In 1860, Lincoln won only 39.9 percent of the popular vote, the price of slaves remained high, and no one was threatening even to tax slavery, much less abolish it. Also, southern statesmen were fully aware of the northern Jim Crow system of discrimination against free blacks. Free-Soilism depended as much upon racist opposition to blacks in western territories as it did upon moral objections to slavery, and southern leaders knew it. The lower South had announced its ultimata before and during the campaign, however, and there could be no turning back. On 20 December 1860 a South Carolina convention unanimously passed an ordinance of secession with specific indictments of the northern states, and during the next several weeks, six more states followed. Of the remaining eight slave states, Delaware ignored the matter, while seven rejected secession for the moment.
Ironically, the reasons cited by those that seceded were far more applicable to those that did not secede. Much was made of northern refusals to return escapees; and with John Brown the only example, the North was accused of inciting slaves "by emissaries, books, and pictures, to servile insurrection." Perhaps most important, the northern states had "assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions," had "denounced as sinful the institution of slavery," and had "permitted the open establishment among them of societies whose avowed object is to disturb the peace . . . of other states." And finally, the North had expressed the ultimate condemnation by electing to the presidency a man who not only denounced slavery as wrong but had openly said that the nation could not endure half slave and half free. Economic arguments were conspicuously absent. Southerners were determined to create a new nation that would prove to the world, to the hated Republicans, and perhaps to themselves that their critics were wrong and that slavery really was a humane institution compatible with America's most cherished values. It is important to remember that secession and the ensuing war would have been impossible without the support of the vast southern white population who owned no slaves but would fight for a system designed to keep blacks in an inferior position.
Just as Buchanan had contributed significantly to the election of Lincoln, he now aided the secession effort in states where the issue might have been in doubt. His southern cabinet members stayed in office until events within their respective states or special circumstances forced their withdrawal. All brought every pressure of friendship to bear, and while Cobb resigned on 8 December, after Buchanan publicly denied the right of secession, the others continued for weeks to wield a pro-southern influence and keep the southern leaders informed of his feelings and decisions. Also, southern congressmen and senators remained in Congress up to, and in some cases beyond, the secession of their states. They participated in debates, served on peace-seeking committees, did all they could to block any compromises, and bombarded their friend the president with requests, persuasion, and demands.
At first, both president and cabinet were unanimous in their sympathy for the South. A Pennsylvania judge wrote Attorney General Black a letter justifying secession, and when read to the president and cabinet, "it excited universal admiration and approbation for its eloquence and its truth." As always, Buchanan avoided all contact with Republicans, Free-Soil moderate Democrats, or anyone else willing to discuss the irritations, grievances, and fears of the North. Not until the end of January 1861 did he break with Browne, editor of the party's mouthpiece, who openly advocated and defended secession. His annual message to Congress on 3 December 1860 came before any state had actually seceded, although most of the federal officials in South Carolina had already resigned; and, as always, he ignored completely the northern side of the argument.
Since the Mexican War, an undetermined but clearly significant number of northerners had come to consider the southern territorial demands part of a gigantic slave-power conspiracy to spread the blighting institution and gain absolute control of the government. Northeasterners resented the southern success in blocking tariffs, while north-westerners blamed the slavocracy for their failure to get homesteads and internal improvements. Northerners everywhere had long chafed under the domination of southern and pro-southern presidents, southern cabinets, a southern-dominated Senate, and a southern-minded Supreme Court. Eight of the first fourteen presidents had been staveholders, and among the six northern presidents only John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Millard Fillmore had expressed any serious criticisms of slavery. Pierce and Buchanan had supported every southern wish. Southern leaders had never grasped the fact that much of the northern enmity they resented so bitterly was a normal response to their own words and actions. They had long needed a president who would at least try to make them understand this, but the task was beyond the comprehension of James Buchanan.
