In December 1860? ©
The President Addresses The Congress
On December 3, 1860 President James Buchanan sent his State
of the Union Address to the 36th Congress of the United States, as it opened its last session with 28 Republicans and 26 Democrats in the
Senate and 108 Republicans and 45 Democrats in the House.
his address, the President disclosed the policy he meant to follow as the
Executive Officer of the Federal Government and in detail explained his reasons
why. As the leader of the National Democratic Party his first purpose was to
hold the party together in the face of the fact that the new sectional
party—The Republican Party—was close to controlling the majorities in both
houses of Congress and would soon control the Executive. His second purpose was
to promote a policy that he believed might hold the country together.
The President laid out the issues that had polarized the
The Issue of Slavery in the Territories
“It is said that one cause for secession is that the
Southern States are denied equal rights with the other States in the common
Territories. But by what authority are these denied? Not by Congress, which has
never passed any act to exclude slavery from these Territories; and certainly
not the Supreme Court, which has solemnly decided (in, in Re Dred Scott)
that slaves are property, and, like all property, their owners have a right to
take them into the common Territories and hold them under the protection of the
Here Buchanan was ignoring the reality, which everyone knew,
that Lincoln was elected by the political strength of his sectional party which
in large measure was derived from the eighth plank of its platform: “We deny
the authority of congress, or any territorial legislature, or of any
individuals, to give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United
States." And the Congress, almost as Buchanan’s message reached it, had refused
to admit Kansas into the Union, with a constitution that allowed for slavery.
The Issue of the Fugitive Slave Law
most palpable violations of constitutional duty consist in the acts of
different state legislatures to defeat the execution of the fugitive slave law.
The validity of this law has been established over and over again by the Supreme
Court of the United States with perfect unanimity. It is based upon the express
provision of the Constitution that fugitive slaves, who escape from service in
one State to another, shall be “delivered up" to their masters. It will be the
duty of the next President to act with vigor in executing this supreme law. But
are we to presume in advance that he will violate his duty? Let us wait for the
Buchanan’s View of the Political Theory of Secession
“The Slave States have a right to demand the States of the
North conform to the Fugitive Slave Law. Should the Free States willfully
violate this right, the Slave States, having first used all peaceful and
constitutional means to obtain redress, would be justified in revolutionary resistance
to the Government of the Union. I have confined my remarks to revolutionary resistance,
because it has been claimed that any State, whenever this shall be its
sovereign will, may secede from the Union in accordance with the Constitution;
that as each became parties to the Union by the vote of its own people
assembled in convention, so any one of them may retire from the Union in a
similar manner by the vote of such a convention."
“Such a principle is wholly inconsistent with the history as
well as the character of the Federal Constitution. After it was framed, it was
submitted to conventions of the people of the several states for ratification.
Its provisions were discussed at length in these bodies. In the mighty debates
that ensued, among the great men of the States, it never occurred to any
individual to assert that their efforts were all vain labor, because the moment
any State felt herself aggrieved she might secede from the Union."
“The right of the people of a single State to absolve
themselves at will and without the consent of the other States from their most
solemn obligations cannot be acknowledged. Such authority is believed to be
utterly repugnant both to the principles upon which the General Government is
constituted and to the objects which it is expressly formed to attain."
“It is not pretended that any clause in the Constitution
gives countenance to such a theory. It is altogether rounded upon inference;
nor from any language contained in the instrument itself, but from the
sovereign character of the several States by which it was ratified."
“It was intended to be perpetual, and not to be annulled at
the pleasure of any one of the contracting parties. The old Articles of
Confederation were entitled “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union between
the States." The preamble to the Constitution, having express reference to the
Articles of Confederation, recites that it was established `in order to form a
more perfect union.’ And yet it is contended that this `more perfect union’
does not include the essential attribute of perpetuity."
Buchanan’s argument for the proposition that no one state
can get out of the Union without the Federal Government’s consent was equally
embraced by Abraham Lincoln, but the historical evidence demonstrates its plain
in the Constitutional Convention, held at Philadelphia in 1787, it was proposed
to confer upon Congress the power “to call forth the force of the Union against any member failing to fulfill its duty under the articles thereof." James
Madison, the man most responsible for the design and language of the proposed
constitution, observed in the subsequent debate over the proposal that “the use
of force against a State would be a declaration of war and be considered by the
party attacked as dissolution of the compact." Madison moved that the proposal
be tabled. This motion was adopted by the convention and the proposition to
authorize the Federal Government to use force against a State of the Union was never again revived. (Madison Papers, pp. 732, 761.)
Later, when the proposed
constitution was considered by the people in their state conventions, there was
no confusion in the Northern States as to the constitutional limit of the
Federal Government’s legal power to use its force against a State.
