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Aerial Perspective of Washington DC in 1861.

The Deep South’s animating of a Second American Revolution, by seceding from the Union and laying the foundation for an operational Confederate government, forced the North to either suppress the South’s uprising or craft a resolution. The likelihood of war would deter any widespread northern suppression, leaving the question: What compromise could the North propose that appeased the South and put both sections of the country on a path of coexistence? While variations of this question had been posed in the years leading up to 1860, at no prior point were states seceding from the Union en masse to form a rival government.

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President James Buchanan.

At a time when there was no national media and few institutions with a national focus, the threat of secession was not clear to many northerners. Stephen Douglas brought attention to the potential of secession during the Election of 1860, and outgoing lame duck President James Buchanan met with his administration regarding the risk of secession. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 517. President Buchanan sought to hold a constitutional convention to produce a compromise between the states. See id. at 518. With little support from his cabinet, he proposed the idea in his annual message to Congress on December 3, 1860:

“The incessant and 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. This feeling of peace at home has given place to apprehensions of servile insurrections. . . . Should this apprehension of domestic danger, whether real or imaginary, extend and intensify itself until it shall pervade the masses of the Southern people, then disunion will become inevitable.” James D. Richardson (ed.), A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents (11 vols.; New York, 1907), V, 626-27.

To achieve any peace between North and South, he envisioned that the law must protect slavery and the return of fugitive slaves, and that the best vehicle for that protection was a constitutional amendment. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 519. If the southern reception to President Buchanan’s plan was cool, the northern reception was icy. Republicans throughout the North regarded the plan as a complete surrender to southern demands. See id. at 520. Southerners viewed his message as alienating them in that he deemed the remedy of secession to be illegal and “neither more nor less than revolution.” Id. at 521 citing Kenneth M. Stampp, And the War Came (Baton Rouge, 1950), 57. In response to President Buchanan’s proposal, and perhaps summing up his presidency itself, a Cincinnati newspaper declared: “Seldom have we known so strong an argument come to so lame and impotent a conclusion.” Cincinnati Enquirer, quoted in Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln (2 vols.; New York, 1950), II, 353.

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The Capitol Under Construction in 1861.

With that, President Buchanan’s presidency, already relegated to the lame duck phase, began its petering out. For the last three months of his term, he would “do little more than exert the authority and perform the duties of chief executive as they were formally specified in the Constitution.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 521. In fact, he understood the specter of secession to be a problem that only Congress could deal with, not then-President-Elect Abraham Lincoln. See id. He said that, as president, he had “no authority to decide what shall be the relations between the Federal Government and South Carolina,” and it was his “duty to submit to Congress the whole question in all its bearings.” James D. Richardson (ed.), A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents (11 vols.; New York, 1907), V, 635.

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Abraham Lincoln in 1861.

Thus, the question became whether a lame duck session of Congress, convening on December 3, 1860, would resolve the crisis. With many members repudiated in the Election of 1860 and other members who “had come merely to mark time until their states officially withdrew from the Union,” prospects for resolution were not promising. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 522. Republicans, the victors in the Election of 1860, were the most likely to act on the issue of secession. However, President-Elect Lincoln declined to make any further pronouncements regarding secession, stating: “It would make me appear as if I repented for the crime of having been elected, and was anxious to apologize and beg forgiveness. To so represent me, would be the principal use made of any letter I might now thrust upon the public.” Roy P. Basler (ed.), The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (8 vols.; New Brunswick, N.J., 1953), IV, 151-52. Lincoln viewed secession as nothing more than anarchy, asking:

“Having never been States, either in substance, or in name, outside the Union, whence this magical omnipotence of ‘State rights,’ asserting a claim of power to lawfully destroy the Union itself? . . . [No government] ever had provision in its organic law for its own termination. . . . No State, upon its own mere motion, can lawfully get out of the Union. . . . They can only do so against law, and by revolution.” Roy C. Basler (ed.), The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (9 vols.; New Brunswick, N.J., 1952-55), IV, 433-37.

While other Republicans, elected and otherwise, attempted to harness the party’s energy and create a plan of action, their attempt was almost entirely fruitless. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 524 citing Kenneth M. Stampp, And the War Came (Baton Rouge, 1950), 64-65. Unified action in Congress was unlikely, largely because of the Republicans’ perspective toward the South seceding.

Throughout the time that the states of the Deep South seceded in turn, Republican Party orthodoxy dictated that each state’s fulfilled threat of seceding was but part of a bigger bluff and a temporary one at that. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 526. Given this perspective, Republicans were unwilling to compromise with southerners. For years, Republicans had been reticent to compromise on the issue of expanding slaveholding territory, but now the issue was the very survival of the United States. Rather than view the gradual secession of states as a threat to the country’s unified future, Republicans widely believed that southern Unionists would come forward when states seceded and provide the potential for bloodless reconciliation through negotiation. See id. at 527.

