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C. A. C., “Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion.” The Christian Examiner 80 (May 1866): 405-408.


If anybody, after the events of the last few years, still remembers James Buchanan with any contingent remainder of scorn and contempt which he is anxious to pour out upon that aged, but, alas! not very venerable head, he has now his opportunity and his text given him at once in the book which the ex-president has lately sent forth. Mr. Buchanan was once a lawyer; and he might properly enough have called his book a motion in arrest of judgment, were if not somewhat late for such a motion when the judgment has been duly announced and recorded, and the sentence, partially at least, carried into effect. But it is now quite plain, that, when he left the White House, it was not with a very perfect conviction that his administration had been a glorious one in any regard; nay, it even seems very clear that the obloquy with which his wretched and cowardly policy was swiftly overtaken, has rested heavily even upon his cold and unsensitive nature; has made him restless and uneasy through all the crowded years that have been silently covering up his ignominy from the memories of men, until now, when the new nation has come forth from the struggle for life into which the villany of such men as he and his principals betrayed it, he, with incredible fatuity, deliberately invites his countrymen and the world at large to consider and admire the enlightened, ardent, and inflexible patriotism which has guided his political career. This is our Bourbon! the very type and idealization of a democratic politician. He has learned nothing, he has forgotten nothing: but still, with mild indignation, inveighs against the “abolition fanatics” and “the madness of the hour;” still, with a modest pride, exhibits his long-continued efforts in behalf of slavery and slaveholders; still declares that the act of 19th June, 1862, abolishing slavery in the territories, is null and void, because it opposes the Dred Scott decision; still alludes to the breaking-up of the Democratic Convention at Charleston as a “sad event,” a “disaster;” and is persuaded, that, if the New York delegation had gone for the majority report on the resolutions, it would “probably have terminated the controversy between the North and the South.”

Mr. Buchanan is the most amazing of fossils. It would perhaps be too much to say that he has absolutely no heart; but we are convinced that such as he has beats solely for the Democratic party. For that he has lived, with that he has died. It does not appear that he has heard of its decease. But the wounds which tore it so cruelly as Charleston and Baltimore pierced his heart as well. For him, the Democratic party sees the country as Louis XIV was France; and if he should, through the imprudence of his friends, become aware of the death of the former, he would never from that moment have any further faith in the existence of the latter. He reminds as of nothing so much as of Hawthorne’s picture of the old inspector in the custom-house of Salem, whose emotions still answered promptly and tenderly to the memories of the dinners he had eaten in his youth, while the loss of his three wives and twenty children, and all the various experience of his public and private life, “had gone over him with as little effect as the passing breeze.” Thus, throughout this book, no language is pathetic enough to express Mr. Buchanan’s regrets for the sorrows and humiliations of the Democratic party, while of the tremendous tragedy of the war, – its victories, its sacrifices, its heroes, its martyrs, and its wonderful and glorious results, – there is, from beginning to end, literally not one word.

As far as the book is a defence of Mr. Buchanan’s administration, it amounts to nothing. None but the weakest of men will reverse his judgment on any man or any measure on account of it. A weekly paper of New York, of some pretension, does indeed avow that its opinion of its author has changed for the better since reading it; but it is difficult to see on what grounds, unless it be that others were as bad as he. It was indeed a time fearful to live in, and shameful to look back upon. Every thing seemed crumbling beneath us; and though there was doubtless some palliation for the dreadful apathy which had possession of the people and of Congress hardly less than of the President and his Cabinet, still one cannot now review the record of that awful session between the election and the inauguration, without a wish that it might be blotted out of existence. Where were the words that should have answered the vulgar and insolent traitors who stood in their places in Congress, and, with clenched fists and scowling brows, hiccoughed forth their drunken threats and their abuse upon the assemblies they were leaving? They were not spoken. But the Northern members sat calmly writing out schemes for conciliation, and debating Crittenden’s compromises in committee meetings with the wretches who, day after day, with every form of taunt and insult, were proclaiming the Union dissolved, and defying us to help ourselves.

