Will History Repeat itself or Rhyme?
Dec. 14 – 20, 1860
The Buchanan presidency is collapsing, like a once stately mansion falling joist by joist and beam by beam into utter ruin. The only question at the start of this week was which would dissolve first, the government or the union. We saw that the union went first.
To begin the week, the two great mainstays of the president’s Cabinet departed. First Howell Cobb quit the treasury department; once a staunch union man who helped tamp down the dissolution fever of 1850, Cobb now sees secession inevitable; with his departure goes the wan hope that he could have somehow placated the secessionists in Georgia.
Hot on the heels of Cobb, the aged Lewis Cass quit state, but only after leveling a double-barreled blast of indignation that the president hadn’t acted on Cass’s advice that the forts be reinforced. His denunciation left him a hero to the unionists for a day, but his proclamation was self-serving; three weeks ago he might have helped the president find a path, but instead he merely contributed to the confusion.
Official friends gone, personal friends next. Senator Slidell of Louisiana and Senator Gwin of California, two men who had during many long years of public service been the closest and most dependable of Buchanan’s allies, visited the president at the White House and chastised him for refusing to publicly declare that no reinforcements would be sent to Charleston. That was too much for poor Buchanan. Tired of taking it in the neck from nominal allies and friends now manning both sides of the controversy, Buchanan barked that he had heard enough and was sorry he had ever taken any advice from any of them, an outburst that caused the two senators to walk out in a in huff.
Next to disappear was the president’s power. Two days after Slidell and Gwin departed, even while the agents of conciliation labored on the side of the president to forge a Congressional compromise, seven senators and 23 representatives from southern states preemptively issued a manifesto urging secession and the formation of a southern confederacy. “The argument is exhausted,” they maintained. “All hope of relief in the Union through the agency of committees, Congressional legislation, or constitutional amendments, is extinguished. The Republicans are resolute in the purpose to grant nothing that will or ought to satisfy the South. We are satisfied the honor, safety and independence of the Southern people are to be found in a Southern confederacy.”
Buchanan barely had time to assess this setback before hearing that William Browne, the editor of The Washington Constitution, had come out in favor of secession. The newspaper is widely considered to be the semi-official voice of the administration, although in this case Buchanan had offered Browne no instructions. Rebuffed by the secessionists, Buchanan was then rebuked by the unionists. For God’s sake, they groused, can’t the government take the side of the union?
Insults rained down on the Old Public Functionary, many of them assailing him for imbecility (Sen. Grimes: “Such a perfect imbecile”) or loyalty (Vice President-elect Hamlin: “I cannot see why the president is not just as guilty as the men in South Carolina.”) The final indignity was authored by one of those very men, Francis Pickens, the state’s newly installed governor. Pickens, a portly, bewigged owner of more than 400 slaves, and an ardent secessionist (“I would be willing to appeal to the god of battles, if need be, to cover the state with ruin, conflagration and blood, rather than submit,” is a recent quote), is nominally a friend of the president. He wrote Buchanan a letter, saying, “I am authentically informed that the forts in Charleston harbor are now being thoroughly prepared to turn, with effect, their guns upon the interior and the city.”
Were that true, it would contravene Buchanan’s own promise to maintain the status quo in Charleston. The governor then had the temerity to suggest that Buchanan turn Fort Sumter over to Pickens for safekeeping. Thus in one preemptory note did a governor of two days’ tenure not only suggest that the president of the United States had broken his word, but then advised said president to yield his responsibility to protect federal property to the same governor of two days’ tenure.
But this insult was not the week’s final blow.
South Carolina’s Secession Convention was called to order in Columbia on the 17th. For some delegates this was a moment reached after a 40-day sprint, and for others after a trek three decades in length, but all had come to proclaim their liberty and to sire a new nation, and the air was filled with promise and glory. “To dare! And again to dare! And without end to dare,” said the president of the convention, the scholar-planter D.F. Jamison, invoking the noble Danton’s defiance of the enemies of France.
