Black Slave Owners
Read all the Civil War Sesquicentennial articles Comments and Questions to the Author

What Happened In December 1860? ©


The President Addresses The Congress


On December 3, 1860 President James Buchanan sent his State of the Union Address to the 36th Congress of the United States, as it opened its last session with 28 Republicans and 26 Democrats in the Senate and 108 Republicans and 45 Democrats in the House.


In his address, the President disclosed the policy he meant to follow as the Executive Officer of the Federal Government and in detail explained his reasons why. As the leader of the National Democratic Party his first purpose was to hold the party together in the face of the fact that the new sectional party—The Republican Party—was close to controlling the majorities in both houses of Congress and would soon control the Executive. His second purpose was to promote a policy that he believed might hold the country together.



The President laid out the issues that had polarized the country:


The Issue of Slavery in the Territories


“It is said that one cause for secession is that the Southern States are denied equal rights with the other States in the common Territories. But by what authority are these denied? Not by Congress, which has never passed any act to exclude slavery from these Territories; and certainly not the Supreme Court, which has solemnly decided (in, in Re Dred Scott) that slaves are property, and, like all property, their owners have a right to take them into the common Territories and hold them under the protection of the Constitution."


Here Buchanan was ignoring the reality, which everyone knew, that Lincoln was elected by the political strength of his sectional party which in large measure was derived from the eighth plank of its platform: “We deny the authority of congress, or any territorial legislature, or of any individuals, to give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United States." And the Congress, almost as Buchanan’s message reached it, had refused to admit Kansas into the Union, with a constitution that allowed for slavery.


The Issue of the Fugitive Slave Law


“The most palpable violations of constitutional duty consist in the acts of different state legislatures to defeat the execution of the fugitive slave law. The validity of this law has been established over and over again by the Supreme Court of the United States with perfect unanimity. It is based upon the express provision of the Constitution that fugitive slaves, who escape from service in one State to another, shall be “delivered up" to their masters. It will be the duty of the next President to act with vigor in executing this supreme law. But are we to presume in advance that he will violate his duty? Let us wait for the overt act."


Buchanan’s View of the Political Theory of Secession


“The Slave States have a right to demand the States of the North conform to the Fugitive Slave Law. Should the Free States willfully violate this right, the Slave States, having first used all peaceful and constitutional means to obtain redress, would be justified in revolutionary resistance to the Government of the Union. I have confined my remarks to revolutionary resistance, because it has been claimed that any State, whenever this shall be its sovereign will, may secede from the Union in accordance with the Constitution; that as each became parties to the Union by the vote of its own people assembled in convention, so any one of them may retire from the Union in a similar manner by the vote of such a convention."


“Such a principle is wholly inconsistent with the history as well as the character of the Federal Constitution. After it was framed, it was submitted to conventions of the people of the several states for ratification. Its provisions were discussed at length in these bodies. In the mighty debates that ensued, among the great men of the States, it never occurred to any individual to assert that their efforts were all vain labor, because the moment any State felt herself aggrieved she might secede from the Union."


“The right of the people of a single State to absolve themselves at will and without the consent of the other States from their most solemn obligations cannot be acknowledged. Such authority is believed to be utterly repugnant both to the principles upon which the General Government is constituted and to the objects which it is expressly formed to attain."


“It is not pretended that any clause in the Constitution gives countenance to such a theory. It is altogether rounded upon inference; nor from any language contained in the instrument itself, but from the sovereign character of the several States by which it was ratified."


“It was intended to be perpetual, and not to be annulled at the pleasure of any one of the contracting parties. The old Articles of Confederation were entitled “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union between the States." The preamble to the Constitution, having express reference to the Articles of Confederation, recites that it was established `in order to form a more perfect union.’ And yet it is contended that this `more perfect union’ does not include the essential attribute of perpetuity."




Buchanan’s argument for the proposition that no one state can get out of the Union without the Federal Government’s consent was equally embraced by Abraham Lincoln, but the historical evidence demonstrates its plain fallacy:


Early in the Constitutional Convention, held at Philadelphia in 1787, it was proposed to confer upon Congress the power “to call forth the force of the Union against any member failing to fulfill its duty under the articles thereof." James Madison, the man most responsible for the design and language of the proposed constitution, observed in the subsequent debate over the proposal that “the use of force against a State would be a declaration of war and be considered by the party attacked as dissolution of the compact." Madison moved that the proposal be tabled. This motion was adopted by the convention and the proposition to authorize the Federal Government to use force against a State of the Union was never again revived. (Madison Papers, pp. 732, 761.)


Later, when the proposed constitution was considered by the people in their state conventions, there was no confusion in the Northern States as to the constitutional limit of the Federal Government’s legal power to use its force against a State.