But, if Congress thus neglected to assert its own dignity even when most violently assailed, it did, thank God, refuse flatly to agree to any material concession of principle. So when the abject President sent his special message of the 8th January to Congress, urging them to lose no time in bringing forward the amendment to the Constitution which he had suggested in his annual message a month earlier, establishing slavery in the territories, and crying in piteous tones, “The present is no time for palliatives; action, prompt action, is required!” Congress did not act, did not bend; and the poor old man complains that his “earnest recommendation was totally disregarded.”

Mr. Buchanan revives our curiosity upon two points: first, the neglect of Congress to pass an act enabling and instructing the President to recover the forts, and other public property which had been seized in Charleston and elsewhere; and, secondly, the neglect of the War Department to reinforce and supply Fort Sumter, after the affair of the “Star of the West.” On this latter point, he gives us some information which, we believe, has not been before made public. The facts are given in a letter of Hon. Joseph Holt, Secretary of War to President Lincoln on the day after his first inauguration. The “Star of the West” was fired upon January 9th. Three days before, Major Anderson had written to the Department, “My position will enable me to hold this fort against any force which can be brought against me.” On the 16th January, the Secretary of War replied to this statement, “Whenever, in your judgment, additional supplies or reinforcements are necessary for your safety, or for a successful defence of the fort, you will at once communicate the fact to this Department, and a prompt and vigorous effort will be made to forward them.” On the 30th January, Major Anderson writes, “I do hope that no attempt will be made by our friends to throw supplies in: their doing so, would do more harm than good.” On the 5th of February, he refers to the batteries with which the rebels are surrounding him, and says, “Even in their present condition, they will make it impossible for any hostile force, other than a large and well-appointed one, to enter this harbor; and the chances are that it will be at great sacrifice of life.” And, before the end of the month, his estimate of their “condition” had so much improved that he wrote a despatch to the Department, which was read by Mr. Holt to the President and Cabinet on the morning of the 4th March, saying that “he would not be willing to risk his reputation on an attempt to throw reinforcements into Charleston Harbor, and with a view of holding possession of the same, with a force of less than twenty thousand good and well-disciplined men. It is no wonder that Mr. Holt closed his communication to the President, reciting these facts with the statement that such a declaration “takes the Department by surprise;” and we must confess, that, to our eyes, these facts, taken with the astonishing proposal of Major Anderson, in reply to the demand of Governor Pickens for the surrender of the fort, to refer the question to the authorities at Washington for decision (a proposal at which even Mr. Buchanan expresses surprise), appear extremely damaging to Major Anderson’s reputation as a loyal soldier. We hope, if they admit of explanation, he will not refuse to clear up the mystery.

But Major Anderson’s is not the only character which is damaged by the ex-president’s disclosures. The liveliest emotion which survives, in Mr. Buchanan’s bosom, the extinction of the Democratic party, is undoubtedly hatred of General Scott. Mr. Randolph would, it is said, walk a mile out of his way to kick a sheep; and Mr. Buchanan would, we are sure, walk farther to puncture the bubble of General Scott’s reputation. We are not quite sure whether he has yet succeeded; but he has, at any rate, made several very well-meant attempts. He reprints the “Views” of the lieutenant-general, which is itself about as unkind a thing as an enemy could well do: but, not content with that, he convicts him by pretty good evidence of what he calls respectively “strange forgetfulness” and “deplorable want of memory” on two somewhat important points: one being his approval of the joint note from the War and Naval Departments to the commanders at Fort Pickens, which Scott says he never saw, but which Mr. Holt says he submitted to Scott, who “expressed his entire approval of it;” and the other, the removal of cannon to the Southern forts on an order from Floyd, upon which the conviction is somewhat less clear.

We shall not speak further of this book, which is nevertheless a remarkable one in many respects. It is satisfactory to know, as a new element in the calculation of the comparative efficacy of faith and works, that “the author never doubted the successful event of the war, even in its most gloomy periods; but felt an abiding conviction that the American people would never suffer the great charter of their liberties to be destroyed.”

C. A. C.