by Michael Liss
November 6, 1860. Perhaps the worst day in James Buchanan’s political life. His fears, his sympathies and antipathies, the judgment of the public upon an entire career, all converge into a horrible realty. Abraham Lincoln, of the “Black Republican Party,” has been elected President of the United States.
Into Buchanan’s hands falls the most treacherous transition any President has had to navigate. The country is about to split apart. For months, Southerners in Congress, in their State Houses, in newspapers ranging from the large-circulation influential dailies to small-town broadsheets, had been warning everyone who cared to listen that they would not abide an election result they felt was an existential threat to their Peculiar Institution. Lincoln, despite what we now consider to be his notably conservative approach to slavery, was that threat.
The task is made more excruciating because the transition, at that time, was longer—not the January 20th date we expect, but March 4th. Four long months until Lincoln’s Inauguration. Thirteen months between the end of the regular session of the outgoing Congress and the first scheduled session of the incoming one, unless the President calls for a Special Session. Each day, the speeches become more radical, the threats blunter. Committees are formed in many states to consider secession. By December 20, South Carolina leaves the Union. It is followed in short order by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and, on February 1, 1861, Texas. The Upper South (Tennessee, North Carolina, and all-important Virginia) holds back, as does Arkansas. Unionist sentiment is strong enough to keep them from bolting, but the cost of their loyalty is that nothing aggressive be done by Washington to bring back the seceding states. In reality, that means an acceptance of secession for those that cannot be wooed back.
Buchanan is not the man for the job.
Nearing 70, ill, perceived as both politically and morally weak, rumored to be behind the unpopular Dred Scott decision, he is reviled in much of the North as a Doughface who allowed himself to be ruled by the Southerners in his Cabinet, and despised in the South for his querulousness. That he was not on the ballot (he had pledged himself to one term in his Inaugural Address) merely spared him the likely humiliation of being decisively rejected by the electorate.
Be that as it may, Buchanan is also still the President of the United States, with a Washington newspaper (the Washington Constitution) to act as house organ, patronage to distribute, policies that could reward or punish, and, most importantly, control over the Army and Navy. Would he use his powers to keep the Union alive?
Where does Lincoln fit in as President-elect? What is fascinating about this period is that, while Lincoln is an essential figure, even a precipitating one, he is also a mostly quiet actor. The custom of the day is for candidates and the newly elected (but not yet seated) to maintain a dignified silence. Lincoln largely sticks to that, even when asked to offer either soothing words, or tougher ones. He is convinced that his policies have been well-aired during the campaign, and any statement he makes would be either misinterpreted or hyperbolized. When informed of the many efforts made by well-meaning men of both regions and all parties to find some compromise short of war, his attitude is more one of acceptance than of encouragement. He would offer the South the assurances he had always offered, but never bargain away what he, and the Republican Party, had just won.
That leaves the field to the primary actors of this period, Buchanan and the Cabinet members he relies on, the Fire-Eaters in the South who crave an independent nation, and an ever-shifting group of men of various political persuasions and even motivations, who desperately search for some way out of the present crisis.
There were really four phases to Buchanan’s approach; the first pre-election, the last three governing his conduct as President.
His pre-election choices may very well have increased the odds of the very disaster he was facing. Buchanan did not support his fellow Democrat, Steven Douglas. The two men disliked each other, having been rivals for the nomination before, and Douglas’s advocacy of Popular Sovereignty made him unpopular among slaveholders and the Doughfaces who voted with them. There was a potent internal conflict going on inside the Party that mirrored the one going on in the nation at large. While there were many issues driving North and South apart—tariffs, internal improvements, the value (or superiority) of an agrarian lifestyle over sheer economic growth—only slavery packed the emotional heft that would lead men to take up arms.
In June of 1860, at the Democratic Convention in Baltimore, these conflicts came to a head. Southern Democrats would not accept a Douglas nomination, and, encouraged by Buchanan and egged on by the Fire-Eaters, many bolted, set up a rival convention, and nominated Vice-President John Breckinridge. As if three parties were not enough, a fourth, the compromise-inclined Constitutional Union Party then emerged, and nominated Tennessee Senator John Bell.