Alexander Hamilton, in the convention of New York, said: “To coerce a State is one of the maddest projects that was ever devised. . . Congress marching troops of one State into the bosom of another—Here is a nation at war with itself! Can any reasonable man be well disposed toward a government which makes war and carnage the only means of supporting itself—a government that can exist only by the sword? Can we believe that one State will ever suffer itself to be used as an instrument of coercion? The thing is a dream—it is impossible." (Elliott’s Debates, Vol. II, p. 199.)


As for Buchanan’s refrain, and Lincoln’s, too, of the Federal Government’s supposed perpetuity, one need merely read the Constitution’s language, in Article VII, to recognize the silliness of that. “The ratification of the conventions of nine States shall be sufficient for the establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the same."Thirteen States were members of the “perpetual" union of the Articles of Confederation. The Articles specified that no change could be made in them unless all thirteen States consented. Yet, despite these “inviolate" words, once nine states had ratified the constitution their connection to the old Union was broken, without so much as a by-your-leave. This left the four nonconsenting States in the Union’s position, on December 20, 1860, when South Carolinia seceded. What counts in such circumstances is not words but force, the paramount principle of political science.


Buchanan’s View of the Constitutional Duty of the Executive


“He is bound by solemn oath," Buchanan wrote, “`to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.’ But what if the performance of this duty has been rendered impractical by events. This is the case in the State of South Carolina. All the Federal officers, judges, magistrates, and marshals have resigned their offices. The only acts of Congress on the statute book bearing on this subject are those of February 28, 1795, and March 3, 1807. These authorize the President to call forth the militia and employ the Army and Navy to aid him in performing his duty, having first by proclamation commanded the insurgents `to disperse and retire peaceably to their homes.’ But these provisions are inadequate to overcome a united opposition of an entire State. Congress alone has power to decide whether the present laws can or cannot be amended so as to carry out more effectively the objects of the Constitution."




In essence, Buchanan’s argument, here, like Lincoln’s, is that the Federal Government owns the States by virtue of its power to make war. Unlike Lincoln, though, Buchanan willingly recognized that the secession of a State from the Union has no insurrectionary or rebellious characteristic, hence reference to the clause in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution—“The Congress shall have the power to provide for the calling forth of the Militia to execute the laws of the Union, [and] suppress insurrections"—is irrelevant: Because the government of the State remains unchanged as to all internal affairs. There is no rebellion going on within the State. It is only the State’s external or confederate relations that are altered. And forcing the State to retain its connection with the Union, thus turns on the power of the Union to make war.

The difference between an “insurrection" or a “rebellion" and the secession of a State from the Union, is indisputably manifest in the process by which the Constitution was ratified. Foreseeing the possible need to secede from the Union, in their instruments of ratification of the Constitution the peoples of the several States expressly reserved to themselves the right to reassume the power they granted the Federal Government by their Constitution whenever it might be necessary for their safety or welfare to do so. For example, here are the words of the people of Virginia, the tenth State to consent to be governed by the Constitution:


“We, the Delegates of the people of Virginia do, in the name of the people, declare that the powers granted under the constitution, being derived from the people, may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression. . . .[On this basis], we do assent to and ratify the Constitution recommended, on the 17th day of September, 1787." (Elliot’s Debates Vol. I, p. 327.)


That this reservation has political and legal substance was recognized by John Marshall (afterwards Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States):


“We are threatened with the loss of our liberties by the possible abuse of power, notwithstanding the maxim, that those who give may take away. It is the people that give power, and can take it back. What shall restrain them? They are the masters who give it, and of whom their servants hold it." (Elliot’s Debates, Vol III, p. 233.)


The President Passes the Problem of Secession to the Congress


“The question fairly stated is, has the Constitution delegated to Congress the power to coerce a State into submission which is attempting to withdraw? If answered in the affirmative, it must be on the principle that the power has been conferred upon Congress to declare and make war on a State."


“After much serious reflection I have arrived at the conclusion that no such power has been delegated to Congress or to any department of the Federal Government. This power is not among the specific and enumerated powers granted to Congress, and it is equally apparent that its exercise is not `necessary and proper for carrying into execution’ any one of these powers. So far from this power having been delegated to Congress, it was expressly refused by the Convention which framed the Constitution." (Here Buchanan acknowledges the undisputed historical record of the debate in the convention, but he turns a blind eye to the reality that, whatever may be its domestic law, a State can always seize upon the law of war to conquer a foreign government’s territory.)


“Without descending to particulars, it may be asserted that the power to make war against a State is at variance with the whole spirit and intent of the Constitution. Suppose such a war should result in the conquest of a State; how are we to govern it afterwards? Shall we hold it as a province and govern it by despotic power? “ (Of course, as this is the natural result of war.)


