19 January 2012

CIVIL WAR: THE SEQUEL? The Election Of 2012 (Part 4)

JAMES BUCHANAN (continued)

Not only was there internal unrest over slavery, but the economy took a downturn. The Panic of 1857 began in summer of that year. The causes of the Panic were several.

With the reduction of tariffs, over-consumption of goods from Europe caused a huge drain on the nation’s hard currency. Construction of railroads was so popular as an investment that it soon led to losses of investments when none of the competing railroads could turn a profit. Finally, as the west was opened, rampant land speculation took off, leading to losses of investment. Easy credit led to the failure of most state banks. The country was still on a hard currency standard, and banks often lent between five and ten dollars for each dollar of hard currency in their reserves. When a loan failed, loans were called and creditors sought payment in hard currency. Bank runs and failures were the norm.

The agricultural economy of the South was less severely affected than the manufacturing North. By the end of the Buchanan presidency in March 1861, the federal deficit was at $17 million, a debt that had been accumulated in less than 30 years since the Jackson Administration had actually paid off the national debt.

With the collapse of the Whigs, the newly-established Republican Party became the opposition. As the northern and southern wings of the Democratic party split over slavery, territorial expansion, and tariffs, the Republicans won a plurality in the House of Representatives in the election of 1858.

The Republicans quickly used their control of the House to block most of Buchanan's agenda, including his proposals for expansion of influence in Central America, and for the purchase of Cuba, which were seen as fertile grounds for slavery. Buchanan, in turn, vetoed several substantial pieces of Republican legislation. Relations between the White House and the Congress moved from frosty to openly hostile. Finally, in 1860, the Democratic Party exploded. At its national convention in 1860, the southern wing walked out and nominated Buchanan’s Vice President, John C. Breckinridge, of Kentucky, whom Buchanan supported. The northern wing turned from Buchanan and nominated, Stephen Douglas of Illinois.

Another faction made up of former Whigs and pro-Union southern Democrats established the Constitutional Union Party, nominating former Speaker of the House John Bell of Tennessee. Running on a platform of “recognizing no political principle other than the Constitution...the Union...and the Enforcement of the Laws,” Bell took no position on slavery.

Thus, facing not one but two “third parties, when the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, it was a near certainty that he would be elected.

Since 1857, Congress had ignored the requests of the Buchanan administration to strengthen the Army, allowing it to wither on the vine. While southern militias recruited and trained, the northerners chose to fund other more politically popular projects, and the Army was relegated to frontier duty and to civil engineering projects.

By early October, 1860. the Army's Commanding General, Winfield Scott, who had been commissioned a Brigadier General in 1812 and had captured Mexico City in the Mexican War, told Buchanan that Lincoln's election would likely cause at least seven states to secede. He recommended to Buchanan that large formations of federal troops and artillery be deployed to those states to protect federal property. The hollow Army, created by congressional dereliction, probably made this option nearly impossible.

Buchanan, however, distrusted Scott and ignored his recommendations, commencing a period of inaction that has made him a constant contender for the title of “worst President. After Lincoln's election, Buchanan did order Secretary of War Floyd to reinforce southern forts with such provisions, arms and men as were available; however, Floyd convinced him to revoke the order on the grounds that any such reinforcements and supplies would only fall into the hands of the South in the event of war.

Lincoln's victory enraged the South. State conventions were called across the deep South to consider the question of secession. The Country, north and south awaited news of how Buchanan would deal with the question in the four months between the election and Lincoln’s inauguration.

In his State of the Union message, Buchanan sent the most confusing of signals. He denied the legal right of states to secede. He also denied that the federal government could legally prevent secession. Offering no solutions to the crisis, he chose to blame the crisis solely on "intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern States." He declared that if the North did not "repeal their unconstitutional and obnoxious enactments ... the injured [Southern]States, after having first used all peaceful and constitutional means to obtain redress, would be justified in revolutionary resistance to the Government of the Union."

[Historical Note: This last statement may sound ridiculous to 21st Century ears, but it should be remembered that many state constitutions then, and not a few still, recite that the States and the people reserve the right of armed insurrection in the event that a State or the federal government, becomes tyrannical. The only brake on such a right is that the people first use all peaceful and constitutional means to obtain redress. See, e.g., Bill of Rights to the Constitution of New Hampshire.]

Buchanan's only suggested solution to the crisis was "an explanatory amendment" reaffirming the constitutionality of slavery in the states, the fugitive slave laws, and popular sovereignty in the territories. Given that most of the Northern states would undoubtedly have refused to ratify such an amendment, this was probably just window dressing on Buchanan’s part.

The message was divisive rather than uniting. The North decried his refusal to condemn and take action to prevent secession. The South was outraged by the assertion that there was no right to secede.

South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860, followed by six other slave states in the deep South. By February 1861, they had formed the Confederate States of America. As Scott had surmised, the secessionist governments seized all U.S. property within their states. Scores of Army officers from the Southern States resigned their commissions and returned home to don the uniform of their States or of the Army of the Confederate States. Buchanan and his administration took no action to stop either the confiscation of government property or the mass resignations from the Army.

His cabinet advised Buchanan to request Congressional authority to call up militias and to assume emergency military powers. He actually made such a request on January 8, 1861, but Congress summarily rejected his requests.

On December 26, 1860, Major Robert Anderson, U.S. Army, moved his garrison located in Charleston, South Carolina to Fort Sumter, located in Charleston harbor. Southerners responded with a demand that Buchanan remove Anderson and his “foreign troops” from the South Carolina, while Northerners demanded support for the commander. On January 5, Buchanan sent civilian steamer, Star of the West, to carry reinforcements and supplies to Fort Sumter. On January 9, 1861, South Carolina state batteries opened fire on the ship, which returned to New York without attempting to moor and offload at Sumter. No warships or armed merchantmen were used in Buchanan's attempts to ease the garrison's situation.

Buchanan was again criticized by both sides. In the North, his failure to take action against the South Carolina artillery batteries was viewed as incredible, bordering on national cowardice or even treason. In the South, the attempt of a “foreign” nation to maintain and reinforce Fort Sumter enraged the State then in the glow of its “independence.”

Inexplicably, Buchanan made no further moves either to prepare for war or to avert it. My college American History professor once quoted a letter written by Buchanan at this stage; the President said “Mr. Lincoln will soon be President. It is up to him to resolve this.”

The history of the ensuing 150 years has all flowed from the events of the few years before 1860 and the Civil war that followed. Many of the issues remain the same. Civil rights for the sons and daughters of former slaves. The power of the central government over the lives and fortunes of the people. The privileges of citizenship and the issue of who shall become a citizen and by what process. The effects of divided government and political polarization.

Are there comparisons? Let us see.

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