In fact, there was a variety of options available to Republicans to calm the crisis short of full compromise on slavery. Historian David Potter outlined those options: 1) “nonresistance combined with official nonacquiescence”; 2) “temporary acquiescence in the hope of subsequent reconciliation”; 3) “nonviolent maintenance of some federal authority (such as collecting duties on ships stationed outside harbors)”; 4) “defense of federal property”; 5) “economic sanctions“; and 6) “limited coercion (such as imposing a blockade).” Id. at 529. Whether Congress could agree on one of these options, or any other option geared toward reconciliation, came down to two committees: the Committee of Thirteen in the Senate and the Committee of Thirty-three in the House of Representatives.

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Senator John Crittenden.

Kentucky Senator John Crittenden presented an omnibus proposal, much like his predecessor Henry Clay in negotiating the Compromise of 1850, to the Committee of Thirteen. The proposal included six constitutional amendments and four resolutions, only one of which “could be considered a concession to the antislavery element.” See id. at 531. One amendment would have forbade the abolition of slavery on federal property in slave states and another would have compensated owners for runaway slaves. See id. Then, one amendment proposed to restore the Missouri Compromise line, guaranteeing protection of slavery to all territory south of the 36º30′ latitudinal. See id. Then, his other proposed amendments would guarantee that Congress did not interfere with the institution of slavery and that the amendments could not be affected by subsequent constitutional amendments. See id. at 532.

Senators Jefferson Davis and Robert Toombs voted against the proposal, joining Senator William Seward and four other Republican members, ensuring the omnibus package’s defeat at the committee stage. Id. The committee reported the result to the Senate on December 31, 1860, prompting Judah Benjamin of Louisiana to announce: “The day for the adjustment has passed. If you would give it now, you are too late. . . . within a few weeks we part to meet as Senators in one common council chamber of the nation no more forever. We desire, we beseech you, let this parting be in peace.” Senate Reports, 36 Cong., 2 sess., No. 288 (Serial 1090), 5, 8-11; Congressional Globe, 36 Cong., 2 sess., 211, 217. With this, the Committee of Thirteen, led by Senator Crittenden, had failed to move Congress toward compromise and placed all hope for congressional action on the House.

On the other side of the Capitol, the Committee of Thirty-three was marginally more consequential. Reminiscent of the horse-trading of the previous decade, Maryland’s Henry Winter Davis proposed that New Mexico be admitted as a slave state. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 533. Charles Francis Adams, the son of President John Quincy Adams and grandson of President John Adams, joined Davis’ proposal with a resolution in favor of a constitutional amendment protecting slavery in the states. Both resolutions won committee approval by December 29, 1860. See id. citing House Reports, 36 Cong., 2 sess., no. 31 (Serial 1104), 19, 20-21, 35-37; Martin B. Duberman, Charles Francis Adams, 1807-1886 (Boston, 1961), 231-33, 236. This approval reflected House Republicans departing from party orthodoxy, as they were conceding slavery to exist north of the 36º30′ latitudinal, long the divider between slave and free states, as it extended through New Mexico. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 534. However, both northerner and southerner alike were aware that New Mexico was not going to be a hotbed for slavery, given its geographic location. See id. Ultimately, the Committee of Thirty-three was successful in forcing southerners to reject seemingly reasonable compromises, tarnishing their credibility, but no resolution followed. By mid-January 1861, the Committee of Thirty-three submitted to the House a series of proposals that it did not expressly endorse, and the committee folded up. See id. at 534; House Reports, 36 Cong., 2 sess., no. 31 (Serial 1104), 39-40.

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William Seward.

Then, Senator Seward, seizing the moment, delivered a speech to Congress with packed galleries in the chamber. One witness observed that “every ear in the vast assembly was strained to catch his every word.” Boston Atlas and Bee, reprinted Cincinnati Commercial, January 20, 1861. A Boston reporter wrote that it was:

“[D]ifficult to restrain oneself from tears, when at the allusion of Seward to the great men of the country now dead and gone, and at his vivid portrayal of the horrors and evils of dissolution and civil war, we saw the venerable Senator Crittenden, who sat directly in front of Seward, shedding tears, and finally, overcome by his feelings, cover his face with his handkerchief.” Id.

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Front Cover of Harper’s Weekly Showing the Georgia Delegation in Congress. January 5, 1861.