The Official Opinion of The Attorney General


President Buchanan’s then attorney general, Jeremiah S. Black, supported this position with a written opinion: “What can be done in case we have no courts to issue judicial process, and no ministerial officers to execute it? In that event, troops would certainly be out of place, and their use wholly illegal. If they are sent to aid the courts and marshals execute the laws, there must be courts and marshals to be aided. In such circumstances, to send a military force into any State, with orders to act against the people, would be simply making war upon them."


“If it be true that. . . a system of general hostilities [cannot] be carried on (lawfully), by the Central Government against a State, then it seems to follow that an attempt to do so would be ipso facto an expulsion of such State from the Union. And, if Congress shall break up the present Union by unconstitutionally putting strife, enmity, and armed hostility, between different sections of the country, instead of the `domestic tranquility’ which the Constitution was meant to ensure, will not all the States be absolved from their Federal obligations? Is any portion of the people bound to contribute their money or their blood to carry on a contest like that?" (Of course not, but overarching all human affairs is the “higher law"—the law of war.)


Here Black steps to the edge of the abyss: “The right of the General Government to preserve itself in its whole constitutional vigor, by repelling a direct and positive aggression upon its property, cannot be denied. But this is a totally different thing from an offensive war to punish the people for the political misdeeds of State governments, or to enforce an acknowledgement that the Government of the United States is supreme. The States are colleagues of one another; and, if some of them should conquer the rest and hold them as subjugated provinces, it would totally destroy the whole theory upon which they are now connected." (And, of course, it has, though the politicians and the historians still pretend otherwise.The United States is no longer a confederacy of sovereign powers, as Madison designed, but an indivisible nation made such by war.)


“If this view of the subject be correct as I think it is, then the Union must utterly perish at the moment when Congress shall arm one part of the people against another, for any purpose beyond that of merely protecting the General Government in the exercise of its proper constitutional function (such as “protecting" the “property" of the United States)."





Here is the truth of history revealed: The only power granted the Federal Government, under the Constitution, to coerce a State into sticking with the Union, is the power to make war. Contrary to Lincoln’s sophistry, the undisputed historical evidence establishes the fact that the Slave States could by secession lawfully get out of the Union, but just as plainly, under the law of war, the United States might attack and conquer them as it might attack Japan, or Germany, or Iraq. After one hundred and fifty years of historians dissembling about this, the truth of history should not any longer be ignored.


Buchanan Recommends That Congress Propose Amendments

to the Constitution


“The fact is that our Union rests upon public opinion, and can never be cemented by the blood of its citizens shed in civil war. If it cannot live in the affections of the people, it must one day perish. Congress possesses many means of preserving it by conciliation, but the sword was not placed in their hand to preserve it by force." (So the President, in obedience to his constitutional duty, cannot use force to preserve the Union, but he can use force to preserve the government’s property?)


“Congress can contribute much to averting civil war by proposing to the legislatures of the several States the remedy for existing evils which the Constitution has itself provided. It is to be found in the fifth article, providing for its own amendment. This is the very course which I earnestly recommend in order to obtain an `explanatory amendment’ on the subject of slavery, on three points:


1.      An express recognition of the right of property in slaves where it now exists and may hereafter exist.


2. The duty of protecting this right in all the common Territories.


3.      The like recognition of the right of the master to have his slave who has escaped, “delivered up."




In the ensuing three months, whether the Congress would adopt the President’s recommendation and send proposed amendments to the States for ratification, as an olive branch tendered to the Slave States, would depend on Abraham Lincoln. And his position was clear.




South Carolina Secedes From the Union

Immediately upon Lincoln’s election in November 1860, the Legislature of South Carolina called for a convention of the people of the State to consider the issue of secession. In the middle of December the convention met in Charleston’s Institute Hall. On a roll call vote held December 20th, the delegates to the Convention unanimously voted to adopt an ordinance of secession.



Down came the Stars and Stripes and up went the Palmetto flag.



The basis of South Carolina’s secession from the Union was stated by the delegates this way:


“In the year 1765, Great Britain undertook to make laws for the government of the thirteen American colonies. A struggle for the right of self government ensued, which resulted, on the 4th of July, 1776, in a Declaration, by the Colonies, `that they are FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES.’ They further declared that whenever any `form of government becomes destructive of the ends for which it was established, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government (if they have the power).’


“On the 3rd of September, 1783, the contest ended with His Britannic Majesty acknowledging the colonies to be free, sovereign and independent states." (Now the King consents.)


Upon its ratification by nine States, the Constitution of the United States sprang into existence. “The ends for which this constitution was framed are declared by itself to be `to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.’


“We affirm that these ends have been defeated and the government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non slaveholding states. Those states have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the states and recognized by the constitution; they have denounced the institution of slavery; they have permitted the establishment of abolition societies. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of slaves to leave their homes and have incited those who remain to servile insurrection. . . [and now] all the states north of the [Mason-Dixon] line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the common government, because he has declared that that `government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,’ and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction."


