its more popular and more controversial candidates. He was elected president with only 45 percent of the popular vote and carried only four of the fourteen northern states. In their campaign platform, the Republicans had condemned the pro-southern President Pierce and his administration as criminals to be severely punished. In return, numerous southern leaders warned that the election of an entirely northern Republican president would justify and require secession. The Republican Frémont had won a northern majority, but Buchanan and the Democrats had won a slim national victory, greatly helped by the Know-Nothing candidacy of Millard Fillmore. Any further defection to the Republicans by northern Democrats in 1860 could easily elect a Republican president and make secession likely. Thus, Buchanan’s goal of sectional peace would require first the reunification of the Democratic party.
Party unity would demand of Buchanan a harmonious relationship with Senator Stephen A. Douglas, the party’s most popular northwestern leader. Douglas had authored the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise barrier against western slavery and decreed that territorial citizens themselves could decide for or against slavery. Douglas was still popular in the South and had contributed much time and, by his own account, $40,000 to Buchanan’s election. Buchanan, however, envied, resented, and disliked Douglas, and southern radicals considered the senator a threat to their ambitions. After thanking the famous senator in a letter addressed to “Samuel A. Douglas,” the president awarded the northwestern political patronage, including cabinet posts, to Douglas’ most bitter enemies.
Advised primarily by southern friends, Buchanan chose for his cabinet four slaveholding southerners: Howell Cobb, Jacob Thompson, John B. Floyd, and Aaron Brown for the departments of Treasury, Interior, War, and the Post Office, respectively. The State and Navy departments and the attorney general’s office went to northerners Lewis Cass, Isaac Toucey, and Jeremiah Black. Cass was senile and useless; Toucey was pro-southern, like the president; and Black would be pro-southern on legal grounds until after the actual secession. The big-city politicians, representatives of commerce and industry, Free-Soil Democrats, and popular-sovereignty followers of Douglas were ignored. The cabinet was a homogeneous group of rural politicians and lawyers still wedded to the America of Andrew Jackson, while the president himself had been either out of office or serving as minister in England for the past eight years. The group was united by strong southern viewpoints and antiquated and often inaccurate assumptions. Many historians have considered Buchanan a weak president dominated by his cabinet, often called “the Directory,” but this is incorrect. Buchanan was an energetic, shrewd, stubborn man who deliberately selected advisers and subordinates whose views he already shared. The unanimity with which they faced their opponents and the disagreement of historians with the wisdom of their policies do not mean that the president was a weakling.
It is true that Buchanan did have a unique relationship with his cabinet. His niece Harriet Lane was his official hostess, but his cabinet members and their wives were his real family. They visited and came to dinner frequently and provided the companionship he needed. Cobb in particular occasionally lived at the White House for weeks at a time. Along with a few like-minded congressmen and senators, they were a clan bound together by intense loyalty and a total inability or unwillingness to recognize the wisdom, integrity, or justice of any opponent or opposing position. To the end of his life, Buchanan blamed the Civil War primarily on the work of a few misguided northern fanatics. The massive northern vote for Frémont in 1856 and for Lincoln in 1860 apparently escaped his attention.
Preparing his inaugural address, Buchanan faced a serious dilemma. His platform had endorsed popular sovereignty but had conveniently left unspecified the point at which the decision on slavery would be made. Southerners insisted that the matter could be decided only at the point of statehood, after slavery had had at least a chance and when a rejection could be attributed to climate, geography, or other impersonal forces. Northerners, including Douglas, would have the decision made by the territorial constitution before any significant number of slaves could arrive and before the accompanying racial prejudice could work to preserve even a minimal development of the institution. A rejection at this point would deny slavery any chance at all and could be based only on moral grounds insulting to proud southern sensibilities.
Buchanan shared the southern view, but saw an opportunity to shift the decision to a case pending before the Supreme Court. A slave, Dred Scott, had sued for freedom in Missouri on the grounds that he had lived with his late owner, an army officer, for several years in Illinois and Wisconsin, areas free under the Missouri Compromise. By the time the case worked its way through the lower courts, the officer’s widow had married an abolitionist. Scott’s freedom was assured, but all concerned insisted upon a judicial ruling against Scott for the sake of principle and politics. In response to Buchanan’s inquiry, Justice John Catron had informed the president-elect that the five southern justices would probably allow the Missouri court’s ruling to stand and would avoid a broad pro-southern statement of principle limited only to them. Catron also suggested, however, that if Justice Robert Grier of Pennsylvania would support their position, the southerners might change their minds and deal with the general questions related to territorial slavery. Quite improperly, Buchanan wrote Grier a strong request that he join the southerners. In his inaugural address, Buchanan announced that the Court would soon settle the issue of territorial slavery and predicted that sectional peace would result.
On 6 March 1857 the Court announced two basic principles: First, no Negro could be a citizen, and Scott’s suit was therefore invalid. Second, slaves were property protected by the Constitution in all territories; therefore, neither the federal government nor any territorial government could bar slavery from any territory, and the Missouri Compromise therefore had always been unconstitutional. This direct application of the Constitution to territories contradicted all past and future rulings (which granted Congress arbitrary authority over territories) and caused an uproar in the North. In northern eyes, the Supreme Court, in collusion with the president, had destroyed all legal barriers to western slavery and had prepared the way for a complete southern conquest of the region. Nothing could have helped the Free-Soil Republican party more.
