A Breakwater Between North and South

With his term in office expiring on March 4, President James Buchanan approved several last-minute bills. Among these was a measure creating the Dakota and Nevada territories. The Dakota Territory consisted of present-day North and South Dakota, and major portions of Montana and Wyoming. Daniel M. Frost and John B.S. Todd of the Frost-Todd Company had lobbied for this region to become a territory; their firm traded with settlers and helped establish towns.

After Minnesota had gained statehood in 1858, settlers to the west lobbied the Federal government for protection from the Native tribes in the region. A special 1860 census had counted no more than 900 white settlers in the Dakota Territory. Todd’s hometown of Yankton, with just 300 residents, became the territorial capital. Upon taking office, President Abraham Lincoln appointed his hometown family physician, Dr. William Jayne, as the first territorial governor.

The Nevada Territory consisted of a portion of the western Utah Territory called Washoe. Republicans in Congress had sought to separate Nevada, a predominantly pro-Republican region, from the Utah Territory, which consisted mostly of Mormons whom Republicans opposed because they condoned polygamy. Settlers in western Utah had formed a convention and accused Mormons of placing them “under an absolute spiritual despotism,” and therefore resolved to secede from the rest of Utah. The discovery of silver in the western section helped the Federal government to agree to split the territory in two. Lincoln appointed an avid supporter, James W. Nye, as territorial governor.

The laws granting territorial status to Dakota and Nevada had no provisions regarding slavery. Senator Stephen A. Douglas led Democrats in charging Republicans with hypocrisy for not insisting on the exclusion of slavery in these territories considering their staunch opposition to any compromise with the South that would have allowed slavery to expand. Douglas triumphantly proclaimed that “the whole doctrine for which the Republican Party contended as to the Territories is abandoned, surrendered, given up; non-interference is substituted in its place.”

Buchanan also approved two financial measures on the 2nd. One authorized a loan of $10 million to the Federal government. The other doubled the average tax rate on foreign imports and raised taxes on some imports as high as 250 percent. The Morrill Tariff Act, sponsored by Congressman Justin Morrill of Vermont, sought to protect northern manufacturing from foreign competition.

The tariff had long been an issue that bitterly divided North and South. Raising tariff rates prompted foreign trading partners to raise the price of their goods to make up the difference, and since the South relied mostly on imports, the tariff disproportionately raised southern costs. Such a tariff hike in 1828 had been condemned as the “Tariff of Abominations” and nearly prompted South Carolina to secede from the Union 32 years before it finally left. By the late 1850s, southern states produced nearly three-fourths of all U.S. exports and paid nearly 90 percent of U.S. import taxes.

Under the prior tariff law enacted in 1857, the highest tariff on imports was just 24 percent. But Republicans traditionally supported higher tariffs, and as their political influence grew, they pushed for increases. Many Republicans sought even higher rates than the Morrill Tariff, but Buchanan, a Democrat, would have vetoed such legislation. He only approved this measure in the hope that it would help manufacturing interests in his home state of Pennsylvania. Because Lincoln was an avid high-tariff supporter, congressional Republicans expected to raise rates even higher during his presidency.

Stephen A. Douglas led most northern Democrats in opposing the Morrill Tariff. He warned that raising rates this high would encourage foreign powers such as Great Britain and France to support the Confederacy, which tended toward free trade because of its reliance on imports. Douglas also argued: “Every tariff involves the principles of protection and oppression, the principles of benefits and of burdens.”

The Morrill Tariff Act passed with support from 87 percent of congressional Republicans, but just 12.5 percent from southern Democrats. Several Republicans noted that the Confederacy’s free trade policies could prove disastrous to U.S. financial interests because foreign trading partners would be willing to avoid the high taxes in the North and instead trade with the South.

Buchanan also acted militarily to deal with the secession crisis. He informed Congress that Federal troops had been summoned to Washington “to act as a posse comitatus in strict subordination to the city authority for the purpose of preserving peace and order in the city of Washington, should this be necessary before or at the period of the inauguration.”

The administration’s last cabinet meeting was held on the morning of the 4th. Holt reported that Major Robert Anderson, commanding the isolated Federal garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, informed him that the fort could not be held much longer without at least 20,000 reinforcements. Holt said he would relay this news to incoming President Lincoln. In addition, the Navy Department recalled all but three of its 42 warships from foreign ports to provide aid in this crisis.

Overall, James Buchanan believed he had done his best as president. The status quo was maintained in Charleston, though it was on the verge of collapse as he left office. Still, he had been firm in asserting the right of the Federal government to keep Anderson’s garrison at Fort Sumter. He had refused to endorse the right of secession, and he had not made any agreements with secessionists to which Lincoln might have been bound. As Buchanan himself said: “I acted for some time as a breakwater between the North and the South, both surging with all their force against me.”


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