“On the 4th of March next this [man] will take possession of the government. [His party] has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory; that the judicial tribunals shall be sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease to exist throughout the United States."


“We, therefore, the people of South Carolina, have solemnly declared that the union is dissolved, and that the state of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, with full power to levy war, conclude peace and do all the things which independent states may of right do (chief among which is to defend itself)."


Immediately upon the Ordinance of Secession becoming operative, on December 20, 1860, the Governor of South Carolina sent a telegram to President Buchanan, demanding that the United States evacuate the army garrison then occupying Fort Moultrie and give up possession of both it and Fort Sumter to South Carolina.


President Buchanan drafted a reply to this telegram. He said: “Between independent governments, if one possesses a fortress within the limits of another (think of the American military base at Guantannamo Bay, or Clark Air force Base at Manila, or the U.S. Naval Base at Bahrain), and the latter should seize it (think of the American embassy in Tehran in the 70s), this would be not only a just cause for war but the actual commencement of it."


But the reply was not sent, when the South Carolinian representatives, in the House, came to Buchanan with a position paper. Buchanan took it on condition that he would not take any action with regard to the Charleston Harbor forts until he had returned it. On this basis, the Governor withdrew his demand of immediate possession of the forts and sent, instead, envoys to Washington to negotiate the evacuation of the forts with the President.





The Reaction of the Thirty-Sixth Congress


On Monday, December 9, in the House, several resolutions were offered by Republicans: John Sherman, of Ohio, suggested that the House agree on the immediate division of the territories into states,. With a view to their prompt admission into the Union; John Cochrane, of New York, followed Sherman with the suggestion that the territory be equally divided immediately into slave and Free states; and Charles Larrabee, of Wisconsin, proposed that Congress call a convention of all the states. The Speaker of the House, Mr. Pennington, established a select committee, with Thomas Corwin of Ohio acting as Chairman (Committee of the Thirty-Three) to examine these proposals and report recommendations to the full House. The Senate entertained similar proposals and the Committee of Thirteen, chaired by John Crittenden, was established to consider them.


On December 20, the senate committee considered a series of proposals offered by Crittenden: these were proposed constitutional amendments, the language of which strengthened the security of the Slavery institution, both in the South and out of it. On December 31, 1860, the senate committee reported to the full body that it was unable to agree on any of the measures. Senator Crittenden then came forward on the floor and offered a joint resolution proposing amendments to the Constitution which mirrored the proposals debated in the committee. Action upon Crittenden’s resolution was post-poned.


On December 13, the House committee agreed on a resolution that proposed “any reasonable constitutional remedy for the current discontent, should be promptly granted." On December 17th, the House passed a resolution that it “recommended the repeal of all state statutes that were in conflict with and in violation of" the Fugitive Slave Clause in the Constitution. This was passed with other resolutions directed at the South: The House, by a vote of 124 to none, most of the Southern members refusing to vote, resolved that “it is the duty of the President to protect and defend the property of the United States;" and another passed, by a vote of 115 to 44, that the House saw nothing, “in the election of Abraham Lincoln to justify a dissolution of the Union." Debate continued as the Republicans sought instructions from their leader in Springfield.





President Buchanan’s Cabinet Begins to Disintegrate


On December 8, Howell Cobb, of Georgia, resigned his position as Secretary of the Treasury. He had wanted to do this since Lincoln’s election, but Buchanan had asked him to stay on; now that secession was becoming an issue in Georgia, Cobb wanted to get back to his state and join in the debate. Buchanan appointed Philip Thomas, of Maryland, in Cobb’s place. After a few days in office, Thomas resigned and Buchanan replaced him with John Dix.


On December 10, after Buchanan’s meeting with the Carolinians in the House, he attended a Cabinet meeting that featured the presence of General-in-Chief, Winfield S. Scott, who had finally arrived in Washington from New York. In November 1860, Scott had published his “Views" in the press and had recommended to the President that no reinforcements be sent to Charleston Harbor; now, he urged Buchanan to send 300 men to Fort Moultrie immediately. When Buchanan refused, Lewis Cass, of Michigan, resigned his position as Secretary of State. The next day, Cass asked to be reinstated but the President refused. On December 17, Buchanan appointed his attorney general, Jeremiah Black, to take Cass’s place, and he appointed Edwin M. Stanton in Black’s old place.


On December 28, in a heated cabinet meeting, caused by the army garrison’s shift of position in Charleston Harbor, from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter, John Floyd, Buchanan’s secretary of war, resigned his position and left Washington. Buchanan replaced Floyd with Joseph Holt, who was in the Cabinet as Postmaster General.