Hamilton, in the convention of New York, said: “To coerce a State is one of the
maddest projects that was ever devised. . . Congress marching troops of one
State into the bosom of another—Here is a nation at war with itself! Can
any reasonable man be well disposed toward a government which makes war and
carnage the only means of supporting itself—a government that can exist only by
the sword? Can we believe that one State will ever suffer itself to be used as
an instrument of coercion? The thing is a dream—it is impossible." (Elliott’s
Debates, Vol. II, p. 199.)
As for Buchanan’s refrain, and Lincoln’s, too, of the
Federal Government’s supposed perpetuity, one need merely read the
Constitution’s language, in Article VII, to recognize the silliness of that. “The
ratification of the conventions of nine States shall be sufficient for the
establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the same."Thirteen
States were members of the “perpetual" union of the Articles of Confederation.
The Articles specified that no change could be made in them unless all thirteen
States consented. Yet, despite these “inviolate" words, once nine states had ratified
the constitution their connection to the old Union was broken, without so much
as a by-your-leave. This left the four nonconsenting States in the Union’s position, on December 20, 1860, when South Carolinia seceded. What counts in such
circumstances is not words but force, the paramount principle of
Buchanan’s View of the Constitutional Duty of the
“He is bound by solemn oath," Buchanan wrote, “`to take care
that the laws be faithfully executed.’ But what if the performance of this duty
has been rendered impractical by events. This is the case in the State of South Carolina. All the Federal officers, judges, magistrates, and marshals have resigned
their offices. The only acts of Congress on the statute book bearing on this
subject are those of February 28, 1795, and March 3, 1807. These authorize the President to call forth the militia and employ the Army and Navy to aid
him in performing his duty, having first by proclamation commanded the
insurgents `to disperse and retire peaceably to their homes.’ But these provisions
are inadequate to overcome a united opposition of an entire State. Congress
alone has power to decide whether the present laws can or cannot be amended so
as to carry out more effectively the objects of the Constitution."
In essence, Buchanan’s argument, here, like Lincoln’s, is that the Federal Government owns the States by virtue of its power to
make war. Unlike Lincoln, though, Buchanan willingly recognized that the
secession of a State from the Union has no insurrectionary or rebellious characteristic,
hence reference to the clause in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution—“The
Congress shall have the power to provide for the calling forth of the Militia
to execute the laws of the Union, [and] suppress insurrections"—is irrelevant: Because
the government of the State remains unchanged as to all internal affairs.
There is no rebellion going on within the State. It is only the State’s external
or confederate relations that are altered. And forcing the State to retain
its connection with the Union, thus turns on the power of the Union to make war.
The difference between an “insurrection" or a
“rebellion" and the secession of a State from the Union, is indisputably
manifest in the process by which the Constitution was ratified. Foreseeing the
possible need to secede from the Union, in their instruments of ratification of
the Constitution the peoples of the several States expressly reserved to
themselves the right to reassume the power they granted the Federal
Government by their Constitution whenever it might be necessary for their
safety or welfare to do so. For example, here are the words of the people of Virginia, the tenth State to consent to be governed by the Constitution:
“We, the Delegates of the people of Virginia do, in the name of the people, declare that the powers granted under the
constitution, being derived from the people, may be resumed by them whensoever
the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression. . . .[On this
basis], we do assent to and ratify the Constitution recommended, on the 17th day of September, 1787." (Elliot’s Debates Vol. I, p. 327.)
That this reservation has political and legal substance was
recognized by John Marshall (afterwards Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of
the United States):
“We are threatened with the loss of our
liberties by the possible abuse of power, notwithstanding the maxim, that those
who give may take away. It is the people that give power, and can
take it back. What shall restrain them? They are the masters who give it,
and of whom their servants hold it." (Elliot’s Debates, Vol III, p.
The President Passes the Problem of Secession to the
“The question fairly stated is, has the Constitution
delegated to Congress the power to coerce a State into submission which is
attempting to withdraw? If answered in the affirmative, it must be on the
principle that the power has been conferred upon Congress to declare and
make war on a State."
“After much serious reflection I have arrived at the
conclusion that no such power has been delegated to Congress or to any
department of the Federal Government. This power is not among the specific and
enumerated powers granted to Congress, and it is equally apparent that its
exercise is not `necessary and proper for carrying into execution’ any one of
these powers. So far from this power having been delegated to Congress, it
was expressly refused by the Convention which framed the Constitution."
(Here Buchanan acknowledges the undisputed historical record of the debate in
the convention, but he turns a blind eye to the reality that, whatever
may be its domestic law, a State can always seize upon the law of war to conquer a foreign government’s territory.)
“Without descending to particulars, it may be asserted that
the power to make war against a State is at variance with the whole spirit and
intent of the Constitution. Suppose such a war should result in the conquest of
a State; how are we to govern it afterwards? Shall we hold it as a province and
govern it by despotic power? “ (Of course, as this is the natural result of war.)
