History of the United States
Volume III


Chapter XV
Buchanan's Administration, 1857-1861

James Buchanan was a native of Pennsylvania, born on the 13th of April, 1791, educated for the profession of law. In 1831 he was appointed minister to Russia, was afterward elected to the Senate of the United States, and from that position was called to the office of secretary of state under President Polk. In 1853 he received the appointment of minister to Great Britain, and resided at London until his nomination for the presidency. As secretary of state in the new cabinet General Lewis Cass, of Michigan, was chosen.

In the first year of Buchanan's administration there was a Mormon rebellion in Utah. The difficulty arose from an attempt to extend the judicial system of the United States over the territory. Thus far Brigham Young, the Mormon governor, had had his own way of administering justice. The community of Mormons was organized on a plan very different from that existing in other Territories, and many usages had grown up in Utah which were repugnant to the laws of the country. When, therefore, in 1856, a Federal judge was sent to preside in the Territory, he was resisted and driven from the seat of justice. To quell this insurrection an army of two thousand five hundred men was sent to Utah in the fall of 1857. The Mormons prepared for resistance and cut off the supply trains of the army. Meanwhile, however, Thomas L. Kane arrived with conciliatory letters from the President. Overtures for peace on the basis of a Federal pardon were accepted by the Mormons, and order was finally restored. In 1858 the army marched to Salt Lake, was then quartered at Camp Floyd, and in May of 1860 was withdrawn from the Territory.

Early in 1858 an American vessel, while innocently exploring the Paraguay River, in South America, was fired on by a jealous garrison. When reparation for the insult was demanded, none was given, and the government of the United States was obliged to send out a fleet to obtain satisfaction. A commissioner was sent with the squadron who was empowered to offer liberal terms of settlement for the injury. The authorities of Paraguay quailed before the American flag, and suitable apologies were made for the wrong which had been committed.

The 5th of August, 1858, was a memorable day in the history of the world. On that day was completed the laying of the first telegraphic cable across the Atlantic Ocean. the successful accomplishment of this great work was due in a large measure to the energy and genius of Cyrus W. Field, a wealthy merchant of New York. The cable, one thousand six hundred and forty miles in length, was stretched from Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, to Valentia Bay, Ireland. Telegraphic communication was thus established between the Old World and the New, and the fraternal greetings of peaceful nations were for the first time transmitted through the depths of the sea. The great problem of quick communication between two nations separated by a vast expanse of water was indeed solved; but this particular cable did little more than solve the problem and point out the possibilities of the future. After but three weeks' service it parted somewhere in mid-ocean and eight years passed before another one was successfully laid.

In 1858 Minnesota was added to the union. The area of the new State was a little more than eighty-one thousand square miles, and its population at the date of admission a hundred and fifty thousand souls. In the next year Oregon, the thirty-second State, was admitted, with a population of forty-eight thousand, and an area of eighty thousand square miles. On the 4th of March preceding, General Sam Houston, of Texas, bade adieu to the Senate of the United States and retired to private life. His career had been marked by the strangest vicissitudes. He was a Virginian by birth, but his youth was hardened among the mountains of Tennessee. He gained a military fame in the Seminole War, then rose to political distinction, and was elected governor of his adopted State. Overshadowed with a domestic calamity, he suddenly resigned his office, left his home, and exiled himself among the Cherokees, by whom he was made a chief. Afterward he went to Texas, joined the patriots, and became a leading spirit in the struggle for independence. It was he who commanded in the decisive battle of San Jacinto; he who became first president of Texas, and also her first representative in the Senate of the United States. Through all the misfortunes, dangers, and trials of his life his character stood like adamant.

The slavery question continued to vex the nation. In 1857 the Supreme Court of the United States, after hearing the cause of Dred Scott, formerly a slave, rendered a decision that negroes are not, and cannot become, citizens.

Scott was the slave of one Dr. Emerson, an army surgeon, who was stationed for a time in Illinois, and later in the territory that became Minnesota, taking his slave with him. Later when he returned to Missouri, Scott sued for his freedom on the ground that he had been illegally held in slavery on free soil. He won his case in the Missouri courts, but lost in the Federal Supreme Court. This decision was violently assailed by the opponents of slavery; and in several of the free States personal liberty bills were passed, the object of which was to defeat the execution of the Fugitive Slave law.

In the fall of 1859 the excitement was still further increased by the mad attempt of John Brown, of Kansas, to incite a general insurrection among the slaves. With a party of twenty-one men as daring as himself, he made a sudden descent on the United States arsenal at Harper's Ferry, captured the place, and held his ground for nearly two days. The national troops and the militia of Virginia were called out in order to suppress the revolt. Thirteen of Brown's men were killed, two made their escape, and the rest wee captured. The leader and his six companions were given over to the authorities of Virginia, tried, condemned, and hanged. In Kansas the old controversy still continued, but the Free Soil party gained ground so rapidly as to make it certain that slavery would be interdicted from the State. All these facts and events tended to widen the breach between the people of the North and the South. Such was the alarming condition of affairs when the time arrived for holding the nineteenth presidential election.

