A Rope of Sand
They cannot expect to make us love slavery.
—Rep. Thaddeus Stevens
By any traditional measure, James Buchanan was one of the best qualified men ever to hold the presidency. Known fondly, if not altogether flatteringly as the “Old Public Functionary,” beginning in the 1810s he had served in the Pennsylvania state legislature, in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, as ambassador to Russia under Andrew Jackson, secretary of state under James Polk, and ambassador to Britain under Franklin Pierce, before his election to the nation’s highest office in 1856. Although Northern by birth, his support for Southern interests, including the protection of slavery, was staunch, lifelong, and untainted, at least in public, by any evidence of moral doubt. As president, he behaved like a sort of maiden aunt, a national mollifier who disliked confrontation, and felt genuinely distressed when states, like badly behaved children, were at each other’s throats. Yet he had presided over one debilitating crisis after another: guerrilla warfare in Kansas, the inflammatory Dred Scott decision, the wildfire spread of Southern paranoia following John Brown’s 1859 raid, and now the incendiary aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s election, which sent South Carolina hurtling toward secession. By December 1860, he was a lame duck facing the country’s worst calamity ever.
Secession fever was sweeping South Carolina and percolating across the rest of the Deep South. Radical speakers were telling wildly cheering crowds that Lincoln’s election would lead to a race war that could be forestalled only by a united South that was prepared to defend itself, and the slavery on which it depended, with rifle and bayonet if necessary. In Charleston, the Stars and Stripes was everywhere replaced by the state’s palmetto flag. Young and old flocked to join the militia. Even children delivered secession speeches to their playmates and strutted the streets like soldiers.
At the direction of the pro-secession secretary of war, John Floyd, tens of thousands of weapons were shipped to the South from federal arsenals in the North. A new military committee in South Carolina was laying plans to fortify the coastline, and foreign consuls were said to be waiting for secession to open negotiations for recognition. The governor of Alabama called for the immediate secession of his state, as did Sen. Robert Toombs of Georgia. From Virginia to Texas, volunteer units were arming.
In his last State of the Union address, on December 3, Buchanan spoke as if lost in a political funk, retailing rhetorical bromides that swayed no one anymore. “The country has been eminently prosperous in all its material interests,” he declared sunnily. “The general health has been excellent, our harvests have been abundant, and plenty smiles throughout the land.” He then asked, “Why is it, then, that discontent so extensively prevails?” The answer was simple: it was all the abolitionists’ fault. “Incessant and violent agitation” against slavery had wrought a “malign influence on the slaves, and inspired them with vague notions of freedom.” As a result, white Southerners lived in terror of a servile insurrection. All that the slave states wanted, he asserted, was to be left alone to manage their “domestic institutions” in their own way. Instead, he claimed, “Many a matron throughout the South retires at night in dread of what may befall herself and her children before the morning.”
In truth, if any whites in the South lived in real terror it was those few who dared to publicly imply, even inadvertently, that there was anything wrong with slavery. In the months since John Brown’s raid, reports of lynchings, assaults, and the tar-and-feathering of hapless travelers, Yankee peddlers, and dissenters had steadily percolated northward. Vigilantes arrested white strangers for being seen in conversation with Negroes, drove out Northern-born schoolteachers, and tore open the U.S. mail in search of “subversive” literature. A South Carolina stonecutter was stripped naked, beaten, and covered with hot tar for having been heard to say that slavery caused white workers to be looked down upon; a Virginian was almost lynched in Alabama when he attempted to pass a banknote from Massachusetts; a daguerreotypist was beaten because one of his samples was a picture of Abraham Lincoln; a Mississippian was hanged for wearing a red sash, the supposed symbol of a nonexistent secret abolition society. Of such horrific events, Buchanan said nothing.
He waved away secession and its consequences. There was no constitutional basis for separation, he admitted. But the federal government was, sadly, a mere voluntary association, a “rope of sand” so fragile that any “adverse wave of public opinion” could wash it away. He was therefore helpless to stop the “demolition” of federal authority in South Carolina. There wasn’t even a federal marshal left in the state to execute his orders, even if he issued any. He had no choice, he said, but to hand over responsibility for finding a solution to the crisis to Congress. Unfortunately, he added, in his opinion Congress had no more authority to compel a state to abide by federal law than the president did. But all was not lost. Fortunately, there was a solution at hand: a comprehensive compromise that would reassure the South that its interests and institutions would be protected.