The Official Opinion of The Attorney General
Buchanan’s then attorney general, Jeremiah S. Black, supported this position
with a written opinion: “What can be done in case we have no courts to issue
judicial process, and no ministerial officers to execute it? In that event,
troops would certainly be out of place, and their use wholly illegal. If they
are sent to aid the courts and marshals execute the laws, there must be courts
and marshals to be aided. In such circumstances, to send a military force into
any State, with orders to act against the people, would be simply making war
“If it be true that. . . a system of general hostilities
[cannot] be carried on (lawfully), by the Central Government against a
State, then it seems to follow that an attempt to do so would be ipso facto an expulsion of such State from the Union. And, if Congress shall break up the
present Union by unconstitutionally putting strife, enmity, and armed
hostility, between different sections of the country, instead of the `domestic
tranquility’ which the Constitution was meant to ensure, will not all the
States be absolved from their Federal obligations? Is any portion of the people
bound to contribute their money or their blood to carry on a contest like that?"
(Of course not, but overarching all human affairs is the “higher law"—the law
Here Black steps to the edge of the abyss: “The right of the
General Government to preserve itself in its whole constitutional vigor, by
repelling a direct and positive aggression upon its property, cannot be denied.
But this is a totally different thing from an offensive war to punish the
people for the political misdeeds of State governments, or to enforce an
acknowledgement that the Government of the United States is supreme. The States
are colleagues of one another; and, if some of them should conquer the rest and
hold them as subjugated provinces, it would totally destroy the whole theory
upon which they are now connected." (And, of course, it has, though the politicians
and the historians still pretend otherwise.The United States is no longer a
confederacy of sovereign powers, as Madison designed, but an indivisible nation
made such by war.)
“If this view of the subject be correct as I think it is,
then the Union must utterly perish at the moment when Congress shall arm one
part of the people against another, for any purpose beyond that of merely
protecting the General Government in the exercise of its proper constitutional
function (such as “protecting" the “property" of the United States)."
Here is the truth of history revealed: The only power
granted the Federal Government, under the Constitution, to coerce a State into
sticking with the Union, is the power to make war. Contrary to Lincoln’s sophistry, the undisputed historical evidence establishes the fact that the
Slave States could by secession lawfully get out of the Union, but just as plainly, under the law of war, the United States might attack and
conquer them as it might attack Japan, or Germany, or Iraq. After one hundred and fifty years of historians dissembling about this, the truth of
history should not any longer be ignored.
Buchanan Recommends That Congress Propose Amendments
to the Constitution
“The fact is that our Union rests upon public opinion, and
can never be cemented by the blood of its citizens shed in civil war. If it
cannot live in the affections of the people, it must one day perish. Congress
possesses many means of preserving it by conciliation, but the sword was not placed
in their hand to preserve it by force." (So the President, in obedience to his
constitutional duty, cannot use force to preserve the Union, but he can use
force to preserve the government’s property?)
“Congress can contribute much to averting civil war by
proposing to the legislatures of the several States the remedy for existing
evils which the Constitution has itself provided. It is to be found in the
fifth article, providing for its own amendment. This is the very course which I
earnestly recommend in order to obtain an `explanatory amendment’ on the
subject of slavery, on three points:
express recognition of the right of property in slaves where it now exists and
may hereafter exist.
2. The duty of
protecting this right in all the common Territories.
like recognition of the right of the master to have his slave who has escaped,
In the ensuing three months, whether the Congress would
adopt the President’s recommendation and send proposed amendments to the States
for ratification, as an olive branch tendered to the Slave States, would depend
on Abraham Lincoln. And his position was clear.
South Carolina Secedes From the Union
Immediately upon Lincoln’s election in November 1860, the
Legislature of South Carolina called for a convention of the people of the
State to consider the issue of secession. In the middle of December the
convention met in Charleston’s Institute Hall. On a roll call vote held
December 20th, the delegates to the Convention unanimously voted to
adopt an ordinance of secession.
Down came the Stars and Stripes
and up went the Palmetto flag.
The basis of South Carolina’s secession from the Union was stated by the delegates this way:
“In the year 1765, Great Britain undertook to make laws for the government of the thirteen American colonies.
A struggle for the right of self government ensued, which resulted, on the 4th of July, 1776, in a Declaration, by the Colonies, `that they are FREE
AND INDEPENDENT STATES.’ They further declared that whenever any `form of
government becomes destructive of the ends for which it was established, it is
the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new
government (if they have the power).’
“On the 3rd of September, 1783, the contest ended with His Britannic Majesty acknowledging the colonies
to be free, sovereign and independent states." (Now the King consents.)
Upon its ratification by nine States,
the Constitution of the United States sprang into existence. “The ends for
which this constitution was framed are declared by itself to be `to form a more
perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for
common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of
liberty to ourselves and our posterity.’