The canvass was one of intense excitement. Four candidates were presented. The choice of the Republican party was Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois. The platform of principles adopted by this party again declated opposition to the extension of slavery to be the vital issue. In the month of April the Democratic convention assembled at Charleston. The delegates were divided on the quetion of slavery, and after much debating the party was disrupted. The Southern delegates, unable to obtain a distinct expression of their views in the platform of principles, and seeing that the Northern wing was determined to nominate Mr. Douglas--the great defender of popular sovereignty--withdrew from the convention. The rest adjourned to Baltimore, where, on the 18th of June, they chose Douglas as their standard bearer. The delegates from the South adjourned to Richmond, and then to Baltimore, where on the 28th of June, John C. Breckinridge was nominated. The American party--now known as Constitutional Unionists--chose John Bell, of Tennessee, as their candidate. The contest resulted in the election of Mr. Lincoln. He received almost the entire electoral vote of the North, while the support of the Southern States was, for the most part, given to Breckinridge. Mr. Douglas eceived a large populr but small electoral vote, his supporters being scattered throughout all the States.

The result of the election had been anticipated. The leaders of the South had openly declared that the choice of Lincoln would be regarded as a just cause for the dissolution of the Union. The Republicans of the populous North crowded to the polls, and their favorite was chosen. As to the government, it was under the control of the Douglas Democracy; but a majority of the cabinet and a large number of senators and representatives in Congress were supporters of Mr. Breckinridge and the advocates of disunion as a justifiable measure. It was now evident that with the incoming of the new administration all the departments of the government would pass under the control of the Republican party. The times were full of passion, animosity, and rashness. It was seen that disunion was now possible, and that the possibility would shortly be removed. The attitude of the President favored the measure. He was not himself a disunionist. he denied the right of a State to secede; but at the same time he declared himself not armed with the constitutional power necessary to prevent secession by force. The interval, therefore, between the presidential election in November of 1860 and the inauguration of the following spring was seized by the leaders of the South as the opportune moment for dissolving the Union.

The actual work of secession began in South Carolina. On the 17th of December, 1860, a convention assembled at Charleston, and after three days of deliberation passed a resolution that the union hitherto existing between South Carolina and the other States, under the name of the United States of America, was dissolved. It was a step of fearful importance. The action was contagious. The sentiment of disunion spread with great rapidity. The cotton-growing States were almost unanimous in support of the measure. By the 1st of February, 1861, six other States--Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas--had passed ordinances of secession and withdrawn from the Union. Nearly all of the senators and representatives of those States, following the action of their constituents, resigned their seats in Congress and gave themselves to the disunion cause.

In the secession conventions there was but little opposition to the movement. In some instances the speakers boldly denounced disunion as bad in principle and ruinous in its results. The course of Alexander H. Stephens, afterward Vice-President of the Confederate States, was peculiar. In the convention of Georgia he undertook the task of preventing the secession of his State. He delivered a long and powerful oration in which he defended the theory of secession, advocated the doctrine of State sovereignty, declared his intention of abiding by the decision of the convention, but at the same time spoke against secession, on the ground that the measure was impolitic, unwise, disastrous. Not a few prominent men at the South held similar views; but the opposite opinion prevailed, and secession was accomplished.

On the 4th of February, 1861, delegates from six of the seceded States assembled at Montgomery, Alabama, and formed a new government, under the name of the Confederate States of America. On the 8th of the month the government was organized by the election of Jefferson Davis, of Mississippi, as provisional President, and Alexander H. Stephens as Vice-President. On the same day of the meeting of the Confederate Congress, at Montgomery, a peace conference assembled at Washington. Delegates from twenty-one States were present; certain amendments to the Constitution were proposed and laid before Congress for adoption, but that body gave little heed to the measures suggested, and the conference adjourned without practical results.

The country seemed on the verge of ruin. The natinal government was for the time being paralyzed. The army was stationed in detachments on remote frontiers. The fleet was scattered in distant seas. The President was distracted with hesitancy and the adverse counsels of his friends. With the exception of Forts Sumter and Moultrie in Charleston Harbor, Fort Pickens near Pensacola, and Fortress Monroe in the Chesapeake, all the important posts in the seceded States had been seized by the Confederate authorities, even before the organization of their government. All this while the local warfare in Kansas had continued; but the Free State party had at last gained the ascendency, and the early admission of the new commonwealth, with two additional Republican senators, was foreseen. Early in January the President made a feeble attempt to re-enforce and provision the garrison of Fort Sumter. the steamer Star of the West was sent with men and supplies, but in approaching the harbor of Charleston was fired on by a Confederate battery and compelled to return. Such was the condition of affairs that it was deemed prudent for the new President to appreach the capital without recognition. For the first time in the nation's history its chief magistrate slipped into Washington by night.


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