Buchanan’s complacency rested on an amendment to the Constitution that had just been proposed by Sen. John Crittenden, a slave-owning Kentucky Unionist, who was sometimes called “the Nestor of the Senate.” Crittenden considered himself heir to the conciliatory spirit of his mentor and fellow Kentucky Whig, Henry Clay, dead since 1852, who had engineered several of the great sectional compromises of the past. Strictly speaking, Crittenden’s proposal was hardly a compromise, since it required all its concessions from the North, and none from the South. Declaring that his amendment—it would be the thirteenth if it was ratified—would form “a permanent and unchangeable basis for peace and tranquility among the people,” he proposed that Congress explicitly recognize the right to own slaves in the states where slavery already existed or might someday be established; that the right of slavery be guaranteed in every federal territory; that any state law which thwarted the recapture of fugitive slaves be automatically nullified; that the Constitution’s three-fifths clause, guaranteeing extra representation for the South by counting that proportion of the enslaved population for the purpose of assigning representatives in Congress, be permanently fixed; that the Missouri Compromise line dividing slave states from free be carried west to the Pacific Ocean; that Congress be prohibited from interfering with the interstate slave trade, and pay compensation to the owners of slaves who escaped their masters with assistance from antislavery activists; and that Congress be empowered to sue any Northern county in which a fugitive slave was deliberately saved from recapture. The capstone of the amendment was draconian: it stipulated that no future amendment to the Constitution could ever repeal the Crittenden amendment’s previous provisions.
Crittenden was racing against time. Seventeen days after Buchanan’s State of the Union address, on December 20, South Carolina formally seceded, charging that the federal government had failed to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, and that the states of the North had expressed an intolerable hostility to slavery by permitting the formation of abolition societies and inciting “servile insurrection.” In December, complaining of the “wrongs” to which the South had allegedly been subjected by Northern “despotism,” a secession convention meeting in Charleston’s Hibernian Hall called on the slaveholding states to unite in “a great slaveholding Confederacy, stretching its arms over a territory larger than any power in Europe possesses.” After the vote, the delegates flooded into the streets, shouting, “We are afloat!” as church bells rang, bonfires blazed, and fireworks shot through the sky. In breaking up the Union, the Carolinians claimed, they were but following in the footsteps of the Founding Fathers, who had established the United States as a “union of slaveholding States.” State authorities quickly seized federal customs houses, armories, and forts, and deployed militiamen against a possible assault by national troops.
The only organized federal force remaining in South Carolina consisted of seventy-five soldiers commanded by Maj. Robert Anderson, based at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, a key link in the city’s formidable shore defenses. The problem with Fort Moultrie was that its powerful guns pointed out to sea, whence any attack was expected to come. The fort was virtually defenseless on its landward side, an open invitation to capture by the Southern forces that were massing around the city. However, Anderson was a Kentuckian, a longtime friend of Jefferson Davis, and married to the daughter of a Georgia plantation owner. South Carolinians expected him to hand over the fort without resistance. But on the night of December 26, to the astonishment of the secessionists, Anderson proved his unwavering loyalty to the national government by leading his men under cover of darkness to the most defensible position available to him, a damp, gloomy brick fastness that rose upon an artificial island in the harbor: Fort Sumter.
Buchanan seemed oblivious to the deepening crisis. Public disgust with his passivity sank to new depths. “Old James Buchanan now stands lowest, I think, in the dirty catalogue of treasonable mischief-makers,” fumed George Templeton Strong, a prominent New York businessman, in his diary. “Is there any way to take control of the affairs of government out of the hands of that old imbecilic president?” begged one Ohioan of Sen. Benjamin F. Wade. “Are the president and his secretaries and advisers traitors?” demanded another. Where were the party’s leaders when they were so desperately needed? Where, most of all, was Lincoln? In Buchanan’s hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Rep. Thaddeus Stevens worried that the president-elect, for whom he had vigorously campaigned, lacked spine enough to face off against the secessionists. Lincoln, he wrote to a friend, must “imitate [Andrew] Jackson and set vigorously about coercing obedience.” If he failed to do so and instead sought “to purchase peace by concession,” Stevens thought he would lose hope and give up completely on politics. So disgusted was Stevens at the spectacle of the government “crawling on its knees at the feet of traitors,” that he refused to set foot in Washington for most of December: “I do not care to be present while the humiliation is going on.”