“We affirm that these ends have been
defeated and the government itself has been made destructive of them by the
action of the non slaveholding states. Those states have assumed the right of
deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the
rights of property established in fifteen of the states and recognized by the
constitution; they have denounced the institution of slavery; they have
permitted the establishment of abolition societies. They have encouraged and
assisted thousands of slaves to leave their homes and have incited those who
remain to servile insurrection. . . [and now] all the states north of the
[Mason-Dixon] line have united in the election of a man to the high office of
President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to
slavery. He is to be entrusted with the common government, because he has
declared that that `government cannot endure permanently half slave, half
free,’ and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the
course of ultimate extinction."
“On the 4th of March next
this [man] will take possession of the government. [His party] has announced
that the South shall be excluded from the common territory; that the judicial
tribunals shall be sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery
until it shall cease to exist throughout the United States."
“We, therefore, the people of South
Carolina, have solemnly declared that the union is dissolved, and that the
state of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the
world, with full power to levy war, conclude peace and do all the things which
independent states may of right do (chief among which is to defend itself)."
Immediately upon the Ordinance of Secession becoming
operative, on December 20, 1860, the Governor of South Carolina sent a telegram
to President Buchanan, demanding that the United States evacuate the army
garrison then occupying Fort Moultrie and give up possession of both it and
Fort Sumter to South Carolina.
President Buchanan drafted a reply to this telegram. He
said: “Between independent governments, if one possesses a fortress
within the limits of another (think of the American military base at Guantannamo
Bay, or Clark Air force Base at Manila, or the U.S. Naval Base at Bahrain), and
the latter should seize it (think of the American embassy in Tehran in the
70s), this would be not only a just cause for war but the actual commencement
But the reply was not sent, when the South Carolinian representatives,
in the House, came to Buchanan with a position paper. Buchanan took it on
condition that he would not take any action with regard to the Charleston Harbor forts until he had returned it. On this basis, the Governor withdrew his
demand of immediate possession of the forts and sent, instead, envoys to Washington to negotiate the evacuation of the forts with the President.
The Reaction of the Thirty-Sixth Congress
On Monday, December 9, in the House, several resolutions
were offered by Republicans: John Sherman, of Ohio, suggested that the House
agree on the immediate division of the territories into states,. With a view to
their prompt admission into the Union; John Cochrane, of New York, followed Sherman with the suggestion that the territory be equally divided immediately into slave
and Free states; and Charles Larrabee, of Wisconsin, proposed that Congress
call a convention of all the states. The Speaker of the House, Mr. Pennington,
established a select committee, with Thomas Corwin of Ohio acting as Chairman
(Committee of the Thirty-Three) to examine these proposals and report
recommendations to the full House. The Senate entertained similar proposals and
the Committee of Thirteen, chaired by John Crittenden, was established to consider
On December 20, the senate committee considered a series of
proposals offered by Crittenden: these were proposed constitutional amendments,
the language of which strengthened the security of the Slavery institution,
both in the South and out of it. On December 31, 1860, the senate committee reported to the full body that it was unable to agree on any of the measures.
Senator Crittenden then came forward on the floor and offered a joint
resolution proposing amendments to the Constitution which mirrored the
proposals debated in the committee. Action upon Crittenden’s resolution was
On December 13, the House committee agreed on a resolution
that proposed “any reasonable constitutional remedy for the current discontent,
should be promptly granted." On December 17th, the House passed a
resolution that it “recommended the repeal of all state statutes that were in
conflict with and in violation of" the Fugitive Slave Clause in the
Constitution. This was passed with other resolutions directed at the South: The
House, by a vote of 124 to none, most of the Southern members refusing to vote,
resolved that “it is the duty of the President to protect and defend the
property of the United States;" and another passed, by a vote of 115 to 44,
that the House saw nothing, “in the election of Abraham Lincoln to justify a
dissolution of the Union." Debate continued as the Republicans sought
instructions from their leader in Springfield.
President Buchanan’s Cabinet Begins to Disintegrate
December 8, Howell Cobb, of Georgia, resigned his position as Secretary of the
Treasury. He had wanted to do this since Lincoln’s election, but Buchanan had
asked him to stay on; now that secession was becoming an issue in Georgia, Cobb wanted to get back to his state and join in the debate. Buchanan appointed
Philip Thomas, of Maryland, in Cobb’s place. After a few days in office, Thomas
resigned and Buchanan replaced him with John Dix.
On December 10, after Buchanan’s meeting with the
Carolinians in the House, he attended a Cabinet meeting that featured the
presence of General-in-Chief, Winfield S. Scott, who had finally arrived in Washington from New York. In November 1860, Scott had published his “Views" in the press
and had recommended to the President that no reinforcements be sent to Charleston Harbor; now, he urged Buchanan to send 300 men to Fort Moultrie immediately.
When Buchanan refused, Lewis Cass, of Michigan, resigned his position as
Secretary of State. The next day, Cass asked to be reinstated but the President
refused. On December 17, Buchanan appointed his attorney general, Jeremiah
Black, to take Cass’s place, and he appointed Edwin M. Stanton in Black’s old
On December 28, in a heated cabinet meeting, caused by the
army garrison’s shift of position in Charleston Harbor, from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter, John Floyd, Buchanan’s secretary of war, resigned his position
and left Washington. Buchanan replaced Floyd with Joseph Holt, who was in the
Cabinet as Postmaster General.