The Lecompton Constitution
Buchanan correctly believed that the Dred Scott decision would not expand slavery anywhere, but he promptly rejected an ideal opportunity to prove this to his northern critics. Kansas already had a large antislavery majority and was ready to become a free state whenever a free and fair election could be achieved. Instead, a convention at Lecompton, Kansas, elected by a small fraction of the eligible voters, wrote a proslavery state constitution and ruled that Kansas could vote for it with or without slavery but could not vote against the constitution itself. Only a handful voted in the December 1857 referendum, and the result was an overwhelming victory for slavery. With incontrovertible evidence that the Lecompton Constitution was acceptable only to a small minority of Kansans, Buchanan ignored the pleas of his own appointed Kansas governor and asked Congress to admit Kansas as a slave state. Kansas, he announced, was “as much a slave state as Georgia or South Carolina.”
To southerners, Kansas was a slave state won in a fair contest. To northerners, the administration and its Kansas allies had violated the sacred democratic precept that the people of any state should be allowed to accept or reject any constitution in a fair election. In the Senate, Douglas increased Buchanan’s hatred and damaged permanently his own presidential chances in the South by opposing the Lecompton Constitution as a fraud. Nonetheless, the administration and the southern leadership mustered enough votes in the Senate to approve the admission of Kansas under the Lecompton Constitution by a vote of thirty-three to twenty-five. In the House, a long and bitter debate punctuated by a free-for-all fistfight on the floor ended in a compromise that ultimately returned the constitution to Kansas for another vote. On 2 August 1858 the people of Kansas rejected the Lecompton Constitution by a six-to-one margin. Southerners were furious over the loss, while northerners were no less angry over what had been attempted. The northern vision of a slavocracy dominating the White House, Senate, and Supreme Court aroused defiance everywhere.
Buchanan responded to Douglas’ apostasy on Kansas by using every power at his command against the senator’s reelection in 1858. In Illinois, civil servants and newspapers dependent on federal contracts were ordered to oppose Douglas, and an administration Democrat became a third candidate. The contest featured the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which overnight made Abraham Lincoln a national figure but weakened Douglas still further in the South. Lincoln announced a formula on slavery that inspired moral comfort without imposing any disturbing sense of obligation. Slavery, he said, should be left alone in the South, but its containment should be firmly established to put it on the road to “ultimate extinction.” This, he argued, would put the northern mind at ease and stop the antislavery agitation, which in turn would stop the southern demands and threats of secession. Douglas in his so-called Freeport Doctrine sought to reconcile popular sovereignty with the Dred Scott decision. Even though the Court had forbidden government action against territorial slavery, he said, a territorial legislature could effectively bar slavery by refusing to pass laws for its protection. Douglas was reelected, but President Buchanan had played a major role in promoting Lincoln’s future and weakening the hopes of Douglas for the presidency.
Recession and “Cold War”
Meanwhile, the country had slipped into a brief economic recession in 1857–1858, and in the North new demands for tariffs, homesteads, a more effective banking system, and internal improvements at federal expense had been renewed. Most of these efforts were defeated in Congress, and Buchanan vetoed those that escaped. His solution to the recession was to deliver lectures on the virtues of thrift and the sinfulness of speculation. Thus, the midterm elections of 1858, which produced Republican landslide victories throughout the North, were probably a referendum on the economy and on James Buchanan as much as a vote against slavery, but many southerners thought otherwise. Also, Senator William H. Seward of New York, in response to northern Democratic efforts to minimize the party differences on slavery, cited an “irrepressible conflict” between freedom and slavery in which only the Republicans supported freedom. Seward, a moderate prone to indulge in reckless language just for effect, promptly denied the implications of his words, but the South was not mollified.
In the background throughout the Buchanan administration a “cold war” of symbolic situations and events also developed. The actual number of runaway slaves was slight, and most were returned without incident; but many northern states still maintained laws in opposition to federal fugitive-slave laws. Several runaways were helped to escape under dramatic and well-publicized circumstances, and the Wisconsin legislature actually passed an ordinance of nullification against the federal law of 1850. The border states, from which most runaways escaped, were relatively quiet, but the Deep South, which rarely lost a slave, was in constant turmoil.
The corollary northern grievance was the refusal of southern federal juries to convict slave traders caught importing slaves in violation of federal law. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) continued to circulate widely, and Hinton Rowan Helper of North Carolina published The Impending Crisis (1857), a devastating attack on slavery for its crushing effects on nonslaveholding southern whites and a call for violent revolution. Frederick Law Olmsted proposed no action, but his essentially friendly volumes describing his southern travels were an equally severe indictment of the overall effects of slavery. On the southern side, George Fitzhugh offered two books on the humane and paternalistic characteristics of slavery as opposed to the vicious cruelties of northern capitalistic free labor. Fitzhugh was certain the North would ultimately see the light and adopt a modified version of southern slavery for its own white labor. In other books and newspapers, southerners were told that the North was siphoning off a major portion of the wealth produced by their work and talent. Northerners wrote of southern backwardness. Southerners denounced northern industrialism and its accompanying reform movements as fountains of socialism and atheism. Most of the Protestant churches painfully split into northern and southern divisions.
