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Smith, William Henry. “Buchanan’s Defence.” The Dial 4 (September 1883): 101-104.


In October, 1865, to a friend who had expressed the opinion that Mr. Buchanan would probably admit that he had erred in some of his official acts, the Ex-President replied: “I must say that you are mistaken. I pursued a settled, consistent line of policy from the beginning to the end, and, on reviewing my past conduct, I do not recollect a single important measure which I should desire to recall, even if this were in my power.” This was about four and a half years after he left Washington for Wheatland, derided by his countrymen, who believed that in the hour of supremest peril to the Union he had, either through sympathy or weakness, connived at its attempted destruction. This judgment has not been changed – not softened even – by the lapse of nearly twenty years. It is also doubtful if the labors (embraced in the two bulky volumes before us) of the author of a “History of the Origin, Formation and Adoption of the Constitution of the United States,” will avail to reverse that judgment, formed when men, confronted by a great and unexpected danger, believed they had been betrayed. The hatred, scorn and contempt of the present generation are likely to be more potent with the generations of the next century than the writings of conscientious biographers.

When Mr. Buchanan wrote with such complacency he had already nearly completed a “vindication” of his administration. He was a very methodical man, and the papers that had been preserved with scrupulous care, embracing the period of his public services from the days of the Madison administration to the beginning of the Rebellion, were left by him for the use of the late William B. Reed, his chosen biographer. They were finally placed in the hands of Mr. Curtis, who, though at first reluctant to undertake the task, has given to the public what may properly be called a defence of Mr. Buchanan. To make this as strong as possible, he has detailed the public services of his hero with great circumstantiality – as Senator, Diplomatist, and Secretary of State, – which were respectable and useful, but not great. Indeed, Mr. Buchanan fell far short of being a great man in any sense. He was a politician of the Van Buren school – gracious in social intercourse, cold, crafty and selfish in the pursuit of ambition. There was nothing heroic in his nature, and his patriotism never rose to the height of self-sacrifice. He was master of the craft of politics, but not of statesmanship in a high and noble sense. America has had many such public men, and has been the poorer for them.

What concerns us chiefly is the presidential administration of James Buchanan. The measures and methods of that administration were consistent with the career of James Buchanan the politician. Federalism was early abandoned for Democracy – not the democracy of freedom and a broad nationalism, but of subserviency to class and local views, which had seized upon Pennsylvania under Mifflin, Gallatin, and the whiskey insurrectionists, and which cooperated with the extreme men of the South. Pennsylvania was the keystone state of the Democratic party, and by using this for all it was worth, Buchanan compelled his own nomination. Thus it was that he became the most conspicuous representative of the reactionary and sectional part of the Democratic party at a time when the conflict between Freedom and Slavery was the most intense.

When the Declaration of Independence was written and proclaimed, there was no conspicuous character in the Thirteen Colonies to defend slavery; and when the Constitution was formed, the preponderating influence was for freedom. Congress had already secured that boon to a vast empire, and Jefferson had urged that it be made the law for all the territories. But the planters of South Carolina and Georgia and the slave merchants of Connecticut appealed for consideration, and twenty years were granted in which it might be legal to import slaves. Then, said all of those great statesmen, the bounds of slavery will be set, and it will die out of all of the Union, as it had already of a part. Freedom was the general aspiration, and the national influence was exerted in the direction of restriction. Unfortunately, this did not last long. After 1808 a new interest grew up – that of slave breeding to supply the demand for labor in the extreme South. Yet in 1829-30, Virginians were seriously discussing emancipation; and if the influence of freedom had been predominant at the capital of the Union, as in other days, all would have been well. But wealth was most easily obtained through broad acres and slaves. An American aristocracy was created, and the compromises of the Constitution were invoked to protect, foster and extend slavery in new fields. Slavery propagandism was now the chief end of the Federal government. The party most subservient oftenest controlled the majority of votes in the Electoral College. Mr. Buchanan kept in the current. His fealty to party was supreme. He approved of every act that extended the area of slavery and tended to nationalize it. If the blood of Arbuthnot and Ambrister appealed to a Christian world, he heard it not. The infamous crimes of the Seminole war did not shock him, nor did he ever exhibit any sign of impatience with the despotic arrogance of the ruling oligarchy. The opinion that it would be “morally wrong to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia,” expressed by him in 1836, undoubtedly continued to be his opinion down to the day when slavery was destroyed. Pages would not more clearly show the bias of his mind on this subject.