Inspired by his words, the convention then took as its first order of business the question of whether it might dare move itself to Charleston. An outbreak of smallpox had erupted concurrently with the arrival of the delegates. Rumor had it that abolitionists had contaminated a box of rags with the disease in an effort to decapitate the rebellion, and many delegates thought it would be prudent to hightail the convention to Charleston on the four o’clock train.
No, protested the longtime fire-eater William Porcher Miles, his voice acquiring the tone of a keyless bridegroom confronting a locked bed chamber on his wedding night. “We must not allow mockers to say that we were prepared to face a world in arms, but that we ran away from the smallpox.” The suitably chagrined delegates then voted unanimously to promise they would consider secession just as soon as they got to Charleston, but for now there was the matter of that train.
After being greeted in smallpoxless Charleston with applause, band music and a 15-gun salute, the delegates invested two days in procedures. Shortly after one o’clock on the 20th, however, the critical vote was cast, and by unanimous decision, South Carolina declared its independence. On the streets, delirium prevailed. As the bells of St. Michael’s Church pealed, the taverns disgorged their roisterers, who sang and marched and shot rockets into the air.
In the evening, a more solemn celebration was held. At 6:30, the members of the convention marched in ceremonious procession to the venerable Institute Hall, Jamison at their head. He carried the official Secession Ordinance, a 23-inch-by-28-inch rectangle of thick linen parchment that had been inscribed with the statement of dissolution and stamped with the great silver Seal of the State of South Carolina. As the procession entered the hall, a crowd of 3000 shouted and whistled its approval. Reverend John Bachman then blessed the proceedings, and the delegates were summoned forward, alphabetically by election district, to sign the document. It took about two hours for all 169 delegates to affix their names.
Ninety percent of these men are slave owners. Sixty percent of them own at least 20 slaves. Forty percent of them own at least 50. Sixteen percent of them own 100 slaves or more.
The final delegate to sign was the former governor, John Lawrence Manning. Like Moses holding the tablets of Decalogue, Manning lifted the Ordinance above his head. Flanked by two palmetto trees, he was joined in this tableau by Jamison, who proclaimed South Carolina to be an independent commonwealth. The members of the crowd cheered and cheered, and once the proceeding adjourned, pressed forward. Searching for souvenirs of the great moment, they began stripping the palmettos of their razor-sharp fronds, which they then waved about their heads like Napoleon’s mamelukes as they surged from the auditorium and waded into the pandemonium of the streets.
In Washington now, a mood far more somber prevails. The holiday season, normally an occasion for gaiety, has acquired a distinctly gloomy cast. Friends of decades’ standing find themselves on opposite sides; men and women whose fathers stood with Washington on the battlefields of the revolution cannot bear to meet one another’s eye. Northerners visit only Northerners, and Southerners the same; and even at those occasions, the mood is heavy.
There was one party, however, that would not be postponed, that of the wedding of John Bouligny, the popular congressman from Louisiana and one of the very few officials from the deep South who opposed secession, to Mary Parker, daughter of Washington’s wealthiest grocer. The bride’s father had produced a magnificent spectacle, filling his large home with roses and lilies and illuminated fountains. The president came, joined by his niece Harriet Lane, and was the first to kiss the bride.
It was a happy event in a beautiful setting, reminiscent of so many other happy events and beautiful settings the president had enjoyed in his younger days as a diplomat in Russia and Great Britain. But soon the mood was broken by a commotion instigated by the entrance of Lawrence Keitt, the brash, bombastic, recently resigned congressman of South Carolina. Jumping, bellowing, waving a piece of paper over his head, he shouted “Thank God!’’ again and again. Finally he elaborated. “South Carolina has seceded! Here’s the telegram! I feel like a boy let out of school.’’
When eyes at last left the jubilant Keitt, they fell on Buchanan, his face ashen, who slumped in his chair as though he had been struck. “Madam,’’ he at last said to his hostess, “might I beg you to have my carriage called?” And with that he returned to the White House, to resume his time on the rack.
Sources: To learn more about these events, please see “Days of Defiance,” by Maury Klein (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), “Freedom Rising,’’ by Ernest B. Furgurson, (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004) and The Road to Disunion Vol. II: Secessionist Triumphant, by William W. Freehling” (Oxford University Press, 2007).