The South needed reassurances, but not a presidential endorsement for secessionist arguments. Buchanan, however, blamed the crisis entirely on the "intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery." Congressional and territorial efforts to exclude slavery from the territories and state violations of the fugitive-slave laws could have been endured, he said, but "the incessant and violent agitation of the slavery question" had produced its "malign influence on the slaves.. . . Many a matron throughout the South retires at night in dread of what may befall herself and her children before the morning.. . . no political union, however fraught with blessings and benefits" could endure "if the necessary consequence be to render the homes and firesides of nearly half the parties to it habitually and hopelessly insecure. Sooner or later the bonds of such a Union must be severed." Reviewing twenty-five years of "inflammatory appeals," Buchanan announced that peace and harmony could easily be restored if the slave states were "let alone and permitted to manage their domestic institutions in their own way." The Supreme Court, he continued, had ruled that a territorial legislature could not bar slavery, but northern radicals would give such a legislature the (power to annul the sacred rights of property." Furthermore, if the northern states did not immediately repeal their "unconstitutional and obnoxious enactments" against the fugitive-slave laws, "the injured States, after having first used all peaceful and constitutional means to effect redress, would be justified in revolutionary resistance to the government of the Union."
After admitting that certain grievances would justify secession, Buchanan argued rather brilliantly that secession was unconstitutional, saying that the Founding Fathers had never intended any such right and "the solemn sanction of religion" had been added in the oaths of office taken by federal and state officers. He suggested, however, that secession might be justified if it was called revolution instead of an inherent constitutional right. The right of resistance against oppression existed "independently of all constitutions" and was "embodied in strong and express language in our own Declaration of Independence." The federal government, therefore, had no power either to recognize secession or to coerce any state to remain in the Union. And finally, said Buchanan, either Congress or the states should call a constitutional convention that could emphasize the duty of the federal government to protect slavery in all the territories throughout their territorial existence, reconfirm the right of masters to have escaped slaves returned, and declare all northern state laws hindering this process to be null and void.
Buchanan had clearly learned nothing from the election of 1860. John Breckinridge, with a platform that embodied Buchanan's suggestions, had received almost no northern votes and had not even won a popular majority in the slaveholding states. Federal protection for slavery where a popular majority opposed it violated a basic precept of democracy and had already been rejected overwhelmingly by northern voters.
Thus, the president defended the southerners' own excuses for secession, denied them any such right, announced that he would not coerce them, and declared that secession could be prevented only by concessions that every southerner knew would never be made. The impact of his message on the secession conventions cannot be measured, but it must have weakened the Unionists, who were strong in several southern states. To northerners, the message was further evidence that southerners were ruling the country, and it probably made most of them even less receptive to compromise proposals. Southerners, on the other hand, found their radical arguments vindicated but were angered by Buchanan's refusal to admit the right of secession.
To his credit, Buchanan was keenly aware of the bloodshed and mass suffering a civil war would bring. He understood the depth of southern anger, pride, fears, determination, and courage, and he also knew the blood, treasure, and power the north could, and would, expend for the Union if a military confrontation should occur. He hoped the border states could be kept from seceding and prayed that peace could be maintained until the erring sisters recognized their mistake and rejoined the nation voluntarily. He eagerly supported every attempt by Congress to find a compromise, but all such efforts failed.
Just two days before the secession of South Carolina, a Senate committee headed by John J. Crittenden offered a plan to extend the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific, but southerners and northerners alike rejected it. A House committee headed by Thomas Corwin proposed a repeal of the state personal-liberty laws, a southern jury trial for suspected fugitives, and a thirteenth amendment permanently denying Congress any right to deal with slavery. The amendment ultimately passed both houses and had been ratified by one state before the Battle of Fort Sumter. An ad hoc committee of national leaders chaired by former president John Tyler was equally unsuccessful.
Buchanan sent an emissary to Illinois with a plea for Lincoln to join him in a call for a national referendum on the Crittenden proposals, but the president-elect refused. Lincoln quite correctly believed that the South would accept no concessions less than those already rejected by northerners in the 1860 election. During the Corwin committee deliberations, Lincoln did agree that he would not oppose the admission of New Mexico if it should choose slavery, as long as everyone understood that this would be the final concession. The seceding states rejected the offer as a plot to add another free state, even though New Mexico was the only territory left where slavery could have survived even temporarily.
Buchanan, meanwhile, continued to act as though the 1860 election had never occurred. Secession, he argued, had been caused by a misapprehension in the South of the true feelings of the northern people and a transfer of the question "from political assemblies to the ballot box . . . would speedily redress the serious grievances which the South had suffered." Unfortunately for Buchanan's aspirations, nothing the North would offer could keep the lower South from seceding, and nothing would induce Abraham Lincoln to accept a division of the Union. Neither James Buchanan nor a national convention could change these facts.