President Buchanan and the Civil War

Imagine you are former President James Buchanan. You were President when the South seceded from the Union. Everyone blames you for the Civil War. It is 1866, the Civil War is over, the Union preserved, and slavery abolished at the cost of over 600,000 lives.  Why should you be blamed? To defend yourself you write a book entitled “Mr. Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of Rebellion.”

In the book, you argue that the origin of the Civil War dates back to the 1787 U.S. Constitutional Convention which accepted slavery in the first place. You argue that had the country tried to ban slavery in the first place, the Southern States would not have agreed to the Constitution. The issue of expansion of slavery only arose after the Louisiana Purchase in 1804. You recall that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 resolved the issue by banning slavery north of the southern border of Missouri.

You were not the one who started the Mexican-American War in 1846, that was President Polk. The U.S. received significant additional territory from the Mexican cession, again raising the issue of slavery in these new lands. Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky worked with Senator Douglas of Illinois to craft the Compromise of 1850. The country seemed to calm down.

You think the country might have remained at peace but for the Kansas-Nebraska act, crafted by Senator Stephen Douglas and signed by President Pierce, your predecessor. This act repealed the Missouri Compromise by allowing ‘popular sovereignty’ to determine the slave status in new states. Turbulence broke out in Kansas as both slavery and anti-slavery supporters used violence and electoral fraud to win support for their position. You backed the pro-slavery forces in Kansas even though they were a minority. Later Congress created the ‘Covode Committee’ to investigate your actions in this and other matters. You informed Congress that this committee was a blatantly partisan effort, and rejected its report even though it found evidence of corruption and incompetence in your administration.

You believed that the slavery issue was dividing the country. You stated in your Inaugural Address: “May we hope that the long agitation on this subject [slavery] is approaching its end…It [slavery issue] has alienated and estranged the people of the sister States from each other, and has even seriously endangered the very existence of the Union…”. As a result, you lobbied to Supreme Court to settle the issue once and for all in the Dred Scott decision. How were you to know that instead of calming the country, the decision inflamed it?

You feel the North was to blame for the Civil War. In 1860 you attributed the crisis to the “intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern States.”  You further stated that “the incessant and violent agitation of the slavery question throughout the North … has at length produced its malign influence on the slaves and inspired them with vague notions of freedom.” You went on to say that the people in the South now felt threatened by slave insurrections. And that ‘no political union’ could survive if it made half the people “hopelessly insecure.” You also enforced the hugely unpopular Fugitive Slave Law in the North. As President, it is your duty to uphold the law, whether you agreed with it or not.

You remained President for four 4 months from Lincoln’s November 1860 election until his Inauguration in March 1861. During this period seven, out of the eventual eleven Southern States seceded from the Union. You point out in your book that in 1833 South Carolina threatened to leave the Union over tariffs and Congress passed the ‘Force Bill’ authorizing President Jackson to take military action to enforce the law. You, however, received no such authorization from Congress in 1860 to act against the seceded Southern States.

While you were still President, the South took over, without resistance, many Southern federal forts. The exception was Fort Sumter in South Carolina. You point out that the United States did not have sufficient military forces to garrison and defend those forts. As Commander-in-Chief, you had only 20,000 regular army troops available to you in early 1861, while President Lincoln needed almost a million to win the war. You did not want to provoke the South into conflict by reinforcing Fort Sumter when you had virtually no army to compel the South to remain. Further, while you believed secession was illegal, you also believed that you had no Constitutional authority to take military action against the South.

You point out that for all the controversy over slavery in the territories, none of them would have become slave states since “The natural … laws of climate would prove an insurmountable barrier against the admission of any of our territories as a slave state…”. Therefore, you believe the South’s insistence on ‘popular sovereignty’ in territories was pointless as none of those territories would have allowed slavery. You point out that slavery was not at risk in the states where it already existed. Neither party, Democratic nor Republican, was suggesting elimination of slavery in states that already allowed it. You felt that the South was vulnerable to external pressure on the slavery issue as an independent country. As a separate country the Confederacy would be the “only government in Christendom which had not abolished or was not in progress to abolish slavery.

On your last day as president, March 1861, you told Lincoln, "If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to …[his home]…, you are a happy man.” You want the public to know that you had a long history of public service and were well-prepared for the Presidency. You trained as a lawyer, served in the Pennsylvania House, U.S. House, U.S. Senate, Secretary of State, Minister to Russia and Minister to Great Britain. You turned down the opportunity to serve on the Supreme Court. You end your book as follows: “I feel that my duty has been faithfully, although maybe imperfectly performed; and whatever the result may be, I shall carry to my grave the consciousness that at least I meant well for my country.” You hope history will treat you well.


Howard Tanzman1 Comment