Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Domestic Affairs

At his inauguration, James Buchanan wasted little time clarifying his stand on the all-important slavery issue. Speaking to a crowd enjoying 1,200 gallons of ice cream furnished for the occasion, he declared slavery a matter for individual states and territories to decide. The new President said, "It is the imperative and indispensable duty of the government of the United States to secure to every resident inhabitant the free and independent expression of his opinion by his vote. This sacred right of each individual must be preserved. That being accomplished, nothing can be fairer than to leave the people of a territory free from all foreign interference to decide their own destiny for themselves, subject only to the Constitution of the United States." Of course, by "people" in the territory, he meant only the white male voters since blacks were not eligible to vote, whether free or slave.

The Dred Scott Supreme Court Decision

Two days later, the United States Supreme Court rendered its decision in the case of a slave named Dred Scott. Scott's owner had taken him to what is now the upper Midwest. Having lived in Illinois and Wisconsin Territory with his master, an army surgeon, Scott claimed that his residence in a free state and territory made him a free man. The Court decided otherwise. It claimed that the Constitution did not recognize slaves as citizens of the United States, and thus, they had "no rights which any white man was bound to respect," including the right to sue for their freedom in a federal court. A slave, the Court asserted, was property and nothing more, with no more rights than a horse or a chair. Ownership of such property was therefore protected and guaranteed by the Constitution. Since Scott had been a slave in Missouri, his living in Illinois and Wisconsin Territory could not affect his status as a slave. The Court then stated its opinion that the Missouri Compromise had been unconstitutional and that slavery could not be banned in the new territories nor in new states. Its decision on this case was influenced by Buchanan, who urged a Northern justice to join the Southern members. The Court tipped Buchanan off that it was about to decide in favor of the South, and Buchanan in turn put a clause in his inaugural address declaring that the Supreme Court was about to decide and urging "all good citizens" to obey the ruling that was to come. Thus Buchanan would be implicated in the decision and would be vilified by those opposed to it.

Reaction was swift and loud. Abolitionists, who had come to view the fight against slavery as a holy war, were enraged and vowed to disobey the Scott decision; they claimed that their cause was God's and therefore above man's laws. Most Southerners viewed the ruling as a vindication of their interpretation of the Constitution. The national controversy was bitter and divisive. For a new President like Buchanan, it made for a difficult start. To cool matters, he tried to appoint moderates to his cabinet and avoided sectional extremists with antagonistic agendas on either side of the issue. He largely succeeded, though his Southern ministers were staunchly proslavery. America had become a nation with a divided political system: the Republicans, exclusively Northern and antislavery, and the Democrats, Southerners who defended slavery and states' rights and Northerners who stressed national unity and usually followed the Southern lead on slavery-related issues.

Kansas and Slavery

"Bleeding Kansas" had become the focal point of the slavery crisis. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, signed three years before Buchanan came to power, allowed Kansans to decide by election whether to be a free or slave state. Chaos had ensued as Missouri "border ruffians" crossed into Kansas to vote for a proslavery territorial government in 1855. Free-Soilers opposed to slavery subsequently formed their own government and boycotted a call for a constitutional convention for the new state, which the proslavery forces then dominated. Buchanan, eager to retain the support of proslavery Democrats, endorsed this proslavery constitution known as the Lecompton Constitution, though the document had been supported by only a minority of whites in Kansas. Even Buchanan's own territorial governor urged him not to accept these results. Instead, Buchanan sent a message to Congress urging acceptance of Kansas as a slave state.

In Congress, Senator Stephen Douglas boldly challenged Buchanan's endorsement of the Lecompton plan and derailed it. He claimed that it was a fraud, passed by only a small minority of the voters in Kansas and therefore violated the principle of "popular sovereignty." Nevertheless, Buchanan prevailed over Douglas in the Senate. In the House, a prolonged debate, with pro-Douglas Democrats joining Republicans, led to a compromise solution: the Constitution would be returned to Kansas for another vote. A new election was held in Kansas for a constitutional convention. This new convention soundly rejected slavery and set the stage for the admission of Kansas as a free state in June of 1861.

The troubled course necessary to resolve the Kansas situation greatly compromised the Buchanan administration's credibility. To some, it smacked of tampering, reversing the will of the people; to others, Buchanan simply looked inept. In addition, the economy had sunk into recession the year before. The elections in the middle of the President's term were a disaster for his party: Republicans were victorious in many state contests in the North and gained control of the U.S. House of Representatives. And Stephen Douglas won reelection and continued to challenge the President.

Domestic Terrorism

Meanwhile, John Brown, the militant abolitionist who had killed several proslavery settlers in Kansas, had evaded authorities. Brown now planned to fight slavery by means of armed rebellion. In the fall of 1859, his band seized a small military installation and town called Harpers Ferry, in what is now West Virginia. Southerners saw this as nothing less than a plot to instigate a slave uprising against them, and they had Buchanan's support in quelling the insurrection. Within two days, a company of U.S. Marines, led by a Mexican War veteran named Robert E. Lee, moved into Harpers Ferry and captured John Brown. Before his conviction and hanging in late 1859, Brown became a hero, even a martyr, to many abolitionists. Southerners saw his actions as proof that the North meant to end slavery by any means necessary, even through murder.

Buchanan seemed utterly unable to calm things down, and his speeches did not help. In his 1860 State of Union message, the President said: "How easy it would be for the American people to settle the slavery question forever and to restore peace and harmony to this distracted country! They, and they alone, can do it. All that is necessary to accomplish the object, and all for which the slave States have ever contended, is to be let alone and permitted to manage their domestic institutions in their own way. As sovereign States, they, and they alone, are responsible before God and the world for slavery existing among them. For this the people of the North are not more responsible and have no more right to interfere than with similar institutions in Russia or in Brazil." With this statement, most Northerners—even including many Republicans—could agree, but here, the President omitted the territorial issues. And on them, there was no agreement. Citing Dred Scott, Southerners said they had the right to take slaves into the territories, yet Republicans recognized no such right.

Prelude to War

Buchanan had promised in his inaugural to serve just one term, and with all the national turmoil over slavery, no one asked him to rescind his pledge. Still, at Charleston, the Democratic convention relied on Buchanan's allies to deny Stephen Douglas the nomination. The convention foundered on the territorial issue, however, and could not agree on a platform or a nominee. The Northern Democrats later nominated Douglas while Southerners bolted from the party and nominated Vice President Breckenridge as their presidential nominee. With the Democrats divided, the 1860 presidential election went to Abraham Lincoln. Six weeks after Lincoln's victory, South Carolina left the Union. Within six weeks, six more states of the Lower South had joined South Carolina.

Buchanan, ever conciliatory, tried not to alienate anyone—either secessionist or unionist—but pleased no one. The outgoing President seemed at a loss to take any action against the South, which only emboldened the new Confederacy. All Southerners in his cabinet resigned. Secretary of State Lewis Cass quit too, disgusted with Buchanan's inaction in the crisis. The President did little, fearful of provoking the South; yet he angered the South by refusing to relinquish Fort Sumter at Charleston, South Carolina. While his inaction averted war for the time being, it also enabled the new Confederate government to begin operations. Buchanan seemed eager to get out of the White House before the real disasters ensued.