It was this consistent record in support of slavery propagandism that made the North distrust Mr. Buchanan when, during the closing days of his administration, he asked Congress to supply the Executive with the means necessary for supporting the Union. This should be kept in view when discussing the events of that critical period. I do not seek to justify the opposing party in this, or the reckless men of the North who attempted resistance to laws constitutionally enacted, through state legislation. These illegal proceedings fed the Southern flames. But it may be said in extenuation, that they were provoked by the departure from early principles, and the growing arrogance of the slave power. In 1861 men remembered, with just and holy feelings of resentment, that an attempt to fasten slavery upon territory once dedicated to freedom received the countenance and support of the government, and that the measure of Mr. Buchanan’s responsibility was great. In Mr. Curtis’s work the moral influence of these facts on men’s minds is not recognized, because his task was to vindicate his hero on technical grounds – by the letter of the law rather that the spirit.

Mr. Curtis complains because the message of December 3, 1860, was coldly received by the country. That was inevitable. Mr. Buchanan was distrusted. It was fresh in men’s minds that he had publicly spoken of secession as a remedy for political defeat. I shall be specific. The success of the Democracy in Pennsylvania at the October election in 1856, insured his election in November. To his neighbors who assembled to congratulate him he declared that if the Republican party had succeeded “we should have been precipitated into the yawning gulf of dissolution.” This was four years before South Carolina found the pretext in the election of Abraham Lincoln. Thus we find in 1856 the triumphant Democratic candidate declaring that the success of a political party, legally obtained under the Constitution, would compel (the language and tone warrant a more fatal conclusion) – would justify – a dissolution of the Union. And thus did Mr. Buchanan point the way for the Southern sectional party in 1860-61. When elected, he said his mission should be the suppression of agitation in the North and the destruction of sectionalism. He was powerless for good – for exercising a patriotic influence – because of his sectional bias. He did not understand Northern sentiment. Nationalism with him meant legal security for slave property throughout the length and breadth of the Union States, including the Territories under the control of Congress. In other words, Freedom was sectional, slavery national.* The crime committed in the repeal of the Missouri compromise is severely denounced by Mr. Curtis, who seeks to convey the impression that Mr. Buchanan was against it; but the facts remain that he defended it in his Inaugural, and employed the military power of the government to secure the fruits of the crime to the slave owners of Missouri. He accepted, too, without protest, the domination of that influence that had compelled the Supreme Court to condemn precedent, reverse the history of the first half century of the United States, and declare that “Congress could not constitutionally prohibit slavery in a Territory.”†
Therefore, when the message of December 3, 1860, was read in the halls of the Capitol the representatives of the North heard themselves and their constituents soundly berated, and recognized the tone of sympathy for the South. That was unmistakable. The one thing that went far toward redeeming the bad – the argument against secession – did not receive the consideration it merited. The message was severely and unfairly criticized. Senator Hale declared that its positions were: “1. That South Carolina has just cause to secede from the Union. 2. That she has no right to secede. 3. That we have no right to prevent her.”

I. Mr. Buchanan did not say in his message that South Carolina had just cause to secede or to resort to revolution, but the justification is derived by implication from his argument on the question of slavery and the duty of the people of the North to concede all that the South claimed. The Senator could have logically inferred it from the uniform pro-slavery and States Rights record of Mr. Buchanan, and the language employed by him in his address in October, 1856, above quoted. Perhaps the rejection of the Crittenden resolutions was regarded by him as affording the justification for a resort to revolution. However that may be, he essayed a further attempt at compromise by recommending the adoption of “an explanatory amendment of the Constitution” which should be accepted as “the final settlement of the true construction of the Constitution on these special points:

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

“2. The duty of protecting this right in all the common territories throughout their territorial existence, and until they shall be admitted as states into the Union, with or without slavery, as their constitution may prescribe.

