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5: Secession

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In tracing American history from 1854 to 1860 we cannot fail to observe that it reduces itself chiefly to a problem in that science which politicians understand so well--applied psychology. Definite types of men moulded by the conditions of those days are the determining factors--not the slavery question in itself; not, primarily, economic forces; not a theory of government, nor a clash of theories; not any one thing; but the fluid, changeful forces of human nature, battling with circumstances and expressing themselves in the fashion of men's minds. To say this is to acknowledge the fatefulness of sheer feeling. Davis described the situation exactly when he said, in 1860, "A sectional hostility has been substituted for a general fraternity." To his own question, "Where is the remedy?" he gave the answer, "In the hearts of the people." There, after all, is the conclusion of the whole matter. The strife between North and South had ceased to be a thing of the head; it had become a thing of the heart. Granted the emotions of 1860, the way in which our country staggered into war has all the terrible fascination of a tragedy on the theme of fate.

That a secession movement would begin somewhere in the South before the end of 1860 was a foregone conclusion. South Carolina was the logical place, and in South Carolina the inevitable occurred. The presidential election was quickly followed by an election of delegates, on the 6th of December, to consider in convention the relations of the State with the Union. The arguments before the Convention were familiar and had been advocated since 1851. The leaders of the disunionists were the same who had led the unsuccessful movement of ten years before. The central figure was Rhett, who never for a moment had wavered. Consumed his life long by the one idea of the independence of South Carolina, that stern enthusiast pressed on to a triumphant conclusion. The powers which had defeated him in 1851 were now either silent or converted, so that there was practically no opposition. In a burst of passionate zeal the independence of South Carolina was proclaimed on December 20, 1860, by an ordinance of secession.

Simultaneously, by one of those dramatic coincidences which make history stranger than fiction, Lincoln took a step which supplemented this action and established its tragic significance. What that step was will appear in a moment.

Even before the secession began, various types of men in politics had begun to do each after his kind. Those whom destiny drove first into a corner were the lovers of political evasion. The issue was forced upon them by the instantaneous demand of the people of South Carolina for possession of forts in Charleston Harbor which were controlled by the Federal Government. Anticipating such a demand, Major Robert Anderson, the commandant at Charleston, had written to Buchanan on the 23d of November that "Fort Sumter and Castle Pinckney must be garrisoned immediately, if the Government determines to keep command of this harbor."

In the mind of every American of the party of political evasion, there now began a sad, internal conflict. Every one of them had to choose among three courses: to shut his eyes and to continue to wail that the function of government is to do nothing; to make an end of political evasion and to come out frankly in approval of the Southern position; or to break with his own record, to emerge from his evasions on the opposite side, and to confess himself first and before all a supporter of the Union. One or another of these three courses, sooner or later, every man of the President's following chose. We shall see presently the relative strength of the three groups into which that following broke and what strange courses sometimes tragic, sometimes comic--two of the three pursued. For the moment our concern is how the division manifested itself among the heads of the party at Washington.

The President took the first of the three courses. He held it with the nervous clutch of a weak nature until overmastered by two grim men who gradually hypnotized his will. The turning-point for Buchanan, and the last poor crisis in his inglorious career, came on Sunday, December 30th. Before that day arrived, his vacillation had moved his friends to pity and his enemies to scorn. One of his best friends wrote privately, "The President is pale with fear"; and the hostile point of view found expression in such comments as this, "Buchanan, it is said, divides his time between praying and crying. Such a perfect imbecile never held office before."

With the question what to do about the forts hanging over his bewildered soul, Buchanan sent a message to Congress on December 4, 1860, in which he sought to defend the traditional evasive policy of his party. He denied the constitutional right of secession, but he was also denied his own right to oppose such a course. Seward was not unfair to the mental caliber of the message when he wrote to his wife that Buchanan showed "conclusively that it is the duty of the President to execute the laws--unless somebody opposes him; and that no State has a right to go out of the Union unless it wants to."

This message of Buchanan's hastened the inevitable separation of the Democratic party into its elements. The ablest Southern member of the Cabinet, Cobb, resigned. He was too strong an intellect to continue the policy of "nothing doing" now that the crisis had come. He was too devoted a Southerner to come out of political evasion except on one side. On the day Cobb resigned the South Carolina Representatives called on Buchanan and asked him not to make any change in the disposition of troops at Charleston, and particularly not to strengthen Sumter, a fortress on an island in the midst of the harbor, without at least giving notice to the state authorities. What was said in this interview was not put in writing but was remembered afterward in different ways with unfortunate consequences.