Lincoln’s election had climaxed a gradual shift of power from the South to the more populous North. Although the slave states represented barely one-fourth of the free people of the United States, they had controlled the government for generations. But demographics ate away glacially at the slave states’ grip. In the 1840s, they lost control of the House of Representatives, and after 1850 their dominance of the Senate, although with the support of Northern Democrats they continued to dominate government through the end of the decade. “You own the cabinet, you own the Senate, and you own the President of the United States as much as you own the servant on your own plantation,” Ben Wade caustically remarked on the Senate floor in December 1860.
The elections of 1860 finally broke the slaveholders’ grip. Although Lincoln triumphed decisively in the electoral college, he captured just under 40 percent of the popular vote, receiving no votes below the Mason-Dixon line in the four-way contest for the presidency. For the first time, a party professing opposition to the expansion of slavery had won control of the government. The Republican platform, while conceding the right of states to control their “domestic institutions,” denounced as unconstitutional and revolutionary the “new dogma” that slavery could be carried into any of the territories. This was no embrace of general emancipation, but jubilant antislavery men believed that the long era of concessions and compromises with slavery was finally over. The Boston abolitionist Wendell Phillips effused, “For the first time in our history, the slave has chosen a president.”
The Republicans had bolstered their antislavery posture by the nomination of the outspokenly abolitionist vice-president-elect Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, who had served in the House and then the Senate since the 1840s. Although Hamlin lacked Lincoln’s verbal gift, he was capable and well-liked, and lent moral weight to the ticket in New England, where Lincoln was little known. He had stooping shoulders, a massive head, and deep-set eyes, and his clean-shaven face was so swarthy that enemies alleged, untruthfully, that he had Negro blood. He learned only after the fact that the convention had named him Lincoln’s running mate, and the two men met for the first time two weeks after the election.
Southern nationalists reacted to the election’s results with fear and fury. “Now that the black radical Republicans have the power, I suppose they will [John] Brown us all,” the worried Charleston socialite Mary Boykin Chesnut confided to her diary. More menacingly, one of many anonymous letters to the president-elect shrieked: “God damn your goddamned old Hellfired soul to hell god damn you and goddamn your god damned family’s god damned hellfired god damned soul to hell.”
Lincoln, meanwhile, remained at his home in Springfield, blandly reassuring Americans that all would be well, and asserting that the crisis was merely an artificial one. Lincoln was still a near-cipher to most Easterners. Many hardly knew what to make of him. “He is lank and hard-featured, among the ugliest white men I have ever seen,” remarked George Templeton Strong. “Decidedly plebian. Superficially vulgar and a snob. But not essentially. He seems to me clear-headed and sound-hearted, though his laugh is that of a yahoo; and his grammar is weak.” Pressed for a clear statement of policy, the president-elect reiterated his campaign promise not to interfere with slavery. “It is now apparent to all that he was not the man for the emergency,” reflected one discouraged Republican. “Though he might build a ship, he was not born to command.” Southerners, when they were not attacking Lincoln as a menace to their institutions, were dismissive of him. Sen. Louis Wigfall of Texas, the most violent secessionist still in Congress, scoffed contemptuously in the Senate that nothing could be expected from a man “who is taken up because he is an ex-rail-splitter, an ex-grocery keeper, an ex-flatboat captain, and an ex-Abolition lecturer.”
Yet few Americans could believe that Southerners would really abandon the Union and relinquish the outsized power they had exerted since the founding of the republic. Surely, they told each other, the rebels would eventually negotiate. Ben Wade, one of the most radical members of the Senate, scoffed that secession was a scare tactic designed to undermine support for the Republicans. Call the Southerners’ bluff, he urged: impose a blockade on their ports “and they will soon beg to get back.” Wade’s Senate colleague William Pitt Fessenden of Maine cautioned their fellow Republicans to “coolly watch the enemy’s game—for it is a game.” Would-be secessionists had repeatedly threatened disunion—in 1790, in 1820, in the 1830s, in 1850—and some kind of compromise had always been found. Once Southerners realized that the Republicans didn’t really intend to tamper with slavery they would surely settle down. Many Republicans, including Lincoln, also believed that a silent majority of Unionists existed in the South and would rise up to overthrow the secessionists once they realized that conciliatory Northerners were in earnest. As one Kentucky Unionist put it in a letter to Wade, “You cannot whip the South into the traces like a horse and govern her like conquered provinces. Conciliate Conciliate Compromise.
If you break up the Union or involve the country in a civil war you will be cursed by both sections of the country.”
Copyright © 2020 by Fergus M. Bordewich. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.