Major Anderson Abandons Fort Moultrie For Fort Sumter


Fort Moultrie is on the northeastern shore of Sullivan’s Island, its guns covering the entrance to Charleston Harbor. In June 1776, British Admiral, Sir. Peter Parker, in command of a fleet of nine warships attempted to force his way into the harbor to bombard Charleston. After a nine hour battle, the British ships were repulsed and retired to sea. Charleston was saved from enemy occupation and the fort was named after its commander, William Moultrie. In 1780, though, the British Navy was able to overwhelm Moultrie’s guns and took possession of the city, abandoning it only when Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown


By 1860, Fort Moultrie, rebuilt now in brick, was in disrepair, with sand dunes rising like ramps against its seaward wall. It was also surrounded by a town that had grown up around it, with several buildings towering over its parapets. Given its condition, when South Carolina seceded from the Union, on December 20, the garrison’s commander, Major Robert Anderson, relying for authority on written orders drafted by Carlos Buell and signed by Secretary of War, John Floyd, decided to move his force across the harbor to Fort Sumter.


Directly after Anderson’s occupation of Fort Sumter, the Carolina authorities took possession of the Federal Arsenal, the Custom House, Post Office, and Fort Moultrie. Fortifications and batteries were rapidly built around Fort Sumter, measures were taken to obstruct entrance into the harbor, and Anderson’s access to supplies was cut off.


At Washington, President Buchanan held a rancorous cabinet meeting: Black, Holt, and Stanton vigorously defended Anderson’s decision to move the garrison from one fort to the other. Floyd, Thompson, and Thomas just as angrily, responded that Anderson had acted without orders. The order Buell had drafted and Floyd had signed was produced and read—“Whenever you have evidence of a design to proceed to a hostile act, you may act in your discretion as you think best." Floyd raged that Anderson had no evidence of such a design and demanded that Buchanan order Anderson out of Sumter. When Buchanan refused, on the ground that Anderson had nowhere to go—the Carolinians having by then occupied Fort Moultrie—Floyd abruptly resigned his position and left the Cabinet Room.


Buchanan then turned to the remaining ministers and suggested that he should meet the South Carolina envoys and negotiate the removal of the garrison from Fort Sumter and the harbor. This generated a heated discussion as the Northern Democrats in the Cabinet were ready to turn the incident into an excuse for war. Black responded with the statement that the President ought to order U.S. Navy warships to force an entrance into Charleston Harbor immediately. At the same time, General-in-Chief, Winfield Scott, interposed the suggestion that he be permitted to send 250 recruits from New York harbor, together with ammunition and supplies, to reinforce Fort Sumter. Buchanan vacillated.




Abraham Lincoln Reaches Out From Springfield


The essence of Senator Crittenden’s proposals, intended to placate the Slave States, was this: extend the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific; admit new states according to their constitutions; propose to the state legislatures an amendment to the Constitution that guaranteed the Federal Government’s noninterference with slavery.

Senator, soon to be Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward, of New York, was willing, for the sake of unity, to extend the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific, as the New York money kings, anxious to protect their $150 million investment in the South, were for it. They wanted the issue of slavery settled on the basis of the Crittenden proposals and induced Seward to convince Lincoln a conference should be called of the Republican governors (Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts) at New York to endorse them. The Radicals, however, were dead set against the implementation of any of the Crittenden proposals.

Abraham Lincoln’s position regarding the Crittenden proposals dictated the outcome that would result regarding them. On December 10, 1860, as the Congress was setting up its special committees to consider how to respond to Buchanan’s message, Lincoln wrote his main captain, Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull:


My Dear Sir: Let there be no compromise on the question of extending slavery. If there be, all our labor is lost, and must be done again. The dangerous ground—that into which some of our friends have a hankering to run—is Popular Sovereignty. Have none of it. Stand firm. The tug has to come, and better now, than any time hereafter."


Here Lincoln’s position is seen clearly: Through his party’s control of Congress and his executive power as President, the Territories were to be shut tight against the importation of slaves, while the Federal Government would not attempt to override the common law of the Slave States.


To all intelligent minds of the time, Lincoln’s steadfast slavery policy meant, as a practical matter, that the great mass of the existing population of Africans in the United States would be bottled up in the South, and as the effect of this slowly caused the economic wealth of the Slave States to diminish, no spreading of the loss to the North could be expected. Any one could see what this meant: As the institution of slavery collapsed by its own weight the South would be left with an alien population in its midst, unable to be socially or politically assimilated. This gradual outcome the South was understandably incapable of allowing to peaceably happen.


