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James Buchanan and the Disintegration of National Politics

. . . There are portions of this Union, in which, if you emancipate your slaves they will become your masters. There can be no middle course. Is there any man in this Union who could for a moment indulge in the horrible idea of abolishing slavery by the massacre of the high-minded, and the chivalrous race of men in the South? I trust there is not one. . . ---James Buchanan, 1826

James Buchanan, born in 1791 in rural Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, enjoyed a long and successful career as a politician after accumulating his fortune as an attorney. In his early years in the House of Representatives and the Senate, Buchanan was a Federalist. While a bachelor residing in the rooming houses common to congressmen in that era, his closest friends were pro-slavery southerners. These men, especially his longtime roommate and best friend Alabama Senator, future Vice-President William R. King were so inseparable were they that one Tennessee congressman referred to them as “Buchanan and his wife.”

Despite his northern roots Buchanan evinced no hostility to slavery and no sympathy for the endless toil and brutality the slaves endured. He firmly supported slavery and sought to pave the way for its expansion whenever he could. On every issue of importance involving slavery during his long political career, spanning the most critical years of the national debate over the future of slavery, he sided with the slaveholders. In 1826, Buchanan perfunctorily stated his view that slavery was “a great political and moral evil” but continued on to elaborate on his fear of free blacks leading him to conclude that slavery was “an evil at present without a remedy.” Echoing a theme common to the slaveholding colonial elite, Buchanan blamed Britain for American slavery:

I know it is an evil at present without a remedy. It has been a curse entailed upon us by that nation which now make it a subject of reproach to our institutions. It is, however, one of those moral evils, from which it is impossible for us to escape, without the introduction of evils infinitely greater. . . .

Buchanan's republican principles, Pennsylvanian constituency, and awareness of the importance of the issue of the right to petition to other northerners forced him to a position that the petitions should be received and, then, tabled. Buchanan argued that northerners were "justly jealous" of their freedoms and the right to petition was one of the most precious of these. He stressed his distaste for abolitionists once again on this occasion, but refused to link the right of petition to the fate he desired for abolitionism.

During the controversies over the flooding of southern post office with abolitionist literature, the annexation of Texas, and other issues involving fugitive slaves, Buchanan stood with the pro-slavery forces. Buchanan's rage became as intense as any southern slaveholder when faced with the specter of any northern violation or non-compliance with the fugitive slave laws. In 1853 Buchanan was appointed by President Franklin Pierce as the American minister to London where he signed the Ostend Manifesto with two other American diplomats urging the purchase, or if necessary, the seizure of Cuba to prevent the abolition of slavery there. With black emancipation thwarted in Cuba the U.S. could extend the American system of slavery to that Caribbean island.

The continual struggle over the return of escaped slaves kept the controversy boiling. Slaveholders and defenders of slavery grew angrier through the decade at any assistance the fugitives received in the North. Their “code of honor” required deference from everyone to varying degrees. The small, but growing, minority of whites in the north who saw slavery as morally reprehensible deeply disturbed the southern political elite. The slaveholders believed, to the contrary, that they should be complimented on their benevolence toward blacks while, simultaneously they worked them to promote the prosperity of their region.

Buchanan was nominated by the Democratic Party as it was felt that he could win the presidency against the newly formed Republican Party. Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, who held 140 blacks as slaves on a Mississippi plantation, was unable to win full support from southern delegates. President Pierce, the incumbent, was felt to be too politically weak to win the general election. After a lengthy battle, James Buchanan was selected as the Democratic nominee for president. At this point the Democratic party was the only truly national party as the Republicans were based exclusively in the North, East and, underdeveloped, West. Buchanan was thought to give the Democrats a much better chance of victory due to his well-known pro-Southern leanings coupled with his northern political roots. The Democratic platform advocated the doctrine of “popular sovereignty,” a position that advocated allowing the settlers in each territory decide whether to enter the Union as a slave or free state.

Competing for the presidency against the Democratic party was the recently founded Republican Party. Nominating John C. Fremont, whose credentials included his military exploits in the war against Mexico, the party ran on a platform that featured an ambitious economic development program appealing to western financial interests, and opposition to slavery’s expansion. It did not propose to eliminate slavery where it already existed and sought to assure the slaveholders of this. The Republican commitment to contain slavery infuriated the defenders of the institution, nevertheless, being convinced that expansion was essential to the survival of their social system.

The Democratic platform pressed for a form of national prohibition on any questioning of slavery or advocacy of black freedom. It sought to remove slavery as an issue in the tradition of the founding fathers, and bitterly attacked those whom it termed “Black Republicans.” Charging that their attack on slavery lacked constitutional foundation, the defenders of slavery maintained that these critics were the true “disunionists.”

