The Crisis Of Secession - On The Brink Of Secession
lincoln slavery south union confederate president virginia buchanan compromise
Time and again Southern spokesmen had threatened to secede; in the course of the 1860 campaign they had singled out the election of a "black Republican" as a sufficient cause. If the South failed to act now, its threats in the future would be as wind among dry, fallen leaves.
The Confederacy. When the South Carolina legislature convened to elect a new governor, outgoing Governor Gist, bent upon secession, obtained authority from the legislature to order the election of a secession convention. On December 20, 1860, the Palmetto State severed its ties with the Union. Between January 9 and February 1, 1861, she was joined by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Though formidable Unionist sentiment existed in Georgia, Lincoln persisted in refusing to make any promises intended solely to enable this sentiment to prevail. On February 4, 1861, delegates from all the seceded states except Texas - the Lone Star delegation arrived later - met at Montgomery, Alabama, to form a confederacy.
Taking the name The Confederate States of America, the Confederacy was born in the excitement of a convention which knew that it was both creating a nation and disrupting a Union. The delegates occupied themselves with the thoroughly American task of writing a constitution, and the final document revealed the conservative inclinations of the Southerners: it often repeated word for word the Constitution of 1787. Only in its guarantees of state rights and slavery, and in its minor modifications of government machinery, did the new document differ from the original. Stringent restrictions were placed upon expenditures by the provision that all appropriation bills be approved by a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress, and by giving the President the power to veto individual items in such bills. The President was restricted to one six-year term, "the right of property in Negro slaves" was confirmed, and Congress was forbidden to institute protective tariffs. To emphasize the confederate nature of the new nation, the preamble stated that the document derived its existence from "the people of the Confederate States, each State acting in its sovereign and independent character."
The convention finished its work by provisionally electing Jefferson Davis as the new nation's President and Alexander H. Stephens its Vice-President. Neither had been prominent in the agitation for secession. Davis had attempted during the 1860 campaign to have Douglas, Bell, and Breckinridge withdraw in favor of a single conservative candidate whom all opponents of Lincoln could support. But once Davis assumed the Presidency he supported the Confederate cause with singleminded devotion; it is unlikely that anyone could have performed more effectively in the post. Stephens, who had fought valiantly but unsuccessfully to prevent Georgia from seceding from the Union, followed his state. Yet he carried out his task dutifully rather than with any profound belief in the Confederate cause. Once Lincoln had issued his appeal to the North for troops after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the task of mobilizing the South fell upon Davis.
With the beginning of war, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee joined the original seven states of the Confederacy. None accepted secession with enthusiasm. When Virginia finally seceded (as did the others, despite strenuous Unionist opposition), the conflict of loyalties caused seventeen counties to detach themselves from Virginia during the summer of 1861, and to rejoin the Union as West Virginia. In the other border states - Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri - despite strong Southern sympathies, and the establishment in Kentucky and Missouri of secessionist governments, Unionist sentiment prevailed. But once any state had decided to secede, Southerners generally rallied to their new government.
Buchanan and the Secession Crisis. The "lame duck" President found himself trapped by the events following the election. On the one hand, he was sworn to uphold the Constitution; on the other, he found members of his official family actively aiding the seceding states. How was he to fulfill his constitutional oath? Buchanan's solution to the problem was to do nothing. With the guidance of Jeremiah Black, his Secretary of State, Buchanan decided that he would turn over to Lincoln a united nation. Since he denied that secession was possible, it logically followed that federal coercion could not be used; one cannot oppose what cannot happen. Instead, he left the final decision to the South. The federal government, he stated, would continue to perform its constitutional duties and would defend itself if attacked.
By early January, the Southern members of the cabinet had withdrawn. Buchanan's profound respect for the law now governed his behavior. Confronted with Southern threats of intervention to prevent Lincoln's inauguration, Buchanan promised, "If I live till the 4th of March, I will ride to the Capitol with Old Abe whether I am assassinated or not." At the same time, he urged all parties to explore the possibilities of compromise. His moderation kept the peace during the final weeks of his administration, even though both Republicans and Secessionists had gone beyond compromise.
No Compromise. The Senate organized a Committee of Thirteen on December 18 to seek ways out of the worsening crisis. At the very outset the Republicans followed instructions from Lincoln to entertain no compromise that involved surrender of the principle that the territories were closed to slavery. Of the several plans submitted, only that of Senator Crittenden of Kentucky had a chance of winning approval. He proposed six amendments to the Constitution, including one which extended the Missouri Compromise line to California, permitting and protecting slavery south of the line, and leaving it to the residents of each territory to decide upon their admission to the Union whether or not to continue slavery within their boundaries. The other amendments insured the continuance of slavery in the District of Columbia as long as its residents wished it and as long as Maryland or Virginia had slavery; forbade its abolition in federal territories within slave states; denied the federal right to regulate interstate slave trading; permitted Congress to compensate owners of fugitive slaves rescued by force; and finally denied the possibility of any future constitutional amendments aimed at disturbing the slavery settlement. The proposal foundered on Lincoln's determination to make no concession that would grant slavery room for expansion. Equally fruitless were the efforts of the House Committee of Thirty-three. Lincoln had determined that if the break were to come, it would have to be now.