Major Anderson Abandons Fort Moultrie For Fort Sumter
Fort Moultrie is on the northeastern shore of Sullivan’s Island, its guns covering the
entrance to Charleston Harbor. In June 1776, British Admiral, Sir. Peter
Parker, in command of a fleet of nine warships attempted to force his way into
the harbor to bombard Charleston. After a nine hour battle, the British ships
were repulsed and retired to sea. Charleston was saved from enemy occupation
and the fort was named after its commander, William Moultrie. In 1780, though, the
British Navy was able to overwhelm Moultrie’s guns and took possession of the
city, abandoning it only when Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown
By 1860, Fort Moultrie, rebuilt now in brick, was in
disrepair, with sand dunes rising like ramps against its seaward wall. It was
also surrounded by a town that had grown up around it, with several buildings
towering over its parapets. Given its condition, when South Carolina seceded
from the Union, on December 20, the garrison’s commander, Major Robert
Anderson, relying for authority on written orders drafted by Carlos Buell and
signed by Secretary of War, John Floyd, decided to move his force across the
harbor to Fort Sumter.
Directly after Anderson’s occupation of Fort Sumter, the Carolina authorities took possession of the Federal Arsenal, the Custom House,
Post Office, and Fort Moultrie. Fortifications and batteries were rapidly built
around Fort Sumter, measures were taken to obstruct entrance into the harbor,
and Anderson’s access to supplies was cut off.
At Washington, President Buchanan held a rancorous cabinet
meeting: Black, Holt, and Stanton vigorously defended Anderson’s decision to
move the garrison from one fort to the other. Floyd, Thompson, and Thomas just
as angrily, responded that Anderson had acted without orders. The order Buell
had drafted and Floyd had signed was produced and read—“Whenever you have
evidence of a design to proceed to a hostile act, you may act in your
discretion as you think best." Floyd raged that Anderson had no evidence of
such a design and demanded that Buchanan order Anderson out of Sumter. When Buchanan refused, on the ground that Anderson had nowhere to go—the
Carolinians having by then occupied Fort Moultrie—Floyd abruptly resigned his
position and left the Cabinet Room.
Buchanan then turned to the remaining ministers and
suggested that he should meet the South Carolina envoys and negotiate the
removal of the garrison from Fort Sumter and the harbor. This generated a
heated discussion as the Northern Democrats in the Cabinet were ready to turn
the incident into an excuse for war. Black responded with the statement that
the President ought to order U.S. Navy warships to force an entrance into Charleston Harbor immediately. At the same time, General-in-Chief, Winfield Scott,
interposed the suggestion that he be permitted to send 250 recruits from New York harbor, together with ammunition and supplies, to reinforce Fort Sumter. Buchanan vacillated.
Abraham Lincoln Reaches Out From Springfield
The essence of Senator Crittenden’s proposals, intended to
placate the Slave States, was this: extend the Missouri Compromise line to the
Pacific; admit new states according to their constitutions; propose to the
state legislatures an amendment to the Constitution that guaranteed the Federal
Government’s noninterference with slavery.
Senator, soon to be Lincoln’s secretary of state, William
Seward, of New York, was willing, for the sake of unity, to extend the Missouri
Compromise line to the Pacific, as the New York money kings, anxious to protect
their $150 million investment in the South, were for it. They wanted the issue
of slavery settled on the basis of the Crittenden proposals and induced Seward
to convince Lincoln a conference should be called of the Republican governors (Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts) at New York to
endorse them. The Radicals, however, were dead set against the implementation
of any of the Crittenden proposals.
Abraham Lincoln’s position regarding the Crittenden
proposals dictated the outcome that would result regarding them. On December 10, 1860, as the Congress was setting up its special committees to consider how
to respond to Buchanan’s message, Lincoln wrote his main captain, Illinois
Senator Lyman Trumbull:
My Dear Sir: Let there be no compromise
on the question of extending slavery. If there be, all our labor is
lost, and must be done again. The dangerous ground—that into which some of our
friends have a hankering to run—is Popular Sovereignty. Have none of it.
Stand firm. The tug has to come, and better now, than any time hereafter."
Here Lincoln’s position is seen clearly: Through his party’s
control of Congress and his executive power as President, the Territories were
to be shut tight against the importation of slaves, while the Federal
Government would not attempt to override the common law of the Slave States.
To all intelligent minds of the time, Lincoln’s steadfast
slavery policy meant, as a practical matter, that the great mass of the
existing population of Africans in the United States would be bottled up in the South, and as the effect of this slowly caused the economic wealth of
the Slave States to diminish, no spreading of the loss to the North could be
expected. Any one could see what this meant: As the institution of slavery
collapsed by its own weight the South would be left with an alien population in
its midst, unable to be socially or politically assimilated. This gradual
outcome the South was understandably incapable of allowing to peaceably happen.