John Brown’s Raid
Still, the common bonds of language, tradition, patriotism, economic interdependence, and religion appeared to be holding firm until October 1859, when the fiery abolitionist John Brown invaded Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with 22 men and some 950 iron-tipped spears. The effort was promptly crushed, but Brown had clearly intended to rouse the slaves to revolt, arm them with guns and spears, and begin an all-out war against the whites. Governor Henry A. Wise of Virginia refused to have Brown examined for insanity, and Brown insisted on the martyrdom Wise was eager to confer. Still suffering from wounds, Brown was carried into the courtroom on a cot, and he flatly denied any purpose beyond helping slaves to escape. He lied with magnificent eloquence and dignity, and the circumstances of his trial, along with his courage on the scaffold, helped mitigate the initial northern feeling that he was a monster and a madman. The abolitionists promptly canonized him. Thoreau compared his execution to the crucifixion of Christ, and others took up the comparison. More important, because Brown had been financed by a handful of rich northerners, southern radicals emphasized the intent, rather than the result, to convince perhaps hundreds of thousands of previously moderate southerners that the North really did intend to invade the South and start a horrible race war similar to that in Haiti from 1791 to 1804.
The Election of 1860
No one was more shaken by Brown’s raid than James Buchanan. In his memoirs he listed Seward, Helper, John Brown, and the Republican party generally as the chief authors of the Civil War, and 1860 found him and his White House family still convinced that they were an island of sanity and justice in a cruel and unfair world. Thus, when southern Democrats demanded a southern presidential nominee and a presidential platform guaranteeing federal protection for slavery in all territories regardless of majority public sentiment within such territories, Buchanan lost touch with reality and agreed. Some of his closest friends warned that the election of a Republican president in 1860 would bring secession, and Buchanan should have believed them. While a moderate southern Democratic candidate might gain a significant northern vote, he could not possibly do so on a platform including a federal slave code for the territories, and under any circumstances he would need the support of Stephen A. Douglas. Indeed, the election of Douglas seemed to many the best possible hope for peace. He was pledged to allow the people of any territory to have slavery if they wanted it, and he had studiously refrained from any moral condemnation of the institution. He had also, however, refused to help Buchanan and the South saddle antislavery Kansas with a proslavery constitution, and Buchanan’s personal hatred for him had become a mania. Buchanan had vowed publicly in 1856 that he would serve only one term, but he probably resented the total absence of any requests that he break his pledge. He knew that like his predecessor, Franklin Pierce, he could not be re-nominated, but he was determined to play a vital role in the immediate future of the Democratic party.
As a reward for southern good behavior at the Democratic convention of 1856, Charleston, South Carolina, had been selected for the convention of 1860. Radical southerners, led by William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama, were determined to split the Democratic party by demanding federal protection for territorial slavery, and they were shrewd enough to know that the northern Democratic delegates could not accept such a platform and still hope to win the federal and state offices for which many of them were candidates. But the “Fire-Eaters,” as extreme advocates of southern interests were known, needed at least some northern support to prevent a reasonable platform and the nomination of Douglas, and this was provided by James Buchanan. Much of the Northeast had already fallen to the Republicans, and most of the delegates from this region, therefore, were federal officeholders beholden to the Buchanan administration. Also, it should be remembered, a considerable residue of southern support existed in numerous northern cities, where working people feared the possible competition of both foreign immigrants and newly freed slaves. Thus, the convention was essentially managed by friends of the president, for whom the defeat of Douglas was the primary object and a territorial slave code was entirely acceptable.
In the spring of 1860 the Democratic delegates arriving by sea, coach, and train found Charleston a beautiful city graced by blooming flowers and lovely young women in from the plantations to enjoy the social season, attend the convention, and supply adrenaline to the more eloquent radical orators. Southerners and northerners of the Buchanan camp met gracious hospitality everywhere, while the Douglas supporters were housed in a hot, uncomfortable dormitory. Tempers were shredded, and reason gave way to emotion almost immediately. The so-called Buchaneers and the southerners delayed the selection of a candidate until the adoption of the platform, and the platform committee recommended the southern program. In the ensuing debate, the great southern orator William L. Yancey roused the convention and galleries to a fever pitch by a long recitation of northern aggressions and by accusing northern Democrats of supporting slavery for constitutional rather than moral reasons. If northern Democrats would not make a moral commitment to slavery by supporting his platform, said Yancey, they would deserve even greater condemnation than the hated Republicans. Senator George E. Pugh of Ohio spoke for most northern Democrats when he replied bitterly that after years of losing elections at home by defending the South, northern Democrats were now being asked to avow publicly the righteousness of slavery to save the party. The Democratic party, shouted Pugh, would not be “dragged at the chariot wheel of 300,000 slave masters,” and its leaders would not “put their hands on their mouths and their mouths in the dust.”
On 30 April 1860 the national Democratic party ran aground, having been steered onto the reef in large part by the party helmsman, James Buchanan. The Charleston convention rejected Yancey’s platform and voted for popular sovereignty. The delegates from eight southern states bolted the convention. Several weeks later, meeting in Baltimore, the northern Democrats nominated Douglas, while the southerners nominated Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky to run on their extremist platform. Buchanan and former president Pierce promptly endorsed Breckinridge, and the White House in effect became his campaign headquarters.