Illinois Congressman, William Kellogg, wrote Lincoln at the same time as Trumbull. Kellogg was a member of the Committee of Thirty-Three, and enquired what Lincoln wanted done with Buchanan’s suggestions for offering the Slave States concessions on the slavery issue. Lincoln replied on December 11:


“Entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery. (Italics Lincoln’s) . . . Douglas is sure to be again trying to bring up his “Popular Sovereignty." Have none of it. You know I think the Fugitive Slave clause of the constitution ought not to be resisted."


There his party captains had it: Lincoln, as President, would do all that he could to guarantee the Slave States, security for their slaves where they were but would obstruct their spread beyond the existing states however he could.


Shortly after Kellogg received Lincoln’s reply to his enquiry, he introduced a proposed constitutional amendment in the House which was at variance with Lincoln’s position. He then traveled to Springfield, probably as a mouthpiece for Seward, in an effort to convince Lincoln a compromise in favor of the extension of slavery into the Territories should be accepted. Senator Trumbull, aware of Kellogg’s visit, wrote Lincoln, telling him to commit to nothing until he had received further correspondence.


During the next ten days, various members of Congress, from both the North and South, wrote letters to Lincoln, seeking a public statement of his position which he refused to give, telling all of them to read the existing record of his speeches. Among these he pointed to, was a portion of the speech he delivered in 1858, during the senatorial debates with Stephen Douglas.


“I believe the slavery agitation will not cease till a crisis shall have been reached and passed. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved. . . but I do expect it will cease to be divided."


Lincoln, the clever lawyer, was so good at blurring the true state of things with words. He believes, he says, “this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free?" He really means, this Union. In his artful logic the government was the Union. Whereas, in the political theory of Madison that formed the basis of the Constitution, the Union was a confederacy of sovereign States held together through a compact—the Constitution—by their mutual self-interest in mounting a common defense against the aggressions of the world. The Constitution defined the structure of the Federal Government and, granting it certain powers, specified the constraints under which its powers were to be exercised.


In Congress, as the struggle for compromise intensified, Seward sent his minion, Thurlow Weed, to Springfield to press Lincoln for concession. Weed carried to Lincoln Seward’s message that, as a member of the Committee of Thirteen, he was having considerable trouble winning Democrats to Lincoln’s position, much less the conservative Republicans. Weed met with Lincoln at his home for a whole day on December 20th, the day South Carolina seceded from the Union. From this meeting Weed carried back to Seward Lincoln’s inflexible position:


First, that the constitution may be amended to prevent Congress from ever interfering with the existence of slavery in the Slave States.


(Lincoln was willing that these children be slaves all their lives.)


Second, that the States should rescind any law that was designed to scuttle the Federal Fugitive Slave Law.


(But the fugitive, when captured, would not be tried by a jury in the South)


Lincoln also informed Weed, in writing at this time, what everybody really wanted to know: Would Lincoln as President attempt to coerce South Carolina into returning to the Union?


Lincoln wrote to Weed, “My opinion [of secession] is that no state can, in any way lawfully, get out of the Union, without the consent of the others." (Italics added.) And to Francis Blair in Washington, Lincoln wrote, “if the forts shall be given up before the inauguration, [I] must retake them afterwards." With this position, Lincoln cast the die of war.


He repeated this dread statement to Senator Trumbull, on December 24; as Buchanan was considering how to respond to South Carolina’s demand that the Federal forts in Charleston Harbor be given up: “Dispatches have come here two days in succession, that the forts in South Carolina, will be surrendered by the consent of the President. If it prove true, I will, if our friends at Washington concur, announce quickly at once that they are to be retaken after the inauguration." Seward and company hastily informed Lincoln they did not wish his attitude publicly expressed. Nonetheless, on December 29, with Major Anderson and the garrison now removed to Fort Sumter, and the Custom House and Post Office seized by the Carolinians, Lincoln wrote the editor of the New York Enquirer: “I think we should hold the forts, or retake them, as the case may be—We shall have to forego the use of the federal courts, and they the mails, for a while. We cannot fight them into holding courts, or receiving the mails."


And, on December 28, to Duff Green, President Buchanan’s messenger who came to Springfield seeking to elicit Lincoln’s sympathy for Buchanan’s plight, Lincoln wrote these self-condemning words—“I denounce the lawless invasion, by armed force, of the soil of any State, no matter under what pretext, as the gravest of crimes." (But, of course, a “lawful invasion"—one based on the issue of consent—was nothing more than the proper exercise of a right.)


“Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most sacred right. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government, may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people that can, may revolutionize, and make their own, of so much of the territory as they inhabit. More than this, a majority of any portion of such people may revoluntionize, putting down a minority, intermingled with them.” (January 12, 1848. Speech in the House of Representatives, Speaking about the Secession of Texas from the United States of Mexico. See, Collected Words of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. I,  p. 438; original italics.)

“The right of revolution is an inherent one. When people are oppressed by their government, it is a natural right they enjoy to relieve themselves of the oppression, if they are strong enough, either by withdrawal from it, or by overthrowing it. But any people who resort to this remedy, stake their lives and their property on the issue.

