It has been said that James Buchanan was a “weak, timid, old man” who didn’t do anything to prevent the Southern states from seceding. Some historians have even gone so far as to declare Buchanan was an “accessory after the fact.” He was a president, Southern sympathizer, and a traitor.
But, was he?
|President James Buchanan|
James Buchanan, by comparison, hid away in the White House and issued this special message to Congress on January 8th, 1861. “No state has a right by its own act to secede from the Union or throw off its Federal obligations at pleasure…” However, he continued, “To [Congress] belongs the power to declare war, or authorize the employment of military force…”
In effect, he said, I’m president, and secession is illegal, but I don’t have any power to act or stop the individual states from seceding. It’s up to Congress.
That’s a wimpy opinion at best.
To better understand it, we need to take a deeper look at Buchanan’s presidency. Just days after his inauguration, the Supreme Court handed down the Dred Scott decision which stated that African Americans, whether freemen or slaves, had no standing to sue in Federal courts. Moreover, it said Congress had no authority to regulate slavery in states or territories acquired after the formation of the United States.
Buchanan was sure the Dred Scott decision would settle the slavery issue once and for all. Instead, Northerners began to worry the decision would cause slavery to be legalized in the newly organized Western states, and then possibly restored in the northern states. For the South, it was a vindication that slavery was legal, and strengthened their belief that abolitionists were enemies of the Union.
Tensions continued to flare throughout Buchanan’s presidency. In 1857 he supported the Lecompton Constitution, a document that would have protected the rights of slave holders in Kansas. Northern Democrats, particularly Stephen Douglass (architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act), were outraged by the document. One result was the split in the Democratic Party during the 1860 election that enabled Abraham Lincoln to win the presidency.
|President James Buchanan and Cabinet|
Perhaps the biggest problem was Buchanan’s failure to take a decisive stand for or against slavery. He continued to hold that slavery was a constitutional issue, not one the executive could decide. He said: “The Constitution…expressly recognizes the right to hold slaves as property in states where slavery exists. This, then, is not a question of general morality affecting the consciences of men, but it is a question of Constitutional law.”
And, after that, “…our Union rests upon public opinion, and can never be cemented by the blood of its citizens shed in civil war…Congress possesses many means of preserving it by conciliation, but the sword was not placed in their hands to preserve it by force.”
The final break came on December 20th, 1860. South Carolina passed the Ordinance of Secession and formally seceded from the Union. Five days later, Howell Cobb, Secretary of the Treasury stepped down, because Buchanan said secession was illegal. Shortly after that Lewis Cass, Buchanan’s Secretary of State, resigned because he didn’t feel the president was doing enough to stop secession.
Between January 9th and February 1st, 1861, six more states seceded from the Union—Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.
In January of 1861 Senators, Stephen Douglass and William Seward attempted to placate the Southern States. When that failed, Virginia led the call for a Peace Convention. It was held at Willard’s Hotel in Washington and was presided over by a former president, John Tyler. At the end of the conference in mid-February, several proposals that would have required new amendments to the Constitution were delivered to Congress. They were reviewed in committee, and set aside, not to be considered again.
Of course, there is another possible explanation for Buchanan’s inaction. Perhaps he was waiting for the South to strike the first blow. It would have been much easier to sell a war to Congress, and the people if the South was the aggressor. That’s what happened with Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4th. In early April, President Lincoln advised South Carolina Governor, Francis Pickens he was going to send supplies to Fort Sumter. The Confederate Government ordered Major Anderson, the commander of Fort Sumter to evacuate the fort. He refused. Confederate troops attacked Federal troops at Fort Sumter on April 12th, and Anderson surrendered the fort on the 14th.
On April 15th, 1861 Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for 75,000 troops to help put down the rebellion.
The Civil War had begun.