Meanwhile, a collection of former Whigs and Unionist Democrats nominated John Bell of Tennessee on a brief platform that spoke only for sectional peace. During the election campaign, this Constitutional Union party circulated a pamphlet outlining the horrendous results that would follow a Lincoln victory and thereby contributed much to southern hysteria.
The Republicans, almost certain of victory against their divided opponents, met in Chicago and rejected Seward, the conservative front-runner who had too often sounded like a dangerous radical, and turned instead to the moderate Abraham Lincoln, who had spoken only for containment of slavery and a hope for its ultimate extinction. With a candidate who fit almost every American stereotype of what a president should be and a platform that promised tariffs, homesteads, internal improvements, liberal immigration laws, and western railroads—something for almost everyone—the Republicans had an appeal far beyond the question of slavery, and their candidate could be reasonably presented as the one most likely to bring sectional peace. The platform did not even require Lincoln to oppose the expansion of slavery unless a specific situation should arise, and no such event was even on the horizon.
Only Douglas campaigned actively, and placing sectional peace above his ambitions, he assured southern listeners that the election of Lincoln would pose no threat to slavery and begged them to remain calm regardless of the result. When hecklers asked how Douglas would react to secession, the “Little Giant” shouted back that he would suppress it with military force.
Throughout the South the 1860 election campaign was one long rehearsal for secession. Politicians and editors filled the air with warnings of northern conspiracies, new John Brown invasions, slave rebellions, the burning of homes, and the murder of women and children. Congressman Lawrence Keitt of South Carolina would never “permit a party stained with treason, hideous with insurrection, and dripping with blood, to occupy the government.” In Dalton, Georgia, thirty-six blacks were arrested and charged with a plot to burn the town and kill all the people. In Talladega, Alabama, two whites and eight blacks were arrested, and one white man was hanged. Rumors that the wells were being poisoned swept through Texas, and a moderate opponent of slavery was hanged. A vendor of Breckinridge campaign badges was almost hanged because a Lincoln button fell from his bag. The threat of mob violence shadowed local conservatives and Unionists who might be tempted to speak out for common sense.
James Buchanan might have supported the contention of Douglas that a Lincoln victory would not justify secession, and he could have combined his support for Breckinridge with warnings that secession would be resisted. He considered the Breckin-ridge platform a reasonable solution and probably hoped the threats of disunion would do no more than force a northern surrender to southern demands. The administration newspaper, the Constitution, subject to Buchanan’s orders under pain of immediate dismissal as the recipient of executive patronage, cooperated zealously with the disunionists. Lincoln’s election, wrote editor William M. Browne, would put abolitionist officeholders in every community to spread antislavery ideas among whites and foment rebellion among slaves.
Douglas feared a rumored southern plot to seize Washington if Breckinridge should carry the border states, and campaigned vigorously in those areas. In the end, Bell carried Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, while Douglas himself took Missouri. Breckin-ridge carried Maryland by only 700 votes. The total vote apparently indicated that most southerners still hoped to remain in the Union. Lincoln received 1,866,452 votes; Douglas, 1,376,957; Breckinridge, 849,781; and Bell, 588,879. While Breckinridge carried eleven of the fifteen slave states, he won a majority in only seven of them. The majority in eight of the fifteen voted for Bell and Douglas. The combined slave-state vote was 570,000 for Breckinridge and 705,000 for Bell and Douglas. Even in the states that seceded almost immediately, Bell and Douglas won 48 percent of the vote.
Equally important, the Republicans did not win either house of Congress. As Douglas pointed out, if the southerners would stay in their seats, Lincoln, tied hand and foot by his opposition, would be “an object of pity and commiseration rather than of fear and apprehension by a brave and chivalrous people,” and in four short years another election would quickly remedy any real grievances. Also, the Supreme Court remained under firm southern control. Whatever the long-range prospects for slavery, the southern states were clearly in no danger from either Lincoln or the Republican party in 1861 unless they should try to divide a nation that Lincoln and most northerners would be determined to preserve.
In 1860, Lincoln won only 39.9 percent of the popular vote, the price of slaves remained high, and no one was threatening even to tax slavery, much less abolish it. Also, southern statesmen were fully aware of the northern Jim Crow system of discrimination against free blacks. Free-Soilism depended as much upon racist opposition to blacks in western territories as it did upon moral objections to slavery, and southern leaders knew it. The lower South had announced its ultimata before and during the campaign, however, and there could be no turning back. On 20 December 1860 a South Carolina convention unanimously passed an ordinance of secession with specific indictments of the northern states, and during the next several weeks, six more states followed. Of the remaining eight slave states, Delaware ignored the matter, while seven rejected secession for the moment.
Ironically, the reasons cited by those that seceded were far more applicable to those that did not secede. Much was made of northern refusals to return escapees; and with John Brown the only example, the North was accused of inciting slaves “by emissaries, books, and pictures, to servile insurrection.” Perhaps most important, the northern states had “assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions,” had “denounced as sinful the institution of slavery,” and had “permitted the open establishment among them of societies whose avowed object is to disturb the peace … of other states.” And finally, the North had expressed the ultimate condemnation by electing to the presidency a man who not only denounced slavery as wrong but had openly said that the nation could not endure half slave and half free. Economic arguments were conspicuously absent. Southerners were determined to create a new nation that would prove to the world, to the hated Republicans, and perhaps to themselves that their critics were wrong and that slavery really was a humane institution compatible with America’s most cherished values. It is important to remember that secession and the ensuing war would have been impossible without the support of the vast southern white population who owned no slaves but would fight for a system designed to keep blacks in an inferior position.
