Original Document
Original Document
James Buchanan, on the events leading to outbreak of the Civil War, 1866.

…[This] narrative will prove that the original and conspiring causes of all of our future troubles are to be found in the long, active, and persistent hostility of the Northern Abolitionists, both in and out of Congress, against Southern slavery, until the final triumph of their cause in the election of President Lincoln; and on the other hand, the corresponding antagonism and violence with which the advocates of slavery resisted these efforts, and vindicated its preservation and extension up till the period of secession….

The authorities cited in the work will show that Mr. Buchanan never failed, upon all suitable occasions, to warn his countrymen of the approaching danger, and to advise them of the proper means to avert it. Both before and after he became President he was an earnest advocate of compromise between the parties to save the Union, but Congress disregarded his recommendations. Even after he had, in his messages, exposed the dangerous condition of public affairs, and when it had become morally certain that all his efforts to avoid the civil war would be frustrated by agencies far beyond his control, they persistently refused to pass any measures enabling him or his successor to execute the laws against armed resistance, or to defend the country against approaching rebellion….

Buchanan addresses his support in 1858 for the admission of Kansas as a slave state.

"Here, again," says the President, "a fair opportunity was presented to the adherents of the Topeka [anti-slavery] Constitution, if they were the majority, to decide this exciting question… in their own way," and thus restore peace to the distracted Territory; but they again refused to exercise their right of popular sovereignty, and again suffered the election to pass by default." In consequence, the result, according to the report of J. Calhoun, the President of the Convention, was 6.226 votes in favor of slavery, and but 569 against it.

The [pro-slavery Lecompton] constitution thus adopted had provided for holding an election… A better spirit now prevailed among the opponents of the Lecompton Constitution, and they no longer refrained from voting. A large majority of them, by a strange but happy inconsistency, recognized its existence by voting under its provisions….

The President hailed this evidence of returning reason as an auspicious event. It had been his constant effort from the beginning to induce the Anti-Slavery Party to vote. Now that this had been accomplished, he knew that all revolutionary troubles in Kansas, would speedily terminate….

It was after all these events had transpired, that the President on the 30th of January, 1858, received the Lecompton Constitution, with a request from the President of the Convention that it might be submitted to the consideration of Congress. This was done by the message of the 2d February, 1858… In this the President recommended the admission of Kansas as a State under the Lecompton Constitution. He says: "The people of Kansas… now ask admission into the Union under this constitution, which is republican in form. It is for Congress to decide whether they will admit or reject the State which has thus been created. For my own part, I am decidedly in favor of its admission, and thus terminating the Kansas question….

"If Congress, for the sake of those men who refused to vote for delegates to the convention when they might have excluded slavery from the constitution, and who afterwards refused to vote on the 21st December last, when they might, as they claim, have stricken slavery from the constitution, should now reject the State because slavery remains in the constitution, it is manifest that the agitation on this dangerous subject will be renewed in a more alarming form than it has every yet assumed.…

This Message gave rise to a long, exciting, and occasionally violent debate in both Houses of Congress, between the Anti-Slavery members and their opponents, which lasted for nearly three months. IN the course of it slavery was denounced in every form which could exasperate the Southern people and render it odious to the people of the North; whilst, on the other hand, many of the speeches of Southern members displayed characteristic violence….

Buchanan on John Brown's raid

In the already excited condition of public feeling throughout the South, this raid of John Brown made a deeper impression on the southern mind against the Union than all former events. Considered merely as the isolated act of a desperate fanatic, it would have had no lasting effect. It was the enthusiastic and permanent approbation of the object of his expedition by the abolitionists of the North, which spread alarm and apprehension throughout the South….The Republican party have ever since honored him as a saint or a martyr in a cause which they deemed so holy….

But even admitting slavery to be a sin, have the adherents of John Brown never reflected that the attempt by one people to pass beyond their own jurisdiction, and to extirpate by force of arms whatever they may deem sinful among another people, would involve nations of the earth in perpetual hostilities? We Christians are thoroughly convinced that Mahomet was a false prophet; shall we, therefore, make war upon the Turkish empire to destroy Islamism? If we would preserve the peace of the world and avoid much greater evils than we desire to destroy, we must act upon the wise principles of international law, and leave each people to decided domestic questions for themselves….

Buchanan blames the split of the Democratic Party on Stephen Douglas and his supporters, and on southern extremists.

In reviewing the whole, it is clear that the original cause of the disaster was the persistent refusal of the friends of Mr. Douglas to recognize the constitutional rights of the slaveholding States in the Territories, established by the Supreme Court. These rights the Southern States could not yield after the decision, without a sense of self-degradation, and voluntary abandonment of their equality with their sister States, as members of the Union. But were they justified, for this cause, in seceding from the Convention, and pursuing a course so extreme? Far from it. Had they remained at the post of duty, like Virginia and the other border States, it would have been impossible that that a candidate so obnoxious to them, on account of his principles, could have been nominated. The final result would probably then have been the nomination of some compromise candidate, which would have preserved the unity and strength of the Democratic organization. Indeed, the withdrawal of these States, under the circumstances, has afforded plausible ground for the belief of many, that this was done with a view to prepare the way for a dissolution of the Union. Although, from the votes and speeches of their delegates, there do not seem to be sufficient grounds for so harsh a judgment, yet it cannot be denied that the act was rash, unwise, and unfortunate….