Well aware of the ideological and policy shortcomings of the young Republican Party blacks nevertheless gave it their cautious support in 1856. A meeting of blacks in Boston supported Fremont with the reservation that “We do not pledge ourselves to go further with the Republicans,” they declared, “than the Republicans will go with us.” During the 1856 presidential campaign the Democrats maintained that the Republican candidate Fremont was an abolitionist who is policies would lead to miscegenation. Part of a long tradition of exaggerating the immediate northern threat to slavery posed by abolitionists, the slaveholders set the stage for their own downfall. While in 1856 too, the South threatened to secede if the Republican candidate, Fremont, was elected. Buchanan won, postponing this scenario for four years. Lincoln was one of those who believed that Buchanan won the 1856 presidential contest by skillfully manipulating the nation's virulent anti-black sentiment. Not surprisingly Buchanan’s inaugural speech deplored the abolitionist agitation that for two decades plagued the nation and caused multiple problems for both the “master” and the “slave.” Nevertheless, Buchanan supported the Union after the outbreak of the Civil War and condemned the firing on Fort Sumter. In contrast, former president Franklin Pierce fiercely opposed a civil war with the goal to “abolish slavery by arms” describing Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation “truly treason” and a betrayal of the rights of millions of southern whites in favor of an inferior race.

Following his victory, President Buchanan assembled a cabinet heavily flavored by the inclusion of staunch defenders of the “peculiar” institution. he selected the cabinet with the assistance of Howell Cobb, one of the nation’s largest slaveholders, and Indiana Senator Jesse Bright, who also was a large slaveholder. The seven members of the cabinet consisted of four slaveowners from the South, and three pro-slavery men from the North. Soon after his electoral victory Buchanan told a southern Senator that during his term his chief objective would be “to arrest, if possible, the agitation of the Slavery question at the North and to destroy sectional parties.” He stressed the personal significance that this achievement would have for him describing it giving him a feeling that “I shall feel that I have not lived in vain.” President Buchanan’s goal upon being inaugurated was to bring Kansas in as a free state by the mechanism of “popular sovereignty” while the South remained passive achieving what he believed would be a “final” settlement of the conflict over slavery in the nation.

During the campaign and its aftermath events leading to the historic break in national unity were rapidly moving forward. As the President-elect Buchanan took the inaugural oath, the Supreme Court was in the middle of deliberations over the Dred Scott case. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, who made no secret of his pro-slavery sentiments, felt that the South was threatened by abolitionism.

Yet, the impetus toward black freedom constantly put pressure on the American system of slavery, pushing it from all sides and angles, probing for any weak spots, unresolved quandaries, and holes in its hard exterior. A lawsuit for their freedom by an enslaved Missouri family, Dred Scott, Harriet, his wife, and their two children led to a pivotal decision by the U. S. Supreme Court. Buchanan intervened to help decide the issue on behalf of the slaveholders’ interests by means of discussing the case with Supreme Court Associate Justice John Catron. The justice indicated to President Buchanan that he should write another justice who could be prodded to vote their way since he also believed that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. The Court didn’t not have to confront the issue of the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise in ruling on the Dred Scott case. Historically, however, the Taney Court had rarely missed an opportunity to deliver an opinion that strengthened slavery and upheld the rights of slaveholders. Taney continued his tradition of judicial activism in this instance ruling that blacks, whether free or enslaved, were “not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution.” He contended that at the time the Constitution was written blacks were viewed “as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who . . . had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them.”

At a key point president-elect Buchanan wrote to Supreme Court Justice James Grier urging a decision that would halt the agitation to abolish the institution. Grier showed the letter to Taney and another Justice. Thus, bending the Consitution, Buchanan seems to have influenced the eventual decision of the Court that declared that no black “slave or free,” was or would ever be able to become a United States citizen. In his March 4, 1857 inaugural address Buchanan declared that the question of slavery in the territories should have been solved by relying on the doctrine of “popular sovereignty.” The new president expressed his sincere wish that the issue of slavery and black emancipation would miraculously disappear:

. . . Most happy will it be for the country when the public mind shall be diverted from this question to others of more pressing and practical importance. Throughout the whole progress of this agitation, which has scarcely known any intermission for more than twenty years, whilst it has been productive of no positive good to any human being, it has been the prolific source of great evils to the master, the slave, and to the whole country. It has alienated and estranged the people of the sister States from each other, and has even seriously endangered the very existence of the Union. Nor has the danger yet entirely ceased. . . .

Deploring the break in unity among whites, Buchanan continued to voice the great fear that black insurrection would be sparked by the continual agitation to abolish slavery. For Buchanan this agitation threatened the greatest political system the world has ever known.