Just as Buchanan had contributed significantly to the election of Lincoln, he now aided the secession effort in states where the issue might have been in doubt. His southern cabinet members stayed in office until events within their respective states or special circumstances forced their withdrawal. All brought every pressure of friendship to bear, and while Cobb resigned on 8 December, after Buchanan publicly denied the right of secession, the others continued for weeks to wield a pro-southern influence and keep the southern leaders informed of his feelings and decisions. Also, southern congressmen and senators remained in Congress up to, and in some cases beyond, the secession of their states. They participated in debates, served on peace-seeking committees, did all they could to block any compromises, and bombarded their friend the president with requests, persuasion, and demands.
At first, both president and cabinet were unanimous in their sympathy for the South. A Pennsylvania judge wrote Attorney General Black a letter justifying secession, and when read to the president and cabinet, “it excited universal admiration and approbation for its eloquence and its truth.” As always, Buchanan avoided all contact with Republicans, Free-Soil moderate Democrats, or anyone else willing to discuss the irritations, grievances, and fears of the North. Not until the end of January 1861 did he break with Browne, editor of the party’s mouthpiece, who openly advocated and defended secession. His annual message to Congress on 3 December 1860 came before any state had actually seceded, although most of the federal officials in South Carolina had already resigned; and, as always, he ignored completely the northern side of the argument.
Since the Mexican War, an undetermined but clearly significant number of northerners had come to consider the southern territorial demands part of a gigantic slave-power conspiracy to spread the blighting institution and gain absolute control of the government. Northeasterners resented the southern success in blocking tariffs, while north-westerners blamed the slavocracy for their failure to get homesteads and internal improvements. Northerners everywhere had long chafed under the domination of southern and pro-southern presidents, southern cabinets, a southern-dominated Senate, and a southern-minded Supreme Court. Eight of the first fourteen presidents had been staveholders, and among the six northern presidents only John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Millard Fillmore had expressed any serious criticisms of slavery. Pierce and Buchanan had supported every southern wish. Southern leaders had never grasped the fact that much of the northern enmity they resented so bitterly was a normal response to their own words and actions. They had long needed a president who would at least try to make them understand this, but the task was beyond the comprehension of James Buchanan.
The South needed reassurances, but not a presidential endorsement for secessionist arguments. Buchanan, however, blamed the crisis entirely on the “intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery.” Congressional and territorial efforts to exclude slavery from the territories and state violations of the fugitive-slave laws could have been endured, he said, but “the incessant and violent agitation of the slavery question” had produced its “malign influence on the slaves … Many a matron throughout the South retires at night in dread of what may befall herself and her children before the morning … no political union, however fraught with blessings and benefits” could endure “if the necessary consequence be to render the homes and firesides of nearly half the parties to it habitually and hopelessly insecure. Sooner or later the bonds of such a Union must be severed.” Reviewing twenty-five years of “inflammatory appeals,” Buchanan announced that peace and harmony could easily be restored if the slave states were “let alone and permitted to manage their domestic institutions in their own way.” The Supreme Court, he continued, had ruled that a territorial legislature could not bar slavery, but northern radicals would give such a legislature the (power to annul the sacred rights of property.” Furthermore, if the northern states did not immediately repeal their “unconstitutional and obnoxious enactments” against the fugitive-slave laws, “the injured States, after having first used all peaceful and constitutional means to effect redress, would be justified in revolutionary resistance to the government of the Union.”
After admitting that certain grievances would justify secession, Buchanan argued rather brilliantly that secession was unconstitutional, saying that the Founding Fathers had never intended any such right and “the solemn sanction of religion” had been added in the oaths of office taken by federal and state officers. He suggested, however, that secession might be justified if it was called revolution instead of an inherent constitutional right. The right of resistance against oppression existed “independently of all constitutions” and was “embodied in strong and express language in our own Declaration of Independence.” The federal government, therefore, had no power either to recognize secession or to coerce any state to remain in the Union. And finally, said Buchanan, either Congress or the states should call a constitutional convention that could emphasize the duty of the federal government to protect slavery in all the territories throughout their territorial existence, reconfirm the right of masters to have escaped slaves returned, and declare all northern state laws hindering this process to be null and void.
Buchanan had clearly learned nothing from the election of 1860. John Breckinridge, with a platform that embodied Buchanan’s suggestions, had received almost no northern votes and had not even won a popular majority in the slaveholding states. Federal protection for slavery where a popular majority opposed it violated a basic precept of democracy and had already been rejected overwhelmingly by northern voters.
Thus, the president defended the southerners’ own excuses for secession, denied them any such right, announced that he would not coerce them, and declared that secession could be prevented only by concessions that every southerner knew would never be made. The impact of his message on the secession conventions cannot be measured, but it must have weakened the Unionists, who were strong in several southern states. To northerners, the message was further evidence that southerners were ruling the country, and it probably made most of them even less receptive to compromise proposals. Southerners, on the other hand, found their radical arguments vindicated but were angered by Buchanan’s refusal to admit the right of secession.