Illinois Congressman, William Kellogg, wrote Lincoln at the same time as Trumbull. Kellogg was a member of the Committee of
Thirty-Three, and enquired what Lincoln wanted done with Buchanan’s suggestions
for offering the Slave States concessions on the slavery issue. Lincoln replied on December 11:
“Entertain no proposition for a
compromise in regard to the extension of slavery. (Italics Lincoln’s) . . . Douglas is sure to be again trying to bring up his “Popular Sovereignty."
Have none of it. You know I think the Fugitive Slave clause of the constitution
ought not to be resisted."
There his party captains had it: Lincoln, as President,
would do all that he could to guarantee the Slave States, security for their
slaves where they were but would obstruct their spread beyond the existing
states however he could.
Shortly after Kellogg received Lincoln’s reply to his
enquiry, he introduced a proposed constitutional amendment in the House which
was at variance with Lincoln’s position. He then traveled to Springfield,
probably as a mouthpiece for Seward, in an effort to convince Lincoln a
compromise in favor of the extension of slavery into the Territories should be
accepted. Senator Trumbull, aware of Kellogg’s visit, wrote Lincoln, telling
him to commit to nothing until he had received further correspondence.
During the next ten days, various members of Congress, from
both the North and South, wrote letters to Lincoln, seeking a public statement
of his position which he refused to give, telling all of them to read the
existing record of his speeches. Among these he pointed to, was a portion of
the speech he delivered in 1858, during the senatorial debates with Stephen
“I believe the slavery agitation will
not cease till a crisis shall have been reached and passed. I believe this
government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect
the Union to be dissolved. . . but I do expect it will cease to be divided."
Lincoln, the clever lawyer, was so good at blurring the true
state of things with words. He believes, he says, “this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free?" He really means, this Union. In his artful logic the government was the Union. Whereas, in
the political theory of Madison that formed the basis of the Constitution, the Union was a confederacy of sovereign States held together through a compact—the
Constitution—by their mutual self-interest in mounting a common defense against
the aggressions of the world. The Constitution defined the structure of the
Federal Government and, granting it certain powers, specified the constraints
under which its powers were to be exercised.
Congress, as the struggle for compromise intensified, Seward sent his minion,
Thurlow Weed, to Springfield to press Lincoln for concession. Weed carried to
Lincoln Seward’s message that, as a member of the Committee of Thirteen, he was
having considerable trouble winning Democrats to Lincoln’s position, much less
the conservative Republicans. Weed met with Lincoln at his home for a whole day
on December 20th, the day South Carolina seceded from the Union. From this meeting Weed carried back to Seward Lincoln’s inflexible position:
First, that the constitution may be
amended to prevent Congress from ever interfering with the existence of slavery
in the Slave States.
(Lincoln was willing that these children be slaves all
Second, that the States should rescind
any law that was designed to scuttle the Federal Fugitive Slave Law.
(But the fugitive, when captured, would not be tried
by a jury in the South)
Lincoln also informed Weed, in writing at this time, what
everybody really wanted to know: Would Lincoln as President attempt to coerce South Carolina into returning to the Union?
Lincoln wrote to Weed, “My opinion [of secession] is that no
state can, in any way lawfully, get out of the Union, without the consent of the others." (Italics added.) And to Francis Blair in Washington, Lincoln wrote, “if the forts shall be given up before the inauguration, [I] must retake
them afterwards." With this position, Lincoln cast the die of war.
He repeated this dread statement to Senator Trumbull, on
December 24; as Buchanan was considering how to respond to South Carolina’s
demand that the Federal forts in Charleston Harbor be given up: “Dispatches
have come here two days in succession, that the forts in South Carolina, will
be surrendered by the consent of the President. If it prove true, I will, if
our friends at Washington concur, announce quickly at once that they are to be
retaken after the inauguration." Seward and company hastily informed Lincoln they did not wish his attitude publicly expressed. Nonetheless, on December 29,
with Major Anderson and the garrison now removed to Fort Sumter, and the Custom
House and Post Office seized by the Carolinians, Lincoln wrote the editor of
the New York Enquirer: “I think we should hold the forts, or retake them, as
the case may be—We shall have to forego the use of the federal courts, and they
the mails, for a while. We cannot fight them into holding courts, or receiving
And, on December 28, to Duff Green, President Buchanan’s
messenger who came to Springfield seeking to elicit Lincoln’s sympathy for
Buchanan’s plight, Lincoln wrote these self-condemning words—“I denounce the
lawless invasion, by armed force, of the soil of any State, no matter under
what pretext, as the gravest of crimes." (But, of course, a “lawful
invasion"—one based on the issue of consent—was nothing more than the proper
exercise of a right.)
“Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most sacred right. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government, may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people that can, may revolutionize, and make their own, of so much of the territory as they inhabit. More than this, a majority of any portion of such people may revoluntionize, putting down a minority, intermingled with them.” (January 12, 1848. Speech in the House of Representatives, Speaking about the Secession of Texas from the United States of Mexico. See, Collected Words of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. I, p. 438; original italics.)
“The right of revolution is an inherent one. When people are oppressed by their government, it is a natural right they enjoy to relieve themselves of the oppression, if they are strong enough, either by withdrawal from it, or by overthrowing it. But any people who resort to this remedy, stake their lives and their property on the issue.
The fact is the constitution did not apply to any such contingency as the one existing from 1861 to 1865. Its framers never dreamed of such a contingency occurring. If they had foreseen it, the probabilities are they would have sanctioned the right of a State or States to withdraw rather than that there would be war between brothers."
(U. S. Grant, Memoirs, published in 1885)
Different Point of View than Grant and Lincoln's
A Crowd marches in Protest Against a Secession Ball in Charleston
(Jeffrey Ellis Getty Images)
Whites on the Way to the Ball
Jeffrey Collins, Associated Press, reports from Charleston:
“The memory of the Civil War collided with modern-day civil rights Monday, December 20th, as protesters targeted a `Secession Ball,’ commemorating South Carolina’s decision exactly 150 years ago to secede from the United States.
As blacks and whites gathered in the twilight with electric candles and signs for an NAACP protest, a predominantly white group of men in old-fashioned tuxedos and women in long-flowing dresses and gloves stopped to watch and take pictures before going into the Charleston auditorium where the ball was taking place.
NAACP leaders said it made no sense to hold a gala to honor men who committed treason against their own nation for the sake of a system that kept black men and women in bondage as slaves. They compared Confederate leaders to terrorists and Nazis.
But organizers of the Ball said it had nothing to do with celebrating slavery. Instead, the $100-a-person private event was a fundraiser to honor the Southern men who were willing to sacrifice their lives for their homes and their vision of states’ rights. `We honor our ancestors for their bravery and tenacity protecting their homes from invasion,’ said Michael Givens, Commander-in-Chief for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The ball’s organizers do not condone or endorse slavery in any way, said Randy Burbage, vice president of the Confederate Heritage Trust, which put on the event. Burbage said the NAACP doesn’t help its cause with inflammatory rhetoric.”
President Buchanan Reacts to Suddenly Changed
On Tuesday, December 26th, emissaries from
Governor Pickens of South Carolina arrived in Washington and made an
appointment to see the President the following day. Their mission was to
negotiate the evacuation of Fort Sumter by paying the fair market value of the
fort and the other Federal property in South Carolina. That day news came that
Major Robert Anderson, commanding the artillery garrison at Fort Moultrie, had moved his command during the night to Fort Sumter.
Buchanan’s initial reaction to the news, was to order Anderson to return to Fort Moultrie, but, on Wednesday, when the further news arrived that
Governor Pickens had taken possession of Fort Moultrie, he changed his mind.
The afternoon of December 27th, the Cabinet met
and heatedly argued about what should be done. Secretary of War Floyd, of Virginia, took the position that Anderson had acted without orders. Buchanan expressed an
inclination to agree. The Northern members of his Cabinet—Holt, Black, and
Stanton—seized upon language in Anderson’s orders, approved by Floyd when
Carlos Buell had returned from Charleston in early December, and announced they
would resign at once if Buchanan ordered Anderson out of Sumter.
The next day Buchanan met with the South Carolina emissaries,
who aggressively pressed him to issue the evacuation order. They reminded the
President of his conduct over the last thirty days:
“Seeing very early that this question
of property was a difficult and delicate one, you manifested a desire to settle
it without collision. You did not reinforce the garrisons in the harbor at Charleston. You removed a distinguished and veteran officer from the command of Fort Moultrie (Col. John Gardner) because he attempted to increase the supply of
ammunition. You refused to send additional troops when applied for by the
officer who replaced him. You accepted the resignation of Secretary of State
Cass rather than allow the garrison to be strengthened. You compelled an
officer stationed at Fort Sumter to return immediately to the arsenal forty
muskets which he had taken to arm his men. You expressed publicly your
willingness not to disturb the military status of the forts if commissioners
should be sent to the government. You took from the South Carolina members of
the House of Representatives a written memorandum that no attempt should be
made to reinforce the forts. You pledged that, if you ever were to send reinforcements
you would first return the memorandum." (See, Official Records of the
Rebellion, Vol. I, pp. 121-122.)