Two days after Buchanan's inauguration the Dred Scott decision was rendered by the United States Supreme Court. This fateful decision declared that the Constitution's due process clause prohibited any action to interfere with property, which it claimed slaves constituted, in any state. Thereafter, no United States legislative body could constitutionally bar slavery from any place in the nation. As for blacks, they had no rights “which the white man was bound to respect.” Therefore, Taney concluded, “. . . the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it” The slaveholding Chief Justice concluded that in “civilized and enlightened portions of the world” blacks were considered “altogether unfit to associate with the white race . . . and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and . . . might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” Dred Scott was not a citizen, Taney concluded. The second part of the opinion ruled that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional thereby setting off a firestorm of protest in the North.

President James Buchanan

James Buchanan, 15th President

1857 to 1861

Birth: April 23, 1791, Cove Gap, Pennsylvania

Death: June 1, 1868

Education: Dickinson College

Religion: Presbyterian

Profession: Lawyer

Political Party: Democratic

Primary Form of Relationship with African Americans: Politician

Important Online Works

Life of James Buchanan: fifteenth President of the United States, Volume 2 by George Ticknor Curtis

Mr. Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion by James Buchanan. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1866.

Life Portrait of James Buchanan, CSPAN, June 21, 1999.

The Slavery Experience, May 26, 2010

Having violated the independence between the three branches of government by his interference with the work of the judicial branch, Buchanan felt so confident of the outcome that days prior to it he discussed the features of the terms of the eventual decision. In effect, the decision rendered the long-utilized and semi-sacred Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, although it had already been overturned by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Slavery, then, could not be prohibited anywhere the United States flag was staked. Blacks reacted angrily to the news of the Supreme Court decision. Charles Lenox Remond disavowed loyalty to a nation that “grinds us under its iron heel” declaring that the “time has gone by for colored people to talk of patriotism.” A Philadelphia meeting in April 1857 condemned the decision by resolution. The decision was “final confirmation of the already well known fact that under the Constitution and Government of the United States, the colored people are nothing, and can be nothing but an alien, disfranchised and degraded class.” Any “pledge of allegiance” to this government under these circumstances would thus be “the height of folly.” Longtime activist Robert Purvis described the decision as “nothing new” and “in perfect keeping” with the history of federal government while Charles Lenox Remond bluntly declared, “We owe no allegiance to a country which grinds us under its iron heel and treats us like dogs. The time has gone by for colored people to talk of patriotism.” Ironically, after one of the bleakest periods in African American history, the post-Taney era of bitterness and pessimism with regard to the future, opportunity appeared in the form of a looming civil war.

John Rock, speaking at the first Crispus Attucks celebration, an event organized by William Nell culminating in a parade to Faneuil Hall, spoke prophetically. Rock’s declaration on March 5, 1858 proved remarkably prescient:

Sooner or later, the clashing of arms will be heard in this country, and the black man’s services will be needed: 150,000 freemen capable of bearing arms, and not all cowards and fools, and three quarters of a million slaves, wild with the enthusiasm caused by the dawn of the glorious opportunity of being able to strike a genuine blow for freedom, will be a power which white men will be “bound to respect.”

The Buchanan administration was under pressure from all sides of the contentious national political status quo . In the North with suspicions widespread that Buchanan was too cozy with the southern slaveholders, his application and performance in applying the principles of popular sovereignty in Kansas were being closely watched. The Detroit Free Press warned that while the North could accept the key principles of popular sovereignty, it could “abide by nothing less than the faithful enforcement of those principles.” Even Stephen A. Douglas, who had bent as far as he could to satisfy southern slaveholders’ demands, could not accept outright fraud in Kansas. Despite the fact that Kansas was destined to become a free state under the agreed-upon rules of popular sovereignty, the South grumbled at this outcome. The struggling remnants of the Whig Party in the South, the Whig-Americans, nativist, racist, and pro-slavery, railed against the outcome in Kansas. The American Party, under which Fillmore won one state, Maryland, in the 1856 presidential election, pledged in the South “an unfaltering devotion to Southern rights, Southern interests, and Southern honor.” In addition, the pro-secessionist fire-eaters, such as Edmund Ruffin and Robert Barnwell Rhett, criticized Buchanan as sacrificing their interests in order to save the Union. Despairing of the Union, they had begun preparing for the inevitable violence that would accompany secession.

The Disintegration of National Unity

There were many events that marked the nadir of American unity culminating in the outbreak of the Civil War. The brutal attack on Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, a determined foe of slavery, infuriated Northern public opinion. Following Sumner’s criticism of Senator Andrew F. Butler of South Carolina, Sumner was writing at his desk in the Senate chamber when he was approached by Butler’s cousin, Congressman Preston S. Brooks, also of South Carolina. Angrily shouting at Sumner, Brooks began to brutally beat him with his cane severely injuring Sumner. To northerners this ugly incident further alienated them from the South, hardening their view of the region as tyrannical and undemocratic in character. The beating left Sumner unable to resume his senatorial duties for three years. It also coincided with the outbreak of pro-slavery violence against northern white settlers in Kansas, marking a further deepening of the national crisis. The perpetrator of the beating Preston S. Brooks returned to the South greeted as a hero and presented with canes symbolic of the brutal beating he inflicted on Senator Sumner. While he was fortunate in escaping punishment for his felonious assault on a U. S. Senator, he died soon afterwards.