To his credit, Buchanan was keenly aware of the bloodshed and mass suffering a civil war would bring. He understood the depth of southern anger, pride, fears, determination, and courage, and he also knew the blood, treasure, and power the north could, and would, expend for the Union if a military confrontation should occur. He hoped the border states could be kept from seceding and prayed that peace could be maintained until the erring sisters recognized their mistake and rejoined the nation voluntarily. He eagerly supported every attempt by Congress to find a compromise, but all such efforts failed.
Just two days before the secession of South Carolina, a Senate committee headed by John J. Crittenden offered a plan to extend the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific, but southerners and northerners alike rejected it. A House committee headed by Thomas Corwin proposed a repeal of the state personal-liberty laws, a southern jury trial for suspected fugitives, and a thirteenth amendment permanently denying Congress any right to deal with slavery. The amendment ultimately passed both houses and had been ratified by one state before the Battle of Fort Sumter. An ad hoc committee of national leaders chaired by former president John Tyler was equally unsuccessful.
Buchanan sent an emissary to Illinois with a plea for Lincoln to join him in a call for a national referendum on the Crittenden proposals, but the president-elect refused. Lincoln quite correctly believed that the South would accept no concessions less than those already rejected by northerners in the 1860 election. During the Corwin committee deliberations, Lincoln did agree that he would not oppose the admission of New Mexico if it should choose slavery, as long as everyone understood that this would be the final concession. The seceding states rejected the offer as a plot to add another free state, even though New Mexico was the only territory left where slavery could have survived even temporarily.
Buchanan, meanwhile, continued to act as though the 1860 election had never occurred. Secession, he argued, had been caused by a misapprehension in the South of the true feelings of the northern people and a transfer of the question “from political assemblies to the ballot box … would speedily redress the serious grievances which the South had suffered.” Unfortunately for Buchanan’s aspirations, nothing the North would offer could keep the lower South from seceding, and nothing would induce Abraham Lincoln to accept a division of the Union. Neither James Buchanan nor a national convention could change these facts.
Buchanan could either make his successor’s task far more difficult or to leave him with a situation uniquely designed to place the burden for beginning a war squarely on the South. Several federal forts located in the South, including those at Charleston, remained in northern hands, and Buchanan was under constant pressure to surrender them peacefully to the South. His southern friends desperately wished to confront the incoming president with a fait accompli, but for once Buchanan’s head triumphed over his heart.
In late October 1860, a week before the elections, General Winfield Scott, commander in chief of the army and the Whig candidate for president in 1852, had written Secretary of War John B. Floyd that a broken Union could be reunited only by a civil war and that a lesser evil would be the division of the nation into as many as four new nations. After this startling suggestion, Scott recommended that nine federal forts in the South be immediately garrisoned but added that with most of the army stationed in the West, only four hundred men were available. Scott’s “Views” were immediately relayed to Floyd’s southern friends, and in January 1861, Scott published them. Throughout the following crises, Scott’s advice to both Buchanan and Lincoln continued to be equally inconsistent. If either president had wished to surrender the forts, he could have done so with Scott’s publicly expressed support, although the general would later insist that his alternative suggestions expressed his true sentiments.
Scott had correctly recognized the potential of the forts for triggering a war. The secessionists quickly seized all but those at Dry Tortugas and Key West, which could easily be defended, and those at Pensacola and Charleston, which posed serious problems. Fort Pickens, at Pensacola, was vulnerable, but it was located outside the harbor and could be reinforced from the sea without danger from shore batteries. At Charleston, Forts Moultrie and Johnson were shore installations and Castle Pinckney stood on a small island near the shore, while the unfinished Fort Sumter was a brick pentagon only fifty feet high on a rock in the middle of the harbor. Ships trying to reinforce Sumter could be attacked by shore batteries, as could the fort itself, but the shore batteries would be equally clear targets for heavily armed warships if the federal government should decide to use them. If the Carolinians would permit a token Union force to remain in the forts indefinitely, perhaps no explosion would occur, the border slave states would remain in the Union, and peaceful efforts to win back the others could continue. A southern attack could bring northern public opinion immediately up to the point of war.
Shortly after Lincoln’s election, Buchanan and War Secretary Floyd gave the Charleston command to Major Robert Anderson, a southerner who was friendly to slavery and presumably would handle the situation with tact and understanding, but the fifty-six-year-old Anderson was first of all a Unionist and a professional soldier. He immediately began calling for reinforcements and argued that making the forts invulnerable would be the best way to avoid bloodshed. Supported by Cass and Black, Buchanan ordered reinforcements over the violent objections of his southern cabinet members. Floyd persuaded his chief to wait for a conference with General Scott. Before Scott reached Washington, Cobb and Thompson promised for South Carolina that the forts would not be molested, and Buchanan, in turn, revoked his order for reinforcements.