Buchanan explains his actions during the secession crisis.

When our system of fortifications was planned and carried into execution, it was never contemplated to provide garrisons for them in time of peace. This would have required a large standing army, against which the American people have ever evinced a wise and wholesome jealousy….Our fortifications, therefore, when completed, were generally left in the custody of a sergeant and a few soldiers. No fear was entertained that they would ever be seized by the states for whose defense against a foreign enemy they had been erected.

Under these circumstances it became the plain duty of the President, destitute as he was of military force, not only to refrain from any act which might provoke or encourage the cotton States into secession, but to smooth the way for such Congressional compromise as had in times past happily averted danger from the Union. There was good reason to hope this might still be accomplished….

The President had less than four months to complete his term of office. The Democratic party, to which he owed his election, had been defeated, and the triumphant party had pursued his administration from the beginning with a virulence uncommon even in our history. His every act had been misrepresented and condemned, and he knew that whatever course he might pursue, he was destined to encounter their bitter hostility. No public man was ever placed in a more trying and responsible position. Indeed, it was impossible for him to act with honest independence, without giving offence both to the anti-slavery and secession parties, because both had been clearly in the wrong. In view of his position, and after mature reflection, he adopted a system of policy to which ever afterward, during the brief remnant of his term, he inflexibly adhered….

The President's policy was, first and above all, to propose and urge the adoption of such a fair and honorable compromise as might prove satisfactory to all the States, both North and South, on the question of Slavery in the Territories, the immediate and principal source of danger to the Union; and should he fail to accomplish this object in regard to the seven cotton States, which there was too much cause to apprehend, then to employ all legitimate means to preserve and strengthen the eight remaining slave or border States in their undoubted loyalty. These States, he knew, in case of need, might prove instrumental in bringing back their erring sisters to a sense of duty….

In this perilous condition of the country it would scarcely be believed, were it not demonstrated by the record, the Congress deliberately refused, throughout the entire session, to pass any act or resolution either to preserve the Union by peaceful measures, or to furnish the President or his successor with a military force to repel any attack which might be made by the cotton States. It neither did the one thing nor the other. It neither presented the olive branch nor the sword. All history proves that inaction in such an emergency is the worst possible policy, and can never stay the tide of revolution. On the contrary, it affords the strongest encouragement to rebellion….

Congress might, had they thought proper, have regarded the forcible seizure of these forts and other property, including that of the Branch Mint at New Orleans with all the treasure it contained, as the commencement of an aggressive war….[the cotton States] had by their violent action entirely changed the position they had assumed; and instead of peacefully awaiting the decision of Congress on the question of coercion, they had themselves become the coercionists and assailants. This question had, there fore, passed away. No person has ever doubted the right of the duty of Congress to pass laws enabling the President to defend the Union against armed rebellion. Congress, however, still shrunk from the responsibility of passing any such laws….

The 36th Congress expired on the 3d of March, 1861, leaving the law just as they had found it. They made no provision whatever for the suppression of threatened rebellion, but deliberately refused to grant either men or money for this purpose. It was this violation of duty which compelled President Lincoln to issue a proclamation convening the new Congress, in special session, immediately after the attack on Fort Sumter. Urgent and dangerous emergencies may have arisen, or may hereafter arise in the history of our country, rendering delay disastrous, such as the bombardment of Fort Sumter by the Confederate Government, which would for the moment justify the President in violation the Constitution, by raising a military force without the authority of law, but this only during a recess of Congress. Such extreme cases are a law unto themselves. They must rest upon the principle that it is a lesser evil to usurp until Congress can be assembled, a power withheld from the Execution, than to suffer the Union to be endangered, either by traitors at home or enemies from abroad. In all such cases, however, it is the President's duty to present to Congress, immediately after their next meeting, the causes which impelled him to thus act, and ask for their approbation… Certainly no such case existed during the administration of the late President. On the contrary, not only was Congress actually in session, but bills were long pending before it for extending his authority in calling forth the militia, for enabling him to accept the services of volunteers, and for the employment of the navy, if necessary, outside of ports of entry for the collection of the revenue, all of which were eventually rejected. Under these circumstances, had the President attempted, of his own mere will, to exercise these high powers, whilst Congress were at the very time deliberating whether to grant them to him or not, he would have made himself justly liable to impeachment. This would have been for the Executive to set at defiance both the Constitution and the legislative branch of the Government.

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