December 4, 1860 – The last annual message of James Buchanan’s presidency acknowledged that North and South were “now arrayed against each other.”
Buchanan placed much blame for the sectional conflict on the northern free states for their refusal to enforce fugitive slave laws within their borders. He stated, “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.” If the northern states did not “repeal their unconstitutional and obnoxious enactments… the injured States, after having first used all peaceful and constitutional means to obtain redress, would be justified in revolutionary resistance to the Government of the Union.”
On the other hand, Buchanan surprised southern allies by condemning secession because “the election of any one of our fellow-citizens to the office of President does not of itself afford just cause for dissolving the Union.” He asserted that the Union was not “a mere voluntary association of States, to be dissolved at pleasure by any one of the contracting parties.” Rather, the Constitution had been adopted to form “a more perfect Union” than that existing under the Articles of Confederation, which had proclaimed that “the Union shall be perpetual.”
Buchanan argued that the country’s founders “never intended to implant in its bosom the seeds of its own destruction, nor were they guilty of the absurdity of providing for its own dissolution.” If secession was legitimate, then the Union would become “a rope of sand,” and “our 33 States may resolve themselves into as many petty, jarring, and hostile republics… By such a dread catastrophe the hopes of the friends of freedom throughout the world would be destroyed… Our example for more than 80 years would not only be lost, but it would be quoted as a conclusive proof that man is unfit for self-government.”
He wrote, “The day of evil may never come unless we shall rashly bring it upon ourselves. Secession is neither more nor less than revolution.”
However, Buchanan followed up his condemnation of secession by declaring that the Federal government had no constitutional power “to coerce a State into submission which is attempting to withdraw.” He stated that “our Union rests upon public opinion, and can never be cemented by the blood of its citizens shed in civil war. If it can not live in the affections of the people, it must one day perish. Congress may possess many means of preserving it by conciliation, but the sword was not placed in their hand to preserve it by force.”
Buchanan called for moderation on both sides about slavery because it would eventually die a natural death anyway. He also addressed the mounting crisis in South Carolina between state officials and Federal troops garrisoning the Charleston Harbor forts; Buchanan declared that the Federals would defend the forts if South Carolinians tried using force to take them.
To resolve the sectional issue, Buchanan proposed “an exploratory amendment” to the Constitution that would 1) affirm the right of states to allow slavery where it already existed, 2) strengthen fugitive slave laws, and 3) allow slaveholders to bring their slaves into the territories until those territories decided whether to permit slavery upon becoming states. Republicans strongly opposed this proposal, and since they now enjoyed a majority in Congress, it was certain not to pass.
Northerners resented this message because Buchanan blamed them for the sectional tension and declared he had no power to stop secession. Southerners resented it for condemning the right of states to leave the Union. Few people expressed satisfaction with Buchanan’s handling of the mounting crisis.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 1003
- Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 4
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 8-9
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 245-46, 248
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 45
- Wikipedia: James Buchanan