At no time was Buchanan ever ready to abandon the forts. They were federal property, not to be taken legally under either the right of secession, which he opposed, or the right of revolution, which he supported. The same constitutional scruples that denied him the right to coerce the seceding states also denied him the right to surrender the forts. Further, the northern press, like almost all other ascertainable public opinion, was angrily opposed to any suggestion that the forts would not be held, and Buchanan had always had a strong instinct for political survival as well as for his place in history. If the forts should be lost through their neglect, he warned Floyd, “it were better for you and me both to be thrown into the Potomac with millstones tied about our necks.”
Until his resignation on 20 December, Assistant Secretary of State William H. Trescot represented South Carolina at the White House, and afterward he remained an official envoy. As Buchanan continued to insist that he could neither make concessions nor recognize Carolina negotiators as accredited diplomats, the forts remained unreinforced and unattacked by mutual consent. On 11 December, Cass resigned when Buchanan refused to send additional men to the forts, even though only two weeks earlier Cass had strongly opposed the right of the government to coerce a seceded state. Scott also urged the dispatch of three hundred men to Fort Moultrie, but Buchanan refused for the same reasons he had given Cass: no state had yet seceded and Congress was still debating possible compromises. Buchanan moved Black to State and promoted Edwin M. Stanton to attorney general. The last three had supported the Dred Scott decision and the candidacy of Breckin-ridge for president, but recognizing the public temper, they now became the antisecession war hawks in the cabinet.
On 22 December a scandal broke involving corruption in the War Department resulting from the incompetence if not the actual venality of John Floyd, who had also ordered a shipment of heavy guns from Pittsburgh to Texas. Black furiously denounced Floyd on both counts. Five days later, Anderson spiked the guns at Fort Moultrie and moved his command by night into the less vulnerable Fort Sumter. Buchanan’s southern friends came singly and collectively to threaten war unless the move should be countermanded. When Buchanan ultimately refused, Floyd resigned in protest from a position already untenable because of his malfeasance in office.
On 31 December, Buchanan, on Scott’s advice, ordered the warship Brooklyn to sail immediately to Fort Sumter with troops, stores, and provisions. Scott then changed his mind and suggested that the Brooklyn might have difficulty maneuvering in Charleston harbor and that a fast, shallow-draft steamer might accomplish the mission with greater secrecy and success. On 5 January 1861 the Star of the West, loaded with men and supplies, sailed from New York. On the same day, Anderson reported that he needed no immediate assistance, and Scott himself sent the ship a countermanding order, which arrived after it had sailed. Scott then ordered the Brooklyn to pursue the Star of the West and give aid if it should be damaged. If the Star could not land, it should return to Norfolk. At Charleston on 9 January it was greeted by heavy gunfire and immediately retreated. The shore batteries were within range of Anderson’s guns at Fort Sumter, but he had received no warning that the ship was coming and was reluctant to start a battle without orders.
Buchanan was briefly a hero for rejecting the southern demands, but the ill-fated relief expedition brought attacks from every side. Northern editors called him a weakling, secessionists were furious because he had sent the ship at all, and southern Unionists agreed with the northerners. On 18 January, Scott allowed the press to publish his “Views” of October 1860, and his suggestion that secession was permissible and preferable to civil war must have encouraged the secessionists in the states still debating the issue. As other southern states seceded one by one, their delegates continued to hound Buchanan for a promise either to withdraw Anderson or refrain from sending reinforcements. For the rest of his term Buchanan kept answering that he would send help only if Anderson requested it. Determined to be prepared, the administration organized a relief expedition of four small steamers in New York with orders to be ready to sail immediately. Scott, Black, and Stanton wished to send this fleet before the harbor defenses could be made stronger, but until the day of Lincoln’s inauguration Anderson continued to advise that he was safe and that such an expedition would suffer heavy casualties and do more harm than good.
Congress, meanwhile, refused Buchanan’s every request for authority to do the things he probably did not wish to do anyhow. Bills for calling the militia and increasing his military power were quickly defeated, and no bill to raise money for defense was ever proposed. Heavily criticized for inaction, he replied that with Congress in session he could not use military force without congressional authority. Lincoln would later start with the advantage of an adjourned Congress. A congressional committee dismissed as groundless the charge that Floyd had conspired to send huge quantities of arms to the South, but various northern papers continued to stir up suspicions that the president was trying to arm the South. General Scott’s first report to Lincoln and his later charges were in the same vein but were quite unfair. Buchanan did strengthen the other forts, and they remained in Union hands. Substitution of the Star of the West for the Brooklyn was Scott’s own idea, and unlike Scott, Buchanan had never suggested publicly that secession should be accepted.
As his oldest and dearest southern friends vied with northern editors in denouncing him as a traitor, the weary president considered inauguration day on 4 March to be truly a day of deliverance. As he sat in the Capitol signing last-minute bills, a surprising and ominous message arrived. After weeks of reassurances, Anderson had just reported that a successful reinforcement of his command would take twenty thousand men. Buchanan and his cabinet were now vulnerable to unfair charges of gross negligence or worse. As a final act, they prepared a letter for Lincoln summarizing all previous dealings with Fort Sumter and explaining the naval force in readiness in New York. The crisis now belonged to Abraham Lincoln.
Foreign Policy: The Imperialist
Ironically, if the sectional quarrel had not overshadowed all other events, Buchanan might be remembered as a bold and vigorous imperialist, in part for his role in co-authoring the Ostend Manifesto. Futher, in a special message to Congress in 1858 he concluded, “It is, beyond question, the destiny of our race to spread themselves over the continent of North America, and this at no distant day.”
