Faulkner University

President Buchanan Explains His Dilemma

Document 14.1.1

On December 5, 1860, President James Buchanan sent a message to Congress explaining the constitutional dilemma he thought was created by the threat of secession. Lincoln had been elected, but would not take office for months. South Carolina was about to secede from the Union, and federal authority there had already collapsed.

In his message, Buchanan dealt with a succession of questions in a quite logical order. But his answers led him to the conclusion that neither the president nor Congress had any practical or legal authority to prevent secession by force.

The long-continued and intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern States has at length produced its natural effects. The different sections of the Union are now arrayed against each other, and the time has arrived, so much dreaded by the Father of his Country [George Washington], when hostile geographical parties have been formed....

In order to justify secession as a constitutional remedy, it must be on the principle that the Federal Government is a mere voluntary association of States, to be dissolved at pleasure by any one of the contracting parties. If this be so, the Confederacy is a rope of sand, to be penetrated and dissolved by the first adverse wave of public opinion in any of the States...

Such a principle is wholly inconsistent with the history as well as the character of the Federal Government....It was intended to be perpetual, and not to be annulled at the pleasure of any one of the contracting parties...In short, let us look the danger fairly in the face. Secession is neither more nor less than revolution. It may or it may not be a justifiable revolution, but still it is revolution.

What, in the meantime, is the responsibility and true position of the Executive? He is bound by solemn oath, before God and the country, "to take care that the laws be faithfully executed,"and from this obligation he can not be absolved by any human power. But what if the performance of this duty, in whole or in part, has been rendered impracticable by events over which he could have exercised no control? Such at the present moment is the case throughout the State of South Carolina...

Congress alone has power to decide whether the present laws can or can not be amended so as to carry out more effectually the objects of the Constitution. Apart from the execution of the laws, so far as this may be practicable, the Executive has no authority to decide what shall be the relations between the Federal Government and South Carolina It is therefore my duty to submit to Congress the whole question in all its bearings ...

The question fairly stated is, Has the Constitution delegated to Congress the power to coerce a State into submission which is attempting to withdraw or has actually withdrawn from the Confederacy? If answered in the affirmative, it must be on the principle that the power has been conferred upon Congress to declare and make war against a State. After much serious reflection, I have arrived at the conclusion that no such power has been delegated to Congress or to any other department of the Federal Government...

The fact is that our Union rests upon public opinion, and can never be cemented by the blood of its citizens shed in civil war. If it can not live in the affections of the people, it must one day perish. Congress possesses many means of preserving it by conciliation, but the sword was not placed in their hand to preserve it by force.

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