Amid a rapidly deteriorating federal Union, President Buchanan delivered his fourth annual State of the Union message on December 3, 1860. In one of the few instances in which he opposed the South, he denied any state the right to secede. Yet, he reiterated his long-standing view that the present crisis was due to the persistent northern interference with the sacred property rights of southerners. All of the various “evils” that could have been “endured” by the South had not these produced an unsettling effect on the principal object of southern concern, slaves and slavery, asked Buchanan. President Buchanan lamented that a quarter of century of agitation had filled the minds of slaves with foolish notions of liberty which undermined the “sense of security” “around the family altar.” With the former tranquility giving way to a deepening fear of “servile insurrections,”the South’s white women now went to bed haunted by hellish scenes of black uprisings and vengeance, the president complained. Buchanan truly believed that, save for abolitionist propaganda, the natural characteristics of blacks would have made thoughts of emancipation rare and anomalous. In Buchanan’s view, if only the slaveholders and slaves were left alone, all would be right.

Soon another ominous sign of national dissolution appeared: the Democratic Party split apart. Now, for the first time in American political history there were no truly national political parties. The final sessions of Congress prior to Lincoln's inaugural and the outbreak of the Civil War were tense affairs. In February 1861, in the midst of the crisis atmosphere President Buchanan greeted a delegation to the White House that included ex-president John Tyler. The delegation found that the disoriented Buchanan persisted in his firm support for the South, and had no plan for compromise but instead was reduced to pleading to every delegation he chanced to meet that the movement toward bloodshed and war be somehow halted. Later, it was charged that Buchanan aided the secessionists by sending arms and munitions to southern forts during his last weeks in office.

During the fateful days prior to the attack on Fort Sumter, one by one the southern states passed resolutions of secession. South Carolinian political leaders reminded its citizens of Lincoln’s “house divided” statements, claimed that the North was encouraging blacks to flee their captivity and engage in armed rebellion. They especially took exception to the perceived claim of the north that slavery was “sinful.”

These events dramatized, electrified and widened the gulf between whites of the North and the whites of the South. In the truncated worldview of the slaveholding South, events from Nat Turner’s revolt through the emergence of organized abolitionism to the increase in black urban resistance were all linked together to form a northern conspiracy to betray them to the enslaved black mass. The Southerners exaggerated the threat posed by the Republicans and their leader, Abraham Lincoln to their system of black enslavement. Perhaps the continuous abiding fear of black rebellion and retribution pumped up the emotions of slaveholders leading them to increasingly endorse the extreme measures of the “fire-eaters.”

Slaveholders sought to insulate their captives, both physically and mentally, with the aim of breaking the human spirit. To achieve and maintain this, only a “peculiar” set of political and economic institutions would suffice. The achievement of southern social stability was an impossibility where any semblance of free speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly existed. The Gag Rule, the postal system crisis of 1835, and the question of slavery's expansion all involved the perceived and real necessity of the South's attempts to seal off the system of slavery from the rest of the world, to isolate it from the rest of the nation's and world's news and ideas. Increasingly “protected” from outside observers, from outside news, and from new ideas, the South fell victim to it own self-perpetuating mythology of a slavery system within which blacks never thought of rebelling, were content, and unhesitatingly obedient. The myth of the docile slave, the myth of black loyalty, never completely believed, at times buttressed the white South's sense of power. This explains their confidence that the draining of white males by the manpower requirements of the Confederate Army would be compensated for by the excellent labor blacks performed on the home front. This proved to be one of the most profound misjudgments made by the Confederate leaders.

Africans in America finally would finally achieved their freedom from slavery--but at an horrific price. It was a price all virtually contemporary Americans, North and South would pay. Some 180,000 black soldiers participated in the Civil War and 68,178 officially lost their lives in the long conflict amounting to over one-third of those enlisted. During the entire war, black soldiers participated in 499 military engagements, and 39 major battles. African American non-combatants also played a key role in the winning of Emancipation and saving the national Union. The conscious, spontaneous, and barely-thought out work stoppages and other resistance inside the Confederacy hurt the southern war effort and damaged the morale of the white male-depleted plantations. Acts such as escaping to Union Army lines, performing labor in support of the military, and political activism also aided the successful northern war effort. By the middle of the Civil War there was a widespread realization that could be no return to slavery for African Americans. New forms of oppression would arise to ensnare blacks within their grip but the three centuries-old system of slavery was dead.