Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the presidential election had amplified the already loud calls in the South for secession. But Lincoln would not take office until March; until then, this was the current president’s problem. Buchanan was a “Doughface,” or a northerner who sympathized with the South. He was a strong Unionist, but he did not believe the Union could be held together by force. He held a meeting with his cabinet to discuss his annual message to Congress due out next month. During this, he brought up an idea of having the states hold a convention to settle their differences. But just like the country, the cabinet was hopelessly divided:
- Secretary of State Lewis Cass of Michigan denied the right of secession and proposed using Federal force to keep states in the Union.
- Attorney General Jeremiah S. Black of Pennsylvania opposed secession and supported sending Federal troops to Charleston to stop South Carolina’s threats.
- Postmaster General Joseph Holt of Kentucky opposed secession and a convention of states.
- Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb of Georgia supported secession as legal, necessary, and desirable.
- Interior Secretary Jacob Thompson of Mississippi declared that the use of Federal troops would force his state out of the Union.
- Secretary of War John B. Floyd of Virginia opposed secession only because he expected the incoming Lincoln administration to fail.
- Navy Secretary Isaac Toucey of Connecticut supported the convention of states.
Buchanan would not act without cabinet guidance, but for this, the most monumental issue that any American president had ever faced, he would get none.
Most northerners opposed the idea of states leaving the Union, but not all. The influential New York Tribune, published by Republican supporter Horace Greeley, ran a widely-read editorial calling for the North to let the “erring sisters” of the South leave in peace:
“We hold, with Jefferson, to the inalienable right of communities to alter or abolish forms of government that have become oppressive or injurious; and, if the cotton States shall decide that they can do better out of the Union than in it, we insist on letting them go in peace. The right to secede may be a revolutionary right, but it exists nevertheless; and we do not see how one party can have the right to do what another party has a right to prevent. We must ever resist the asserted right of any State to remain in the Union and nullify or defy the laws thereof: to withdraw from the Union is quite another matter. And, whenever a considerable section of our Union shall deliberately resolve to go out, we shall resist all coercive measures designed to keep her in. We hope never to live in a republic whereof one section is pinned to the residue by bayonets.”
Since New York was America’s financial center, most city newspapers urged moderation to keep a financial crash from happening “out of fears aroused by the ferment in the Southern States.” Prominent New Yorker George Templeton Strong wrote that “things are not so bad as I expected they would be three days after Lincoln’s election… the storm will blow over and die away without uprooting anything.”
However, the growing talk of secession caused the stock market to take a hard dive less than a week later. Strong responded, “Southern securities are waste paper on Wall Street. Not a dollar can be raised on them. Who wants to buy paper that must be collected by suit in the courts of South Carolina and Georgia?” Prices fluctuated wildly thereafter, prompting Strong to write, “Our national mottoes must be changed to ‘e pluribus duo’ (at least) and ‘United we stand, divided we stand easier.’” Strong feared that a “great civil war” was “inevitable,” and if the new president-elect was not up to the task of preventing it, representative government might “disappear forever.”
In Springfield, congratulations kept pouring in to Lincoln as he met with an endless stream of friends, well-wishers, and job seekers. But warnings came in as well, such as a telegram on the 9th that read, “Nov 8th, Pensacola Fla. You were last night hung in effigy in this city– A Citizen.” A newspaper correspondent reported that Lincoln “considers the feeling at the South to be limited to a very small number,” but “very intense.”
Like Buchanan, Lincoln mulled over how a president could maintain the Union when a large section of it clearly wanted out. He explained his thoughts to a couple of men in mid-November:
“My own impression is, at present (leaving myself room to modify the opinion, if upon a further investigation I should see fit to do so) that this government possesses both the authority and the power to maintain its own integrity. That however is not the ugly point of the matter. The ugly part is the necessity of keeping the government together by force, as ours should be a government of fraternity.”
People continued pressing Lincoln to make some sort of official statement that would put southern fears at ease. Lincoln replied that people could refer to his past speeches to get an idea of what his policies might be. Nathaniel P. Paschall, editor of the Missouri Republican, wrote to Lincoln arguing that “extracts from your speeches… sent forth from newspapers known to be the bitterest enemies of the South” would “fail to have any effect whatever in the States now on the point of seceding from the Union.” Paschall wanted Lincoln to publicly guarantee that his administration would enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and oppose any northern efforts to nullify it. Lincoln replied:
“I could say nothing which I have not already said, and which is in print, and open for the inspection of all. To press a repetition of this upon those who have listened, is useless; to press it upon those who have refused to listen, and still refuse, would be wanting in self-respect, and would have an appearance of sycophancy and timidity, which would excite the contempt of good men, and encourage bad ones to clamor the more loudly.”
Fully aware that Paschall’s newspaper opposed him, Lincoln stated that reiterating his views would do no good in “papers like yours, which heretofore have persistently garbled, and misrepresented what I said.” He urged Paschall to print “copious abstracts from my many public speeches, which would at once reach the whole public if your class of papers would also publish them. I am not at liberty to shift my ground–that is out of the question. If I thought a repetition would do any good, I would make it. But my judgment is it would do positive harm. The secessionists, per se believing they had alarmed me, would clamor all the louder.”
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), The Coming Fury. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1961.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Kindle Edition, 2008, 1889.
- Holzer, Harold, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter of 1860-1861. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, Reprint Edition, 2008.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- 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.
- Schweikart, Larry and Allen, Michael, A Patriot’s History of the United States. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.