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Posted at 10:23 AM ET, 01/ 3/2011

John Marszalek: Was President Buchanan correct when he said the executive lacked the power to coerce the states to remain in the Union?

By John Marszalek

Giles Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history at Mississippi State University

The election of Abraham Lincoln on a Republican platform opposing slavery in the territories brought the issue to its head. The sitting president James Buchanan was one of the best-prepared chief executives the United States has ever had. Though a Pennsylvanian, however, he was one-sided, pro-southern, and his cabinet was filled with similarly minded individuals.

Faced with a secession crisis, Buchanan stalled for time, showing his true colors in his December 1860 annual message to Congress. He blamed the predicament on the North and its “intemperate interference” with slavery. Still, he insisted, no state had a constitutional right to secede because the Founding Fathers had formed a permanent union. Yet, if a state seceded, however, there was nothing he could constitutionally do to prevent it. His hope was that Congress would craft a compromise, so he would be taken off the hook.

A committee of thirty-three in the House and another panel consisting of thirteen in the Senate were already meeting. The major resulting proposal, the Crittenden Compromise, called for the Missouri Compromise line, which had been originally drawn only in the Louisiana Purchase lands, be extended to the Pacific Ocean. Republicans refused to consider any such slavery expansion into the territories, and many southern congressmen had already gone home so they were not present to push the plan. It failed. Buchanan continued to equivocate, secession came, and Congress tried to enact a thirteenth amendment to protect slavery where it was. Like the Crittenden Compromise, the amendment idea failed. And the war came.

Buchanan had the example of Andrew Jackson some thirty years previously of simply not tolerating such conduct, but Buchanan did not act with similar decisiveness. He insisted that secession was constitutionally improper, yet he said that a state could secede. The North argued that no nation planned its own demise in its founding document, and clearly the Constitution had no provision for secession. The South insisted that the Constitution protected property rights, so any attack on slavery was unconstitutional and permitted secession. The North was angry at Buchanan for saying that secession was possible, while the South grew angry at his refusal to state a constitutional right to do so.

In the end, it was not the Constitution that determined Buchanan’s reaction to secession; it was the weakness of his will to protect the nation against disintegration. His successor had the strength of will to stand against such disintegration. Union proved a stronger force than slavery, and the nation remained whole. Meanwhile Buchanan quickly sank to the bottom of presidential reputations, from where he has never risen.

By John Marszalek  | January 3, 2011; 10:23 AM ET
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I agree to the extent of saying that the Constitution does not dictate against secession. And in the future, if the far Right manages to organize a permanent block of Southern states which forms an epicenter of power from which it can dictate its will against the majority of Americans, as it did in the G W Bush years and seeks to do again, it is the North which may ultimately consider secession and union with Canada, with which it has more in common culturally and ideologically.

Posted by: dyinglikeflies | January 3, 2011 8:18 PM | Report abuse

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