On the 2d of February, 1858, President Buchanan did the chief historic act of his long, public life. Fillmore had signed the Fugitive Slave Law because he could scarcely help doing so--the country was in danger. Pierce had agreed to the Kansas-Nebraska bill because he hoped thereby to make his reëlection sure. Both are unforgiven by the American people. But Buchanan did worse than either. There was no danger of secession at this moment at this moment. Buchanan had declared that he would not be a candidate for reëlection. He had nothing to lose. Now was his opportunity to make a stand for the right, to cover his name with honor and to make himself a hero in the eyes of future America. But he lacked the requisite backbone; his subserviency to the hypnotic influence of the slave power was complete, he threw away the opportunity of a lifetime.
On the 2d of February he sent to Congress a copy of the Lecompton constitution, which he knew to have been conceived in iniquity and born in sin, and urged that Kansas be admitted under it, declaring that Kansas is "at this moment as much a slave state as Georgia or South Carolina." The most astonishing thing about this was the striking example it gave of the power of the South over its devotees from the North. Buchanan was not at heart an unjust man, and yet no living man to-day can believe that in this case he acted on principle. He was the victim of hypnotism.
Now for a second time another great figure takes the center of the stage--Stephen A. Douglas. Four years ago Douglas, standing in the same place, had pleaded for a bad cause--the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Now he stands for a principle, for justice; and the millions that execrated him then now admire and applaud him to the echo. He had shown himself a giant then; now he becomes a here. There is no love stronger than the love for an old enemy who has become a friend. What were the feelings of Douglas when he saw the miserable failure of his boasted popular sovereignty, we know not. He owed the country much for his, possibly unintentional, deception; and he partially paid the debt. Buchanan might truckle to the slave power without a visible reason. Not so with Douglas. Buchanan was a follower; Douglas was a leader. He had sacrificed much to win the South in the hope of gaining the presidency. That hope gone, he was ready to be himself, to break with the South for the sake of justice.
Douglas saw that the Lecompton constitution was the product of fraud, and determined to oppose it. Calling on the President some time before the sending of the message of February 2, he declared hesitation to oppose the Lecompton constitution in the Senate, unless it were honestly submitted to the voters of Kansas. The President became enraged; he warned Douglas that no leading Democrat every broke with the administration without being crushed. Douglas answered defiantly and went his way. Soon after this the subject came before the Senate, and Douglas took the floor against the Lecompton constitution. His speech was great. Never before had he displayed his powers to greater disadvantage. "The administration and the slave power are broken," wrote Seward to his wife, "the triumph of freedom is not only assured, but near." Douglas won, and the Lecompton constitution was defeated, not in the Senate, but in the House. And Douglas won more; he re-won the laurels he had lost in the North, and became again the Democratic idol in that section, so to remain to the last moment of his life. But Douglas had not espoused the cause of the slave, nor even that of free Kansas. He had no apparent convictions on slavery, and professed not to care if it was "voted down or voted up." He simply stood for justice in Kansas, and it was only justice that the North was now demanding.
Our story of "Bleeding Kansas" is near its end. The people of the territory eventually did vote on the Lecompton constitution and defeated it by more than ten thousand majority. Congress had meantime passed the "English bill," introduced by W.H. English, a member of the House from Indiana, by which Kansas was offered a large grant of public land, if the people would adopt the Lecompton constitution. But this bribe was rejected also; and the South now abandoned all hope of making Kansas a slave state. At length Kansas entered the Union on the eve of the Great Rebellion as a free state. Buchanan's policy cost his party dear. It swept New York, New Jersey, and even Pennsylvania into the Republican column.¹ And it cost him dear. This act concerning Kansas did more than all else to place the name of Buchanan among the least honored names of American Presidents.
¹Forney's "Anecdotes of Public Men," Vol. I, p. 120.
SOURCE: "History of the United States of American," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904 Pages 586-595
Transcribed by Kathy Leigh