President James Buchanan and the Secession Crisis

Buchanan Tried to Govern a Country That Was Splitting Apart

Engraved portrait of President James Buchanan
James Buchanan.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860 triggered a crisis that had been simmering for at least a decade. Outraged by the election of a candidate who was known to be opposed to the spread of enslavement into new states and territories, leaders of the southern states began to take action to split from the United States.

In Washington, President James Buchanan, who had been miserable during his term in the White House and couldn’t wait to leave office, was thrown into a horrendous situation.

In the 1800s, newly elected presidents were not sworn into office until March 4 of the following year. And that meant Buchanan had to spend four months presiding over a nation which was coming apart.

The state of South Carolina, which had been asserting its right to secede from the Union for decades, back to the time of the Nullification Crisis, was a hotbed of secessionist sentiment. One of its senators, James Chesnut, resigned from the U.S. Senate on November 10, 1860, only four days after Lincoln’s election. His state's other senator resigned the next day.

Buchanan's Message to Congress Did Nothing to Hold the Union Together

As talk in the South about secession was quite serious, it was expected that the president would do something to reduce tensions. In that era, presidents did not visit Capitol Hill to deliver a State of the Union Address in January but instead provided the report required by the Constitution in written form in early December.

President Buchanan wrote a message to Congress which was delivered on December 3, 1860. In his message, Buchanan said that he believed secession was illegal.

Yet Buchanan also said he did not believe the federal government had any right to prevent states from seceding.

So Buchanan’s message pleased nobody. Southerners were offended by Buchanan’s belief that secession was illegal. And Northerners were perplexed by the president’s belief that the federal government couldn’t act to prevent states from seceding.

His Own Cabinet Reflected the National Crisis

Buchanan’s message to Congress also angered members of his own cabinet. On December 8, 1860, Howell Cobb, the secretary of the treasury, a native of Georgia, told Buchanan he could no longer work for him.

A week later, Buchanan’s Secretary of State, Lewis Cass, a native of Michigan, also resigned, but for a very different reason. Cass felt that Buchanan was not doing enough to prevent the secession of southern states.

South Carolina Seceded on December 20

As the year drew to a close, the state of South Carolina held a convention at which the state’s leaders decided to secede from the Union. The official ordinance of secession was voted on and passed on December 20, 1860.

A delegation of South Carolinians traveled to Washington to meet with Buchanan, who saw them at the White House on December 28, 1860.

Buchanan told the South Carolina commissioners that he was considering them to be private citizens, not representatives of some new government. But, he was willing to listen to their various complaints, which tended to focus on the situation surrounding the federal garrison which had just moved from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

Senators Tried to Hold the Union Together

With President Buchanan unable to prevent the nation from splitting, prominent senators, including Stephen Douglas of Illinois and William Seward of New York, attempted various strategies to placate the southern states. But action in the U.S. Senate seemed to offer little hope. Speeches by Douglas and Seward on the Senate floor in early January 1861 only seemed to make things worse.

An attempt to prevent secession then came from an unlikely source, the state of Virginia. As many Virginians felt their state would suffer greatly from the outbreak of war, the state's governor and other officials proposed a "peace convention" to be held in Washington.

The Peace Convention Was Held in February 1861

On February 4, 1861, the Peace Convention began at the Willard Hotel in Washington. Delegates from 21 of the nation's 33 states attended, and former president John Tyler, a native of Virginia, was elected its presiding officer.

The Peace Convention held sessions until mid-February when it delivered a set of proposals to Congress. The compromises hammered out at the convention would have taken the form of new amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The proposals from the Peace Convention quickly died in Congress, and the gathering in Washington proved to be a pointless exercise.

The Crittenden Compromise

A final attempt to forge a compromise that would avoid outright war was proposed by a respected senator from Kentucky, John J. Crittenden. The Crittenden Compromise would have required significant changes to the United States Constitution. And it would have made enslavement permanent, which meant legislators from the anti-slavery Republican Party would likely have never agreed to it.

Despite the obvious obstacles, Crittenden introduced a bill in the Senate in December 1860. The proposed legislation had six articles, which Crittenden hoped to get through the Senate and the House of Representatives with two-thirds votes so they might become six new amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Given the splits in Congress and the ineffectiveness of President Buchanan, Crittenden's bill did not have much chance of passage. Not dissuaded, Crittenden proposed bypassing Congress and seeking to change the Constitution with direct referendums in the states.

President-Elect Lincoln, still at home in Illinois, let it be known that he did not approve of Crittenden's plan. And Republicans on Capitol Hill were able to use stalling tactics to make sure the proposed Crittenden Compromise would languish and die in Congress.

With Lincoln's Inauguration, Buchanan Happily Left Office

By the time Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated, on March 4, 1861, seven pro-slavery states had already passed ordinances of secession, thus declaring themselves no longer part of the Union. Following Lincoln's inauguration, four more states would secede.

As Lincoln rode to the Capitol in a carriage beside James Buchanan, the outgoing president reportedly said to him, "If you are as happy entering the presidency as I am leaving it, then you are a very happy man."

Within weeks of Lincoln taking office, the Confederates fired upon Fort Sumter, and the Civil War began.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
McNamara, Robert. "President James Buchanan and the Secession Crisis." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 26). President James Buchanan and the Secession Crisis. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "President James Buchanan and the Secession Crisis." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).