The country had long waited for President James Buchanan to publicly address the rising tide of Republicanism in the North and the secessionist response in the South. Now, with the lame-duck session of the Thirty-sixth U.S. Congress assembling in Washington, the lame-duck president would issue his last report on the state of the union before leaving office in March.
The message began optimistically, with Buchanan noting that “the country has been eminently prosperous in all its material interests,” thereby producing “plenty of smiles throughout the land.” But if such prosperity was spreading, “Why is it, then, that discontent now so extensively prevails, and the Union of the States, which is the source of all these blessings, is threatened with destruction?”
Buchanan placed much blame on the northern states: “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,” and consequently, “hostile geographical parties have been formed.” Buchanan asserted that “violent agitation of the slavery question throughout the North for the last quarter of a century has at length produced its malign influence on the slaves and inspired them with vague notions of freedom. Hence a sense of security no longer exists around the family altar.”
To restore sectional harmony, “All that is necessary… and all for which the slave States have ever contended, is to be let alone and permitted to manage their domestic institutions in their own way. As sovereign States, they, and they alone, are responsible before God and the world for the slavery existing among them. For this the people of the North are not more responsible and have no more right to interfere than with similar institutions in Russia or in Brazil.”
On the other hand, “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.” Buchanan then surprised his southern allies by explaining his opposition to secession:
“In order to justify secession as a constitutional remedy, it must be on the principle that the Federal Government is a mere voluntary association of States, to be dissolved at pleasure by any one of the contracting parties. If this be so, the Confederacy is a rope of sand, to be penetrated and dissolved by the first adverse wave of public opinion in any of the States… By this process a union might be entirely broken into fragments in a few weeks which cost our forefathers many years of toil, privation, and blood to establish.”
Buchanan argued that the Constitution was an extension of the Articles of Confederation, which had stated that “the Union shall be perpetual.” But if this was true, “Has the Constitution delegated to Congress the power to coerce a State into submission which is attempting to withdraw or has actually withdrawn from the Confederacy? After much serious reflection I have arrived at the conclusion that no such power has been delegated to Congress or to any other department of the Federal Government.” Thus, states were not allowed to secede, but if they did anyway, the Federal government could not stop them. Buchanan went on:
“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… By such a dread catastrophe the hopes of the friends of freedom throughout the world would be destroyed, and a long night of leaden despotism would enshroud the nations. Our example for more than eighty years would not only be lost, but it would be quoted as a conclusive proof that man is unfit for self-government.”
Buchanan’s one and only proposal to settle the sectional conflict was to add an “explanatory amendment to the Constitution,” containing “three special points” that would 1) affirm the rights 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 became states and decided for themselves whether to permit slavery.
As clerks read Buchanan’s message in both chambers of Congress, “Never was any document listened to with such marked attention before.” Newspapers throughout the country published the message the next day, along with wide-ranging opinions on its content. As expected, Buchanan enjoyed most of his support from the northern Democratic press; a friendly Boston paper stated that he had “found a more excellent way than the common for settling a great family quarrel.” But conversely, northern Republicans and southern Democrats joined together to condemn this message, though for opposite reasons.
Republican Senator John P. Hale of New Hampshire guessed that according to Buchanan, “South Carolina has no just cause for seceding… she has no right to secede… we have no right to prevent her from seceding… the power of the country, if I understand the President, consists in what Dickens makes the English constitution to be—a power to do nothing at all.” Fellow Republican Senator William H. Seward of New York agreed: “It shows conclusively that it is the duty of the President to execute the laws—unless somebody opposes him—and that no State has the right to go out of the Union—unless it wants to.”
Republican Congressman Charles Francis Adams, son of President John Quincy Adams and grandson of President John Adams, said of Buchanan’s message, “It was in all respects like the author, timid and vacillating in the face of slaveholding rebellion, bold and insulting toward his countrymen whom he does not fear.”
President-elect Abraham Lincoln had waited to read Buchanan’s statement “with the greatest anxiety” because he was hopeful that the outgoing president would make a strong statement against both secession and the expansion of slavery into the territories. But it did neither. Lincoln expressed great dissatisfaction, particularly with Buchanan blaming the sectional crisis on the northern states.
The pro-Republican New York Times called the message “… the most elaborate effort Mr. Buchanan has ever made to appear bold without taking any risks. It is hard to believe that Mr. Buchanan is a conscious accomplice in the treason he is doing so much to aid;–but we can arrive at no other conclusion without impeaching his intelligence and his personal courage… It seems incredible that any man holding a high official position should put forth such an argument… The truth is, the Message is only laughed at by all parties.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the novel that had incited much sectional animosity due to its harsh portrayal of slavery, quoted the Bible: “The fool hath said in his heart there is no God.”
Democrat Albert Iverson of Georgia disagreed with Buchanan’s assertion that states had no right to secede, declaring, “Sir, the Southern states that are now moving in this matter are not doing it without due consideration. We have looked over the whole field. We believe that the only security for the institution to which we attach so much importance is secession and a southern Confederacy.” Senator Albert Brown of Mississippi said simply, “All we ask is that we be allowed to depart in peace.”
Regarding Buchanan’s proposed amendment, Republicans strongly opposed any effort to expand slavery into the western territories. And since they now enjoyed a slim majority in Congress for the first time in party history, there was virtually no chance of it being enacted. Besides northern Democrats, few people were satisfied with Buchanan’s handling of the mounting crisis.
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