It was soon realized that this split would likely be fatal to the South’s chances, as Bell would draw off support in the upper South and Border states. There were discussions between the Breckinridge and Bell camps and outreach to Douglas to combine forces, but that would have required Douglas to withdraw, and, quite understandably, he was unwilling to do that, so the talks fell apart.
We can speculate about what a two-man race might have looked like, but it should not be assumed Lincoln would have lost. In nearly sweeping the North, he actually took enough states by absolute majorities to win the Electoral College. Whatever the outgoing President may have wished for, the prize was Lincoln’s, and cleanly won.
Buchanan was faced with a critical decision—accept Lincoln’s win and plunge into trying to ameliorate the damage, or remain passive and resentful. His first problem was to ascertain reality. In this chaotic time, few people were able to ignore the noise and gain a clear-eyed view of what public opinion really was. Hindsight tells us that both sides sorely underestimated the willpower and ability of the other.
Buchanan meets with his Cabinet for the first time on November 9, and there the battle lines are clearly drawn. His Secretary of the Treasury is Howell Cobb of Georgia, former Speaker of the House, and future President of the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States. Secretary of the Interior is Jacob Thompson, who, while still in the Cabinet, is soon to be appointed by the state of Mississippi as a “secession commissioner” to North Carolina, charged with convincing that state to secede. Secretary of War John Floyd, is a former Governor of Virginia, later accused by Grant in his memoirs of scattering the Army to places where they could be more easily captured, and redistributing military supplies from Northern locations to the South. In this phase of Buchanan’s response, it is clear he is more influenced by Southerners inside the Cabinet and out. Buchanan is, in a sense, a Unionist, but his policy, at least at this point, is one of appeasement and at least tacit acceptance of secession. Cobb remains in the Cabinet until December 6, Floyd resigns December 29, and, astoundingly, Thompson is not forced to resign until January 8, 1861.
Buchanan proposes a national convention of the States, as authorized by Article V of the Constitution. There, he suggests, a compromise could be worked out to satisfy the South, and, if the South is not sufficiently appeased, it would be justified in separating. Reaction to this is mixed—Lewis Cass of Michigan, then Secretary of State, and Jeremiah Black of Pennsylvania, (then Attorney General, later Secretary of State) approve of the idea, so long as it is coupled with a willingness to enforce federal law; Cobb and Floyd refuse to commit; while Thompson and Secretary of the Navy Isaac Toucey of Connecticut support it.
November 10, the Cabinet meets again, and here is where the power of Southern members exerts itself. Buchanan has been working on a state paper of sorts, combining three concepts: acceptance of Lincoln’s election by the South, rejection of secession, and the implication that some sort of federal force might be necessary to enforce basic law, such as the defense of army posts/forts and collection of tariffs. The Southern members argue violently against it, and Buchanan, unfortunately, withdraws it.
It is important to realize what a critical turning point this is. What Buchanan is proposing is the minimum of what any President should insist on. There is no right of secession in the Constitution—it is not a transitory, voluntary compact where any state may leave if it’s unhappy with an election result or even just a law. Certainly, a seceding state has no right to use force against federal property and expect no response. For the Southerners to insist on such a course should have required their immediate resignations, yet none is offered and Buchanan doesn’t demand them. It is a critical early failure of leadership, and one that has broad ramifications.
What Buchanan does do is a lot of nothing. He doesn’t reorganize his Cabinet, and he doesn’t push for a national convention. One can understand his fears in ejecting the Southerners and possibly further inflaming the Fire-Eaters, but what he fails to grasp is that they are likely beyond appeasement. By retaining them, by accepting the reality of secession and allowing them to influence policy to the nation’s detriment, he is broadcasting this weakness.
In light of this position, just how successful could a national convention be? The forces of Unionism and the interests of the North (even without taking into account that of the electorate that had just picked Lincoln) would have nothing left with which to bargain. The abstract concept of “Union” holds much less sway than many (including Lincoln) believe. You need at least a “whiff of grapeshot” to be taken seriously. The result is no national convention, and not the slightest hint of Southern acquiescence.
