suppressing rebellious south carolina -- 9/23/14

Today's selection -- from James Buchanan by Jean H. Baker. President James Buchanan -- who was from Pennsylvania but was a decidedly pro-Southern and pro-slavery president -- was Abraham Lincoln's immediate predecessor, and it was at the end of his term that South Carolina took steps to secede from the Union. However, it was far from certain that South Carolina could or would follow through, and equally unclear that other states would follow suit. When Buchanan reacted in a remarkably passive way to South Carolina's actions, it allowed two crucial months for the secession movement to gain momentum. This stood in dramatic contrast to the aggressive response made by President Andrew Jackson when South Carolina had similarly attempted to "nullify" federal authority in 1832:

"[As President Buchanan dithered], Northern newspapers recalled Andrew Jackson and his vigorous reaction to South Carolina's ordinance nullifying the 1832 federal tariff and that state's subsequent preparations for war. Jackson had responded forcefully with an immediate presidential proclamation. He had warned South Carolina that states had no right to invalidate any federal law; he had encouraged Congress to pass the Force Bill mobilizing the army; and he had begun readying the navy at Norfolk, along with three units of artillery, to counter South Carolina's actions. Jackson also established communications with Unionists in the state, who worked for an ultimately successful compromise, and he sent his own agents into South Carolina to find ways to protect federal property and even to jail leaders of the nullification movement. He quickly moved collection offices and protected federal agents from assaults by state officials. Simultaneously he prepared the fortifications in Charleston Harbor for attack. Later at least one South Carolinian acknowledged that the president's energy and initiative had chilled the state's taste for nullification and had encouraged compromise.

South Carolina Governor Pickens threatens, "Mr. President, if you don't surrender that fort at once, I'll be
'blowed' if I don't fire." President Buchanan responds, "Oh don't! Governor Pickens, don't fire! till I get out of office."

"Though a disciple of Jackson and a model of strong executive power, Buchanan did nothing for two months after Lincoln's election. There was no stern proclamation to South Carolina, only his annual address to Congress in December. Privately, quoting from the book of Job, the president explained that he intended to come between the factions of the North and South as a daysman (an archaic reference to an arbitrator) 'with one hand on the head of each counseling patience.' While northern Republican newspapers complained that he brought dishonor to the nation and should be impeached, the New York senator William Henry Seward, soon to be Lincoln's secretary of state, observed that what Buchanan espoused was that no state had a right to secede unless it wanted to and that the government must save the Union unless somebody opposed it.

Buchanan handing over a mess to Lincoln.

"During December, before six additional states left the Union in January and February, Buchanan's contradiction of illegal state secession cobbled with unlawful federal coercion was enacted into public policy during the struggle over the federal forts, especially those in Charleston Harbor. In the thinking of secessionists, state governments owned federal property under the doctrine of eminent domain. Accordingly, throughout the lower South southerners seized forts, customhouses and armories, post offices, and even courtrooms, in some cases before secession and in all cases with no response from the federal government. In Texas southern-sympathizing Major General David Twiggs of the U.S. Army and commander of the Department of Texas, simply surrendered all federal property to the new Confederate government, an action that Buchanan did protest by dismissing the general. But that was in February, not in the early crucial weeks of the crisis. It was in Charleston that the controversy between aggressive secessionists and an appeasing chief executive erupted. For both Buchanan and his successor, Lincoln, control of Charleston's Fort Sumter became the test of resolve."



Jean H. Baker


James Buchanan: The American Presidents Series: The 15th President, 1857-1861


Times Books, Henry Holt and Company, LLC


Copyright 2004 by Jean H. Baker


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