The fact is the constitution did not apply to any such contingency as the one existing from 1861 to 1865. Its framers never dreamed of such a contingency occurring. If they had foreseen it, the probabilities are they would have sanctioned the right of a State or States to withdraw rather than that there would be war between brothers.
     (U. S. Grant, Memoirs, published in 1885)

Different Point of View than Grant and Lincoln's

Secession Ball Protest
A Crowd marches in Protest Against a Secession Ball in Charleston

Secession Ball Protest
(Jeffrey Ellis Getty Images)

Sesession Ball Protest
Whites on the Way to the Ball

Jeffrey Collins, Associated Press, reports from Charleston:

“The memory of the Civil War collided with modern-day civil rights Monday, December 20th, as protesters targeted a `Secession Ball,’ commemorating South Carolina’s decision exactly 150 years ago to secede from the United States.

As blacks and whites gathered in the twilight with electric candles and signs for an NAACP protest, a predominantly white group of men in old-fashioned tuxedos and women in long-flowing dresses and gloves stopped to watch and take pictures before going into the Charleston auditorium where the ball was taking place.

NAACP leaders said it made no sense to hold a gala to honor men who committed treason against their own nation for the sake of a system that kept black men and women in bondage as slaves. They compared Confederate leaders to terrorists and Nazis.

But organizers of the Ball said it had nothing to do with celebrating slavery. Instead, the $100-a-person private event was a fundraiser to honor the Southern men who were willing to sacrifice their lives for their homes and their vision of states’ rights. `We honor our ancestors for their bravery and tenacity protecting their homes from invasion,’ said Michael Givens, Commander-in-Chief for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The ball’s organizers do not condone or endorse slavery in any way, said Randy Burbage, vice president of the Confederate Heritage Trust, which put on the event. Burbage said the NAACP doesn’t help its cause with inflammatory rhetoric.”


President Buchanan Reacts to Suddenly Changed Circumstances


On Tuesday, December 26th, emissaries from Governor Pickens of South Carolina arrived in Washington and made an appointment to see the President the following day. Their mission was to negotiate the evacuation of Fort Sumter by paying the fair market value of the fort and the other Federal property in South Carolina. That day news came that Major Robert Anderson, commanding the artillery garrison at Fort Moultrie, had moved his command during the night to Fort Sumter.


Buchanan’s initial reaction to the news, was to order Anderson to return to Fort Moultrie, but, on Wednesday, when the further news arrived that Governor Pickens had taken possession of Fort Moultrie, he changed his mind.


The afternoon of December 27th, the Cabinet met and heatedly argued about what should be done. Secretary of War Floyd, of Virginia, took the position that Anderson had acted without orders. Buchanan expressed an inclination to agree. The Northern members of his Cabinet—Holt, Black, and Stanton—seized upon language in Anderson’s orders, approved by Floyd when Carlos Buell had returned from Charleston in early December, and announced they would resign at once if Buchanan ordered Anderson out of Sumter.


The next day Buchanan met with the South Carolina emissaries, who aggressively pressed him to issue the evacuation order. They reminded the President of his conduct over the last thirty days:


“Seeing very early that this question of property was a difficult and delicate one, you manifested a desire to settle it without collision. You did not reinforce the garrisons in the harbor at Charleston. You removed a distinguished and veteran officer from the command of Fort Moultrie (Col. John Gardner) because he attempted to increase the supply of ammunition. You refused to send additional troops when applied for by the officer who replaced him. You accepted the resignation of Secretary of State Cass rather than allow the garrison to be strengthened. You compelled an officer stationed at Fort Sumter to return immediately to the arsenal forty muskets which he had taken to arm his men. You expressed publicly your willingness not to disturb the military status of the forts if commissioners should be sent to the government. You took from the South Carolina members of the House of Representatives a written memorandum that no attempt should be made to reinforce the forts. You pledged that, if you ever were to send reinforcements you would first return the memorandum." (See, Official Records of the Rebellion, Vol. I, pp. 121-122.)


For two days, in and out of cabinet meetings, James Buchanan struggled with himself as to what he should do. He was stung by the South Carolinians’ charge that he had breached what he thought was, indeed, “a gentlemen’s agreement," and, at the same time, he was chained to his constitutional duty to preserve and protect the property of the United States. By now, he must have been mindful, too, of Abraham Lincoln’s position. Through his agent, Duff Green, Buchanan must have learned that Lincoln meant to retake Fort Sumter by force if he allowed it to fall into South Carolina’s hands. And he must have been struck by Lincoln’s written statement to Green that Lincoln denounced a lawless invasion of South Carolina as the gravest of crimes. The future of the country, whether it was to be peace or war, seemed clearly to turn on Lincoln’s resolve. The only way to reconcile his position with Lincoln’s, was to hang reinforcement of Sumter on the constitutional duty of the President to preserve the property of the United States, as even Lincoln admitted the impossibility of enforcing the Federal laws.