“3. A like recognition of the right of the master to have his slave, who has escaped from one state to another, returned and ‘delivered up’ to him and of the validity of the fugitive slave law enacted for this purpose, together with a declaration that all state laws impairing or defeating this right, are violations of the Constitution, and are consequently null and void.”

This, he said, ought to be tried “before any of these states shall separate themselves from the Union.” Being rejected, the occasion arose justifying secession. This is the logical necessity.

II. Mr. Buchanan denied with great force the constitutional right of a state to secede, and distinguished with clearness the difference between that claim of the Southerners and the inalienable right of revolution against oppression. Mr. Curtis very justly praises the argument, but he weakens his defence by attempting to make this part of the message cover the entire document and the partisan pro-slavery record of a life-time. Mr. Buchanan is entitled to the credit of having pointed out the method by which the Federal authority could be rightfully enforced – the method approved of by his successor.

III. Mr. Hale was unfair in his third criticism. To a man trained in the school of politics to which Mr. Buchanan belonged, the suggestion that the general government could coerce a state was alarming. The President’s patriotism could not be justly called in question because he shrank from such an exercise of authority, and believed that there was a method of preserving the Union without declaring war against a state. Washington and others, disgusted with the Confederation, wanted a system that would act directly upon individuals. Such a system was provided by the Constitution. Mr. Buchanan argued the right to enforce obedience to the laws of the United States on the part of the citizens of a state, and he afterward announced his purpose to execute the laws in South Carolina, and called on Congress to supply him with the means. It is to the discredit of the Republicans in Congress that they allowed their distrust of the President to influence them to withhold necessary legislation. This declared purpose of the President aroused Jefferson Davis, who said that to use military force to execute the laws upon individuals was to make war upon a state, as the citizens of a state are the state. A recently published communication from Mr. Davis justifies the suspicion that he and his Southern friends were surprised at this show of vigor, and alarmed lest the blow proposed should successfully deprive the new Confederacy of revenue. They had been led to expect a different course from their President. Fortunately, the latter had advisers who gave him courage in this emergency. Mr. Lincoln’s administration adopted the policy of the closing days of Buchanan’s administration. The constitutional principle of enforcing obedience to the laws upon individuals was not lost sight of, and nothing was done to prevent the states from taking their places again in the Union with their rights unimpaired.

Mr. Curtis has succeeded happily in relieving Mr. Buchanan from the responsibility of many acts imputed to him by partisan opponents in the North in these closing days, but he cannot explain away the weakness displayed when the President expressed regret to the South Carolina commissioners that Major Anderson had deserted one fort for another, and in permitting the secessionists to take possession of the public property which he had sworn to protect and which he had said once he should protect. He wanted peace, but sought it at the sacrifice of the dignity of the Executive, and thereby invited armed resistance to the Government.

Jefferson Davis is now telling us how war might have been avoided if Mr. Buchanan’s peace policy had been carried out. It would have been vain. Neither that nor Crittenden compromises could have put off the execution of the Divine law of compensation. For forty years this people had been laying up unto themselves wrath against the day of wrath. That day had come. The statutes and court decisions which hedged about slavery could not put it off. The question asked then, as always in this world, was: Was it just? The voice of one mighty for truth comes back to us as prophecy when we recall that day of judgment: “If the cause is unjust, it will not and cannot get harbor for itself, or continue to have footing in this universe, which was made by other than one unjust. Enforce it by never such statuting, three readings, popular assents; blow it to the four winds with all manner of quilted trumpeters and pursuivants; it will not stand, it cannot stand. From all souls of men, from all ends of Nature, from the throne of God above, there are the voices bidding it: Away, away!* * * It will continue standing for its day, for its year, for its century, doing evil all the while, but it has one enemy who is almighty. Dissolution, explosion, and the everlasting laws of Nature incessantly advance toward it; and the deeper its rooting, more obstinate its continuing, the deeper also and huger will its ruin and overturn be.”

Wm. Henry Smith.