For two days, in and out of cabinet meetings, James Buchanan
struggled with himself as to what he should do. He was stung by the South Carolinians’
charge that he had breached what he thought was, indeed, “a gentlemen’s
agreement," and, at the same time, he was chained to his constitutional duty to
preserve and protect the property of the United States. By now, he must have
been mindful, too, of Abraham Lincoln’s position. Through his agent, Duff
Green, Buchanan must have learned that Lincoln meant to retake Fort Sumter by
force if he allowed it to fall into South Carolina’s hands. And he must have
been struck by Lincoln’s written statement to Green that Lincoln denounced a
lawless invasion of South Carolina as the gravest of crimes. The future of
the country, whether it was to be peace or war, seemed clearly to turn on Lincoln’s resolve. The only way to reconcile his position with Lincoln’s, was to hang
reinforcement of Sumter on the constitutional duty of the President to preserve
the property of the United States, as even Lincoln admitted the impossibility
of enforcing the Federal laws.
The problem came down, then, in Buchanan’s mind, to the
practical reality that, if he ordered Anderson out of Sumter, he would be
acknowledging in essence that South Carolina, by virtue of her Ordinance of
Secession, was now an independent State. Buchanan had no authority under the
constitution to acknowledge this expressly, and he shrank from being seen as
doing it by implication; especially when he knew that Lincoln meant to retake
the fort as soon as he gained control of the executive office.
James Buchanan sent a written reply to the South Carolina emissaries,
on December 30th:
“I have to say that my position as President of the United
States was clearly defined in the message to Congress in that I stated that,
`apart from the execution of the laws, so far as this may be practicable, the
Executive has no authority to decide what shall be the relations between the
Federal Government and South Carolina. He has no power to change the relations,
much less acknowledge the independence of that State. This would be to invest a
mere executive officer with the power of recognizing the dissolution of the
Confederacy among our thirty-three sovereign States. It is, therefore, my duty
to submit to Congress the whole question, in all its bearings.’"
“I must do justice to myself by remarking," he wrote, “ that
at the time I accepted the memorandum from the South Carolina congressmen, I
objected to the word provided, as it might be construed into an
agreement on my part, which I never would make.
It is well known that it was my determination, and this I
freely expressed, not to reinforce the forts in the harbor, and thus produce a
collision, until they had been actually attacked, or until I had certain
evidence that they were about to attacked. The Congressmens’ memorandum assured
me no attack was being planned against the forts, and so I offered that peace
might still be preserved and that time might thus be gained for reflection.
This is the whole foundation of the alleged pledge.
The world knows that I have never sent any reinforcements to
the forts in Charleston Harbor, and I have certainly never authorized any
change to be made `in their relative military status’"
“When I learned that Major Anderson had left Fort Moultrie, and proceeded to Fort Sumter, my first promptings were to command him to
return to his former position. But before any steps could possibly have been
taken in this direction, we received information, dated the 28th,
that Fort Moultrie had been seized by South Carolina’s military force."
“It is under these circumstances that I am urged immediately
to withdraw the troops from the harbor at Charleston. This I cannot do. This I
will not do. Such an idea was never thought of by me in any possible
contingency. It is my duty to defend Fort Sumter, as a portion of the public
property of the United States."
The same day President Buchanan sent his written reply to
the South Carolina emissaries, he received from General-in-chief, Winfield S.
Scott, a message which, in combination with a letter received from Major
Anderson, forced him to a decision that might have triggered the civil war.
General Scott wrote:
is Sunday; the weather is bad, and General Scott is not well enough to go to
church. But matter of the highest national importance seem to forbid a moment’s
delay. Will the President permit General Scott, as secretly as possible, to
send two hundred and fifty recruits from New York Harbor, to reinforce Fort Sumter?"
President Buchanan carried Scott’s message with him into a
series of shouting matches with his cabinet ministers that lasted into the new
year: Major Anderson’s sudden move to Sumter had put him on the spot, and he
was thinking how to change the public image of himself, perhaps even beat Lincoln at his own game.
BOOKS AVAILABLE TO READ:
James Madison, Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention
of 1787, W.W. Norton & Co. (1987)
The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Rutgers University Press (1936) Vol. IV, pp. 147-164.
Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate
Government, Thomas Yoseloff, N.Y. (1958)
Alexander H. Stephens, The War Between The States,
National Pub. Co. (1868)
Horace Greeley, The American Conflict, O.D. Case Co.
Philip S. Klein, President James Buchanan, The Pennsylvania State University Press (1962)
Elbert B. Smith, The Presidency of James Buchanan (1975)
Christopher Dell, Lincoln and the War Democrats, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (1975)
Frederic Bancroft, The Life of William H. Seward,
Harpers & Brothers (1900)
Orland Kay Armstrong, Old Massa’s People: The Old Slaves
Tell Their Story, Bobbs-Merrill Co. (1931)
Frederic Bancroft, Slave-Trading in the Old South, .H.
Furst Co. (1931)
Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia,
W.W. Norton & Co. (1982)
Willa Cather, Sapphira and the Slave Girl Alfred A.
Knoff N.Y. (1940)
Comments and Questions to the Author
Joe Ryan Original Works
About the author:
Joe Ryan is a Los Angeles trial lawyer who has traveled the route of the Army of Northern Virginia, from Richmond to Gettysburg several times.
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