The problem came down, then, in Buchanan’s mind, to the practical reality that, if he ordered Anderson out of Sumter, he would be acknowledging in essence that South Carolina, by virtue of her Ordinance of Secession, was now an independent State. Buchanan had no authority under the constitution to acknowledge this expressly, and he shrank from being seen as doing it by implication; especially when he knew that Lincoln meant to retake the fort as soon as he gained control of the executive office.


James Buchanan sent a written reply to the South Carolina emissaries, on December 30th:


“I have to say that my position as President of the United States was clearly defined in the message to Congress in that I stated that, `apart from the execution of the laws, so far as this may be practicable, the Executive has no authority to decide what shall be the relations between the Federal Government and South Carolina. He has no power to change the relations, much less acknowledge the independence of that State. This would be to invest a mere executive officer with the power of recognizing the dissolution of the Confederacy among our thirty-three sovereign States. It is, therefore, my duty to submit to Congress the whole question, in all its bearings.’"


“I must do justice to myself by remarking," he wrote, “ that at the time I accepted the memorandum from the South Carolina congressmen, I objected to the word provided, as it might be construed into an agreement on my part, which I never would make.


It is well known that it was my determination, and this I freely expressed, not to reinforce the forts in the harbor, and thus produce a collision, until they had been actually attacked, or until I had certain evidence that they were about to attacked. The Congressmens’ memorandum assured me no attack was being planned against the forts, and so I offered that peace might still be preserved and that time might thus be gained for reflection. This is the whole foundation of the alleged pledge.


The world knows that I have never sent any reinforcements to the forts in Charleston Harbor, and I have certainly never authorized any change to be made `in their relative military status’"


“When I learned that Major Anderson had left Fort Moultrie, and proceeded to Fort Sumter, my first promptings were to command him to return to his former position. But before any steps could possibly have been taken in this direction, we received information, dated the 28th, that Fort Moultrie had been seized by South Carolina’s military force."


“It is under these circumstances that I am urged immediately to withdraw the troops from the harbor at Charleston. This I cannot do. This I will not do. Such an idea was never thought of by me in any possible contingency. It is my duty to defend Fort Sumter, as a portion of the public property of the United States."


The same day President Buchanan sent his written reply to the South Carolina emissaries, he received from General-in-chief, Winfield S. Scott, a message which, in combination with a letter received from Major Anderson, forced him to a decision that might have triggered the civil war.


General Scott wrote:


“It is Sunday; the weather is bad, and General Scott is not well enough to go to church. But matter of the highest national importance seem to forbid a moment’s delay. Will the President permit General Scott, as secretly as possible, to send two hundred and fifty recruits from New York Harbor, to reinforce Fort Sumter?"


President Buchanan carried Scott’s message with him into a series of shouting matches with his cabinet ministers that lasted into the new year: Major Anderson’s sudden move to Sumter had put him on the spot, and he was thinking how to change the public image of himself, perhaps even beat Lincoln at his own game.




Joe Ryan



James Madison, Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, W.W. Norton & Co. (1987)


The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Rutgers University Press (1936) Vol. IV, pp. 147-164.


Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Thomas Yoseloff, N.Y. (1958)

Alexander H. Stephens, The War Between The States, National Pub. Co. (1868)


Horace Greeley, The American Conflict, O.D. Case Co. (1866)

Philip S. Klein, President James Buchanan, The Pennsylvania State University Press (1962)


Elbert B. Smith, The Presidency of James Buchanan (1975)


Christopher Dell, Lincoln and the War Democrats, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (1975)


Frederic Bancroft, The Life of William H. Seward, Harpers & Brothers (1900)


Orland Kay Armstrong, Old Massa’s People: The Old Slaves Tell Their Story, Bobbs-Merrill Co. (1931)


Frederic Bancroft, Slave-Trading in the Old South, .H. Furst Co. (1931)


Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, W.W. Norton & Co. (1982)


Willa Cather, Sapphira and the Slave Girl Alfred A. Knoff N.Y. (1940)


Joe Ryan



Comments and Questions to the Author

Joe Ryan

Joe Ryan Original Works


About the author:
Joe Ryan is a Los Angeles trial lawyer who has traveled the route of the Army of Northern Virginia, from Richmond to Gettysburg several times.

Battle of Gettysburg
General Robert E. Lee
General JEB Stuart
General Jubal Early
Confederate Commanders
General Joseph Hooker
Union Generals
American Civil War Exhibits
State Battle Maps
Civil War Timeline
Women in the Civil War

privacy policy