Every action of Buchanan in this fateful month continued the disintegration of his following. Just as Cobb had to choose between his reasonings as a Democratic party man and his feelings as a Southerner, so the aged Cass, his Secretary of State, and an old personal friend, now felt constrained to choose between his Democratic reasoning and his Northern sympathies, and resigned from the Cabinet on the 11th of December. Buchanan then turned instinctively to the strongest natures that remained among his close associates. It is a compliment to the innate force of Jeremiah S. Black, the Attorney-General, that Buchanan advanced him to the post of Secretary of State and allowed him to name as his successor in the Attorney-Generalship Edwin M. Stanton. Both were tried Democrats of the old style, "let-'em-alone" sort; and both had supported the President in his Kansas policy. But each, like every other member of his party, was being forced by circumstances to make his choice among the three inevitable courses, and each chose the Northern side. At once the question of the moment was whether the new Secretary of State and his powerful henchmen would hypnotize the President.

For a couple of weeks the issue hung in the balance. Then there appeared at Washington commissioners from South Carolina "empowered to treat...for the delivery of forts...and other real estate" held by the Federal Government within their State. On the day following their arrival, Buchanan was informed by telegraph that Anderson had dismantled Fort Moultrie on the north side of the harbor, had spiked its guns, and had removed its garrison to the island fortress, Sumter, which was supposed to be far more defensible. At Charleston his action was interpreted as preparation for war; and all South Carolinians saw in it a violation of a pledge which they believed the President had given their congressmen, three weeks previous, in that talk which had not been written down. Greatly excited and fearful of designs against them, the South Carolina commissioners held two conferences with the President on the 27th and 28th of December. They believed that he had broken his word, and they told him so. Deeply agitated and refusing to admit that he had committed himself at the earlier conference, he said that Anderson had acted on his own responsibility, but he refused to order him back to the now ruined Fort Moultrie. One remark which he let fall has been remembered as evidence of his querulous state of mind: "You are pressing me too importunately" exclaimed the unhappy President; "you don't give me time to consider; you don't give me time to say my prayers; I always say my prayers when required to act upon any great state affair." One remembers Hampden "seeking the Lord" about ship money, and one realizes that the same act may have a vastly different significance in different temperaments.

Buchanan, however, was virtually ready to give way to the demand of the commissioners. He drew up a paper to that effect and showed it to the Cabinet. Then the turning-point came. In a painful interview, Black, long one of his most trusted friends, told him of his intention to resign, and that Stanton would go with him and probably also the Postmaster-General, Holt. The idea of losing the support of these strong personalities terrified Buchanan, who immediately fell into a panic. Handing Black the paper he had drawn up, Buchanan begged him to retain office and to alter the paper as he saw fit. To this Black agreed. The demand for the surrender of the forts was refused; Anderson was not ordered back to Moultrie; and for the brief remainder of Buchanan's administration Black acted as prime minister.

A very powerful section of the Northern democracy, well typified by their leaders at Washington, had thus emerged from political evasion on the Northern side. These men, known afterwards as War Democrats, combined with the Republicans to form the composite Union party which supported Lincoln. It is significant that Stanton eventually reappeared in the Cabinet as Lincoln's Secretary of War, and that along with him appeared another War Democrat, Gideon Welles, Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy. With them, at last, Douglas, the greatest of all the old Democrats of the North, took his position. What became of the other factions of the old Democratic party remains to be told.

While Buchanan, early in the month, was weeping over the pitilessness of fate, more practical Northerners were grappling with the question of what was to be done about the situation. In their thoughts they anticipated a later statesman and realized that they were confronted by a condition and not by a theory. Secession was at last a reality. Which course should they take?

What strikes us most forcibly, as we look back upon that day, is the widespread desire for peace. The abolitionists form a conspicuous example. Their watchword was "Let the erring sisters go in peace." Wendell Phillips, their most gifted orator, a master of spoken style at once simple and melodious, declaimed splendidly against war. Garrison, in "The Liberator", followed his example. Whittier put the same feeling into his verse:

They break the links of Union; shall we light
The flames of hell to weld anew the chain
On that red anvil where each blow is pain?

Horace Greeley said in an editorial in the "New York Tribune": "If the cotton states shall decide that they can do better out of the Union than in it, we shall insist on letting them go in peace. Whenever a considerable section of our Union shall deliberately resolve to go out, we shall resist all coercive measures designed to keep them in. We hope never to live in a republic where one section is pinned to the residue by bayonets."

The Democrats naturally clung to their traditions, and, even when they went over, as Black and Stanton did, to the Anti-Southern group, they still hoped that war would not be the result. Equally earnest against war were most of the Republicans, though a few, to be sure, were ready to swing the "Northern hammer." Summer prophesied that slavery would "go down in blood." But the bulk of the Republicans were for a sectional compromise, and among them there was general approbation of a scheme which contemplated reviving the line of the Missouri Compromise, and thus frankly admitting the existence of two distinct sections, and guaranteeing to each the security of its own institutions. The greatest Republican boss of that day, Thurlow Weed, came out in defense of this plan.