In 1857 he ordered twenty-five hundred troops under Colonel Albert Sydney Johnston to suppress the Utah Mormons, and only the heroic work and tact of Thomas L. Kane brought the Saints into sufficient submission to avoid a bloody war. Buchanan publicly condemned the filibustering efforts of William Walker in Central America, but the Department of State released Walker, and Buchanan reprimanded Commodore Hiram Paulding for using armed force in the territory of a friendly nation, Nicaragua, while making the arrest. Walker later insisted that Buchanan had offered him secret encouragement, and Nicaragua angrily denounced the president for Walker’s activities.
Buchanan boldly defied the British in several controversies. Fortunately, Disraeli and other British leaders had concluded that American control of Central America might increase the productivity of the region and thereby expand the market for British goods. Under Buchanan’s pressure, the British made sweeping concessions to local government in the area. Relations with Britain were further complicated by British efforts to stop the African slave trade. Though committed by treaty to assist in this effort, the American government admitted no right of search in peacetime, and most slavers, regardless of nationality, would raise the American flag when British ships appeared. In 1858, when the British sent a small fleet to Cuba and the Gulf of Mexico, Buchanan, with full Senate support, ordered every available vessel to the Gulf “to protect all vessels of the United States … from search or detention.” Rather than risk war, the British stopped their efforts against ships flying the American flag. In the Northwest, in 1859, a quarrel with Britain over the ownership of San Juan Island ended in a complete American victory after Buchanan sent a naval force and a small army under General Scott to the area.
Annually, Buchanan asked Congress for troops to quell lawlessness and protect travelers in Central America. Congress refused, but the president persuaded both New Granada (now Colombia) and Costa Rica to acknowledge claims against themselves. He bullied Nicaragua into granting transit rights and induced Mexico to grant the right of military occupation in case of disorder. Mexican civil wars continued to take American lives and property, and in 1858, Buchanan asked Congress for authority to assume a temporary military protectorate over northern Mexico. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved, but the full Senate refused. In December 1859 the president asked for authority to invade Mexico and obtain “indemnity for the past and security for the future.” Fortunately for Mexico, Congress was entirely occupied with John Brown’s raid. In 1860 the administration signed a treaty in which Mexico sold the United States transit rights and the right to police the route, but again the Senate balked.
In February 1855 an American helmsman had been killed on the Paraná River by gunfire from the shore. Three years later, Buchanan sent a commissioner with a commodore, nineteen warships, and twenty-five hundred marines and sailors to Paraguay. The expedition collected $10,000 in damages for the sailor’s family, an apology, and a useless treaty of trade and commerce. Meanwhile, every effort to get money to buy Cuba or take it by force also fell victim to the slavery quarrel.
If James Buchanan really meant everything he said and really wanted everything he requested from Congress, he was prepared to annex everything from the Rio Grande to Colombia at the risk of war with nations involved or with Great Britain, if necessary. Threatening weaker Latin neighbors may not have required great courage, but if the British had stood their ground in Central America and had defended their right to search suspected slave ships, Buchanan might have had to choose between war and a humiliating retreat. Conceivably, he may have considered such tactics a possible tool for achieving unity between the quarreling sections—Seward would later recommend this to Lincoln—but if so, he was strangely blind to the harshly divisive impact of both the War of 1812 and the Mexican War.
The Final Struggle
Alone among American former presidents, Buchanan was denied a pleasant and honorable retirement. His well-known southern sympathies gave credence to ridiculous Republican charges that he had somehow been responsible for the fall of Fort Sumter and for the war itself. Stores exhibited banknotes picturing a red-eyed Buchanan with a rope around his neck and the word Judas written on his forehead. Lincoln’s war message of 4 July drew heavily from an inaccurate report by General Scott and unfairly damaged Buchanan’s reputation still further. A Senate resolution to condemn Buchanan failed but received wide publicity. Newspapers charged that he had failed to prevent secession and war by not strengthening the fort earlier, had negotiated truces with the enemy, had overruled General Scott by sending the Star of the West instead of the Brooklyn, had vetoed Scott’s proposals to reinforce Sumter, had scattered the fleet around the world, and had tried to arm the South. Buchanan’s most recent former cabinet officers could have come to his rescue with true accounts, but five of them had accepted positions with Lincoln, the others were frightened by adverse public opinion, and none would say a word in his defense. On successive days, newspapers announced that he was in England selling Confederate bonds and that he was in Pennsylvania plotting with spies. His portrait was removed from the Capitol rotunda to keep it from being defaced, and he was even accused of stealing pictures from the White House and keeping the gifts brought by a Japanese delegation.
At first, the attacks made him violently ill, but he soon recovered and defended himself vigorously. He demolished the charges of Scott in an exchange of public letters and finished his memoirs in 1866. The book refuted the charges of malfeasance, demonstrated the hypocrisy of his accusers, and restored his peace of mind. It also blamed the Civil War primarily on northern radicalism and clearly revealed the greatest weakness of his presidency—his thorough emotional identification with the South and his inability to understand and deal with northern public opinion on the issues that had separated the sections. He died on 1 June 1868 with no regrets and still certain that history would vindicate his memory.