Sunday, May 29, 2011

Back to the Civil War

I sort of skipped the Civil War by reading only some Lincoln and then heading over to read Thoreau, so I'm going to go back and spend some time in the actual war. Since I've always lived in California, I know quite a bit more about pioneers and missions than the Civil War.

Today I read President James Buchanan's Message to Congress of December 3, 1860. Lincoln had already been elected and Buchanan was finishing his term. He had spent much of his energy trying to hold the Union together, and got little thanks for it; his efforts angered both sides. This speech was a final plea to the people of the United States to avoid secession and war.

When I first started reading the speech, I thought Buchanan must be a Southerner and had to go look him up. I was surprised to find that he was from Pennsylvania. Buchanan was a lawyer, and for him all that counted was the law; his motto was "I acknowledge no master but the law." As President, he could not change the law, only execute it, and he stuck to that.

I thought Buchanan must be from the South because the first part of his speech rails against the Northern people for their 'interference' and constant agitation on the subject of slavery: "The immediate peril arises...from the fact that the incessant and violent agitation of the slavery question throughout the North for the last quarter of a century has at length produced its malign influence on the slaves and inspired them with vague notions of freedom." If the Northerners would just quit harping on about the evils of slavery and opposing the Fugitive Slave Law, then everything would be fine. Buchanan upholds the idea that every state in the Union is independent and the North has no business telling the South what to do, any more than they could interfere "in Russia or in Brazil."

The rest of the speech is a detailed exposition of the Constitution and the illegality of secession. Buchanan feels that secession would be illegal--but so would any act that forced a secessionist state back into the Union. He says that Congress has no power to declare or make war against a state, and that the Union was designed to be permanent. This is a bit of a dilemma, then, and he urges Congress to work towards reconciliation, mostly by telling abolitionists to be quiet and enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law throughout the Union.

South Carolina seceded from the United States two weeks later.

1 comment:

Jillian said...

What an interesting project! :-)