No power was arrayed more zealously on the side of peace of any kind than the power of money. It was estimated that two hundred millions of dollars were owed by Southerners to Northerners. War, it was reasoned, would cause the cancellation of these obligations. To save their Southern accounts, the moneyed interests of the North joined the extremists of Abolition in pleading to let the erring sisters go in peace, if necessary, rather than provoke them to war and the confiscation of debts. It was the dread of such an outcome--which finally happened and ruined many Northern firms--that caused the stock-market in New York to go up and down with feverish uncertainty. Banks suspended payment in Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. The one important and all-engrossing thing in the mind's eye of all the financial world at this moment was that specter of unpaid Southern accounts.

At this juncture, Senator Crittenden of Kentucky submitted to the Senate a plan which has been known ever since as the Crittenden Compromise. It was similar to Weed's plan, but it also provided that the division of the country on the Missouri Compromise line should be established by a constitutional amendment, which would thus forever solidify sectionalism. Those elements of the population generally called the conservative and the responsible were delighted. Edward Everett wrote to Crittenden, "I saw with great satisfaction your patriotic movement, and I wish from the bottom of my heart it might succeed"; and August Belmont in a letter to Crittenden spoke for the moneyed interest: "I have yet to meet the first Union-loving man, in or out of politics, who does not approve your compromise proposition...."

The Senate submitted the Compromise to a Committee of Thirteen. In this committee the Southern leaders, Toombs and Davis, were both willing to accept the Compromise, if a majority of the Republican members would agree. Indeed, if the Republicans would agree to it, there seemed no reason why a new understanding between the sections might not be reached, and no reason why sectionalism, if accepted as the basis of the government, might not solve the immediate problem and thus avert war.

In this crisis all eyes were turned to Seward, that conspicuous Republican who was generally looked upon as the real head of his party. And Seward, at that very moment, was debating whether to accept Lincoln's offer of the Secretaryship of State, for he considered it vital to have an understanding with Lincoln on the subject of the Compromise. He talked the matter over with Weed, and they decided that Weed should go to Springfield and come to terms with Lincoln. It was the interview between Weed and Lincoln held, it seems, on the very day on which the Ordinance of Secession was adopted--which gave to that day its double significance.

Lincoln refused point-blank to accept the compromise and he put his refusal in writing. The historic meaning of his refusal, and the significance of his determination not to solve the problem of the hour by accepting a dual system of government based on frankly sectional assumptions, were probably, in a measure, lost on both Weed and Seward. They had, however, no misunderstanding of its practical effect. This crude Western lawyer had certain ideas from which he would not budge, and the party would have to go along with him. Weed and Seward therefore promptly fell into line, and Seward accepted the Secretaryship and came out in opposition to the Compromise. Other Republicans with whom Lincoln had communicated by letter made known his views, and Greeley announced them in The Tribune. The outcome was the solid alignment of all the Republicans in Congress against the Compromise. As a result, this last attempt to reunite the sections came to nothing.

Not more than once or twice, if ever, in American history, has there been such an anxious New Year's Day as that which ushered in 1861. A few days before, a Republican Congressman had written to one of his constituents: "The heavens are indeed black and an awful storm is gathering...I see no way that either North or South can escape its fury." Events were indeed moving fast toward disaster. The garrison at Sumter was in need of supplies, and in the first week of the new year Buchanan attempted to relieve its wants. But a merchant vessel, the Star of the West, by which supplies were sent, was fired upon by the South Carolina authorities as it approached the harbor and was compelled to turn back. This incident caused the withdrawal from the Cabinet of the last opposition members--Thompson, of Mississippi, the Secretary of the Interior, and Thomas, of Maryland, the Secretary of the Treasury. In the course of the month five Southern States followed South Carolina out of the Union, and their Senators and Representatives resigned from the Congress of the United States.

The resignation of Jefferson Davis was communicated to the Senate in a speech of farewell which even now holds the imagination of the student, and which to the men of that day, with the Union crumbling around them, seemed one of the most mournful and dramatic of orations. Davis possessed a beautiful, melodious voice; he had a noble presence, tall, erect, spare, even ascetic, with a flashing blue eye. He was deeply moved by the occasion; his address was a requiem. That he withdrew in sorrow but with fixed determination, no one who listened to him could doubt. Early in February, the Southern Confederacy was formed with Davis as its provisional President. With the prophetic vision of a logical mind, he saw that war was inevitable, and he boldly proclaimed his vision. In various speeches on his way South, he had assured the Southern people that war was coming, and that it would be long and bloody.

