The Civil War: James Buchanan: From the Annual Message to Congress

December 3, 1860

Washington City

James Buchanan was never going to avert the Civil War. But in his annual message to Congress, after the election of 1860, he scarcely even tried. Whereas most outgoing presidents use their last days in power to begin shaping their legacy, reflect on their time at the helm, and share their unique perspective on the country—and on the world—Buchanan was not like most outgoing presidents.

The moment called for courage and boldness but diplomacy and grace. Buchanan showed none of those. Instead of soaring rhetoric, intended to unify the country, he picked sides and proposed an entirely unrealistic solution to the country’s ills: an amendment to the Constitution.

In his opening, he stated that “no nation in the tide of time [had] ever presented a spectacle of greater material prosperity than we have done until within a very recent period.” America had “been eminently prosperous in all its material interests,” with the “general health” having been “excellent,” the “harvests . . . abundant, and plenty smiles throughout the land.”

But, despite the blessings of prosperity, something had gone awry in the country. He asked: “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?”

At the heart of that discontent was the North and South squabbling over the institution of slavery.

Buchanan betrayed his own prejudices by recounting many of the South’s grievances that the North had allegedly committed in the prior twenty-five years—grievances which he framed as incessant “agitation . . . against slavery.”

Many southerners had had enough of the incessant agitation. Some had concluded that Abraham Lincoln being elected president was the last straw and reason for states to begin seceding—since Lincoln would surely “invade their constitutional rights.” However, Buchanan wrote that Lincoln, “[f]rom the very nature of his office and its high responsibilities[,] . . . must be conservative.” With Lincoln in a position to simply execute the laws as written and the South still able to assert itself in Congress, restraining the North from agitating the South was within reach, so Buchanan wrote. “Let us wait for the overt act,” he stated of the president-elect, before any state secedes. “Let us trust that the State legislatures will repeal their unconstitutional and obnoxious enactments,” he continued, referring to the North’s personal liberties laws. These statements were not only out of step with the public discourse of the time; they were half-hearted, mumbling suggestions to the country to stay together and to see what would come of it.

Buchanan’s grand solution, after the election and when the country needed conciliation, was a constitutional amendment that reinforced every harmful dynamic that had brought the nation to this moment of rupture. That amendment would: 1. recognize the property right in slaves, 2. protect the property right in slaves throughout the states, and 3. recognize the right of the master to have his escaped slave returned to him pursuant to the Fugitive Slave Act. This amendment would cement, for all to see, the institution of slavery into the foundation of the country—not as a relic of the 18th Century but as part of the American identity—and at a time when the western world had moved from coerced labor to wage labor.

Nonetheless, an amendment to the Constitution was the only way, so reasoned Buchanan. And without it, the federal government could do nothing; the states are sovereign and free to act as they please. States are autonomous and free to legislate as they wish so long as they do not violate the Constitution. And to Buchanan’s mind, neither president nor Congress had the power to take action to stop a seceding state. A president “has no authority to decide what shall be the relations between the Federal Government and South Carolina,” if it seceded. A president “possesses no power to change the relations heretofore existing between them, much less to acknowledge the independence of that State.” To do so would be “a naked act of usurpation” of power. And with a “momentous question” lingering over Congress of whether it had the “power by force of arms to compel a State to remain in the Union,” Buchanan felt it was his “duty . . . to express an opinion on this important subject.”

And with a president unable to act and Congress not having found a resolution, northern states had been imposing their will on the South. But, Buchanan wrote, states are sovereign just as nations are sovereign. Northern states had no right to impose abolitionism upon southern states any more than they could upon Brazil and Russia—two of the few countries in the western civilization that continued to maintain their forms of slavery into the winter of 1860.

So it came to secession. This was a term wrapped up closely with revolution. The people, to Buchanan, always have the right to resist their government, but “the distinction must ever be observed that this is revolution against an established government, and not a voluntary secession from it by virtue of an inherent constitutional right.” He continued: “Secession is neither more nor less than revolution. It may or it may not be a justifiable revolution, but it is revolution.”

Unable to state whether the coming secession was a “justifiable revolution,” Buchanan called for more consideration before taking any drastic steps. He wrote: “But may I be permitted solemnly to invoke my countrymen to pause and deliberate before they determine to destroy this the grandest temple which has ever been dedicated to human freedom since the world began?” After all, this was the Union that “will, if preserved, render us the most powerful nation on the face of the earth.”

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