Although Seward received thunderous applause from the galleries after finishing his nearly two-hour speech, his speech was unlikely to change southern minds. See Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, 300-01. In fact, just moments later, five southern Senators, including Jefferson Davis, gave farewell speeches to their colleagues before resigning their seats. See id. at 301. Nonetheless, Seward had accomplished his goal of gaining time “for the new Administration to organize and for the frenzy of passion to subside.” Seward to Frances Adeline Seward, January 23, 1861, quoted in Frederick W. Seward, Seward at Washington, as Senator and Secretary of State: A Memoir of His Life, with Selections from His Letters, 1846-1861, (1891), 497.

Lincoln viewed Crittenden’s proposal as likely to “put us again on the high-road to a slave empire.” Lincoln to Thurlow Weed, Dec. 17, 1860 in Roy C. Basler (ed.), The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (9 vols.; New Brunswick, N.J., 1952-55), IV, 154. He stated that any territorial compromise:

“[A]cknowledges that slavery has equal rights with liberty, and surrenders all we have contended for. . . . We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten. . . . If we surrender, it is the end of us. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum. A year will not pass, till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union.” Lincoln to James T. Hale, Jan. 11, 1861, in Roy C. Basler (ed.), The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (9 vols.; New Brunswick, N.J., 1952-55), IV, 172.

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President Buchanan and His Cabinet.

Failing to fulfill President Buchanan’s hopes, Congress had reached no compromise to avert the secession crisis. However, his administration had graver, more proximate concerns than those on Capitol Hill. As a president who heavily relied on his cabinet, a mostly pro-southern group of men, the secession crisis was sure to disrupt President Buchanan’s administration. Four of the seven cabinet members resigned and two members changed positions. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 535. One prominent shift was Edwin Stanton, a gifted lawyer with an erratic temperament but antislavery to his core, replacing Jeremiah Black, not known to be a critic of slavery, as Attorney General. See id. at 536-37.

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Fort Sumter Before the War.

The morphing Buchanan administration had to deal with the issue of three forts, Fort Moultrie, Castle Pinckney, and Fort Sumter, in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, a state that was preparing to secede from the Union. Major Robert Anderson, a Kentuckian, charged with protecting the forts called on President Buchanan to send reinforcements as Anderson believed the three forts to be weak and a threat to peace. See id. at 538. President Buchanan wavered and did not send reinforcements. Sensing that an outbreak of violence was imminent and that Fort Sumter was a more defensible position, Anderson moved his troops and guns to Fort Sumter, and South Carolina troops seized Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney. See id. at 540. Southern senators, led by Senator Jefferson Davis, swarmed President Buchanan insisting that Anderson must return to the abandoned forts, but President Buchanan saw “no disobedience of orders and refused to take any hasty action.” Id. at 541 citing Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (2 vols.; New York, 1881), I, 215-16. Then, on December 28, 1860, a group of South Carolina commissioners approached President Buchanan and demanded the immediate evacuation of all federal troops from Charleston. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 541. President Buchanan responded with a statement announcing that the government would defend Fort Sumter “against hostile attacks, from whatever quarter they may come.” John Bassett Moore (ed.), The Works of James Buchanan (12 vols.; Philadelphia, 1908-11), XI, 79-91.

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General Winfield Scott.

A fortnight later, President Buchanan authorized a vessel to send supplies to Anderson and the troops at Fort Sumter, with General Winfield Scott’s approval. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 542. The Star of the West left New York, despite Anderson’s assurance that he was in no need of immediate help, and made its way to Charleston’s harbor. As it approached the harbor, South Carolina troops opened fire, damaging the vessel and prompting it to reverse course. See id. Fort Sumter’s guns were quiet. Although it could not have been known to its participants, the first shots of a war had been fired, but the war would not yet commence for another three months.

President Buchanan, in a message to Congress on January 8, 1861, reaffirmed his “right and duty to use military force defensively” to protect federal property and officers. See James D. Richardson (ed.), A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents (11 vols.; New York, 1907), XI, 126-41. On the southern side, the emerging Confederate government, to be led by Jefferson Davis, agreed that South Carolinians should not risk the future of the new Confederacy by prematurely attacking Fort Sumter. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 544.

The deep divide in the country had not only resulted in secession; it also resulted in the hamstringing of the institutions best suited to deal with national issues. Neither Congress nor the White House proved capable of stemming the flow of southern states toward the Confederacy. As important as Anderson’s moving of troops to Fort Sumter was in averting violence, Senator Seward’s speech buying time for the incoming Lincoln administration may have been equally important. With the southernmost portions of the country having seceded, the old methods of placating southern concerns having failed, and Buchanan’s presidency having waned to total impotence, the sum of Americans’ hopes for preserving the Union was to be vested in a newly-bearded Illinois lawyer.

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