A month after Lincoln’s election, Buchanan, and the country, continue to drift toward oblivion. For some bizarre reason, the Administration’s newspaper, the Constitution, continue to publish wildly inflammatory and disloyal articles and editorials. Still, even with them, Buchanan’s timorousness manifests itself in paralysis. It is not until Christmas that he informs the editor he is withdrawing support.
What is Buchanan doing all this time, besides wringing his hands? Not following the advice of General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, who suggests reinforcing federal facilities in several Southern states. Not taking a firmer hand with his Southern advisers. Not putting the prestige of the President’s office behind a national convention. Instead, he continues to work on his state paper, thinking that perhaps words would help. In mid-November, he turns that work over to his able Attorney General, Jeremiah Black. Black’s draft, however, is continually watered down to meet the objections from the Southerners (and Buchanan) until it is ready. The end product only goes so far as to say there is no right of secession. Beyond that, it kneecaps itself by saying that, if all federal officeholders in a seceding state refused to obey the law, there is no explicit Constitutional power in Congress (or in the Executive) to compel them to obey. Any attempt to do so, in effect, would be an act of war by the federal government on the seceding state.
This construct is soon tested in South Carolina (it’s always South Carolina). Despite continual entreaties to Buchanan to reinforce the forts around Charleston Harbor, he remains too concerned that firmness would ruffle feelings. He focuses on his annual Address to Congress, while the South Carolinians prepare to take the forts. Almost daily arguments break out in the White House about how to respond, with Buchanan seemingly open to whomever is the last person to make an argument. In the meantime, Floyd is communicating privately with South Carolina Governor Gist, informing him of Buchanan’s plans and reassuring him the forts will not be reinforced. Buchanan, of course, does nothing besides fret and polish his language. In a moment of extreme historical irony, he invites Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis to view his draft and suggest changes.
The Address is completed by December 2nd. Inside the Cabinet, the Union men are losing issue after issue. Lewis Cass is arguing the forts have to be maintained. Buchanan brushes him off (Cass is later to resign over this). Black asserts that, if Buchanan cannot support the offensive use of force to defend the forts, he must at least assert that the soldiers there have a right to defend themselves. Black also insists that, should a state secede, Congress has the power to take “necessary and proper” actions to deal with it. Buchanan turns him down on both.
The final Message to Congress is a monument to bad governing. Buchanan does agree that there is no right to secede, but, on point after point, he sides with Southern interests. In an extraordinarily polarized era, Congress (which still includes the vast majority of Congressmen and Senators from soon-to-secede states) finds much to hate. It’s a contradictory paper, asserting certain federal rights, but insisting that the government, and particularly the Executive Branch, has no power to enforce those rights—a quintessentially Buchanan position.
There is more. Buchanan can’t rise to the occasion. He barely gets past his opening before launching into a denunciation of the North. “The long-continued and intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern States has at length produced its natural effects.” He praises the Dred Scott decision, and goes on to offer what compromises he believes essential for the North to make to woo the South back, if it will come back. You would be hard-pressed to find a single balanced, constructive moment in all 6600+ words of it.
Whatever this is, it is not leadership, and it is not Presidential. Buchanan just doesn’t have it in him. He punts the responsibility to Congress, yet advises that it, too, has little authority to act. Congress, hopelessly divided, and without Executive Power, can do nothing substantive.
The stalemate only begins to break when Southern politicians decide to return home. With Cobb, Floyd and Thompson’s departure, Buchanan’s Cabinet gains new spine, but the two months lost are critical. It’s not one state anymore, but seven, and by February 4, 1861, they are already forming a government. Buchanan’s window for action to resolve the matter without violence is almost certainly closed. By the time Lincoln is Inaugurated, General Scott, and Secretary of War Holt must arrange for guns to line Pennsylvania Avenue and cross streets placed under guard.
Each incoming President steps into the shoes of the one who is leaving. That places an enormous burden on the outgoing one; they must be caretakers in the best sense of the word—they owe it to their successors, and the American people, to leave as strong a country as they can. History’s verdict on how James Buchanan discharged that particular duty has been harsh, but well-earned.