The withdrawal of these Southern members threw the control of the House into the hands of the Republicans. Their realization of their power was expressed in two measures which also passed the Senate; Kansas was admitted--as a State with an anti-slavery constitution; and the Morrill tariff, which they had failed to pass the previous spring, now became law. Thus the Republicans began redeeming their pledges to the anti-slavery men on the one hand and to the commercial interest on the other. The time had now arrived for the Republican nominee to proceed from Springfield to Washington. The journey was circuitous in order to enable Lincoln to speak at a number of places. Never before, probably, had the Northern people felt such tense strain as at that moment; never had they looked to an incoming President with such anxious doubt. Would he prevent war? Or, if he could not do that, would he be able to extricate the country--Heaven alone knew how!--without a terrible ordeal? Since his election, Lincoln had remained quietly at Springfield. Though he had influenced events through letters to Congressmen, his one conspicuous action during that winter was the defeat of the Crittenden Compromise. The Southern President had called upon his people to put their house in order as preparation for war. What, now, had Lincoln to say to the people of the North?

The biographers of Lincoln have not satisfactorily revealed the state of his mind between election and inauguration. We may safely guess that his silence covered a great internal struggle. Except for his one action in defeating the Compromise, he had allowed events to drift; but by that one action he had taken upon himself the responsibility for the drift. Though the country at that time did not fully appreciate this aspect of the situation, who now can doubt that Lincoln did? His mind was always a lonely one. His very humor has in it, so often, the note of solitude, of one who is laughing to make the best of things, of one who is spiritually alone. During those months when the country drifted from its moorings, and when war was becoming steadily more probable, Lincoln, after the manner of the prophets, wrestled alone with the problems which he saw before him. From the little we know of his inward state, it is hard for us to conclude that he was happy. A story which is told by his former partner, Mr. Herndon, seems significant. As Lincoln was leaving his unpretentious law-office for the last time, he turned to Mr. Herndon and asked him not to take down their old sign. "Let it hang there undisturbed," said he. "Give our clients to understand that the election of a President makes no difference in the firm.... If I live, I'm coming back some time, and then we'll go right on practising law as if nothing had happened."

How far removed from self-sufficiency was the man whose thoughts, on the eve of his elevation to the Presidency, lingered in a provincial law office, fondly insistent that only death should prevent his returning some time and resuming in those homely surroundings the life he had led previous to his greatness. In a mood of wistfulness and of intense preoccupation, he began his journey to Washington. It was not the mood from which to strike fire and kindle hope. To the anxious, listening country his speeches on the journey to Washington were disappointing. Perhaps his strangely sensitive mind felt too powerfully the fatefulness of the moment and reacted with a sort of lightness that did not really represent the real man. Be that as it may, he was never less convincing than at that time. Nor were people impressed by his bearing. Often he appeared awkward, too much in appearance the country lawyer. He acted as a man who was ill at ease and he spoke as a man who had nothing to say. Gloom darkened the North as a consequence of these unfortunate speeches, for they expressed an optimism which we cannot believe he really felt, and which hurt him in the estimation of the country. "There is no crisis but an artificial one," was one of his ill-timed assurances, and another, "There is nothing going wrong.... There is nothing that really hurts any one." Of his supporters some were discouraged; others were exasperated; and an able but angry partisan even went so far as to write in a private letter, "Lincoln is a Simple Susan."

The fourth of March arrived, and with it the end of Lincoln's blundering. One good omen for the success of the new Administration was the presence of Douglas on the inaugural platform. He had accepted fate, deeply as it wounded him, and had come out of the shattered party of evasion on the side of his section. For the purpose of showing his support of the administration at this critical time, he had taken a place on the stand where Lincoln was to speak. By one of those curious little dramatic touches with which chance loves to embroider history, the presence of Douglas became a gracious detail in the memory of the day. Lincoln, worn and awkward, continued to hold his hat in his hand. Douglas, with the tact born of social experience, stepped forward and took it from him without--exposing Lincoln's embarrassment.

The inaugural address which Lincoln now pronounced had little similarity to those unfortunate utterances which he had made on the journey to Washington. The cloud that had been over him, whatever it was, had lifted. Lincoln was ready for his great labor. The inaugural contained three main propositions. Lincoln pledged himself not to interfere directly or indirectly with slavery in the States where it then existed; he promised to support the enforcement of the fugitive slave law; and he declared he would maintain the Union. "No State," said he, "upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union.... To the extent of my ability I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States.... In doing this, there need be no bloodshed or violence; and there shall be none, unless it be forced upon the national authority. The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government." Addressing the Southerners, he said: "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you.... We are not enemies but friends.... The mystic cords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Gentle, as was the phrasing of the inaugural, it was perfectly firm, and it outlined a policy which the South would not accept, and which, in the opinion of the Southern leaders, brought them a step nearer war. Wall Street held the same belief, and as a consequence the price of stocks fell.

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