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Democrats, were opposed to enforcing the laws at any point where the secessionists threatened resistance. And the inhabitants of the southern border states were almost unanimous in demanding at least the adoption of measures-best expressed in the Crittenden compromise -that would make slavery secure where it then existed and in every part of the present and future territory of the United States south of the Missouri-compromise line, and that would remove the obstructions to the return of fugitive slaves: With one voice the thousand commercial interests of northern cities also called upon Congress to avoid war by making some such concession to the South.
The rarest opportunity for immortal fame ever offered to a President was at this time thrust upon Buchanan. Had he spoken and acted promptly and boldly in defence of Federal property, the whole North and a large proportion of the people in North Carolina, Tennessee, and the southern border states would have supported him. Then Lincoln's administration would have fallen heir to the policy of national self-defence. But Buchanan's arm was nerveless and his reason weak. Habitual servility to the southern leaders made him unwilling to oppose his old political friends even when he knew that they were plotting treason. Although he was sincerely in favor of preserving the Union, it would have been difficult for the secessionists to find a more serviceable President. As John Sherman sarcastically wrote at the time: "The Constitution provided against every probable vacancy in the office of President; but did not provide for utter imbecility.""
Appearances soon indicated that the President's indecision and the anger of the coercionists would render haste on the part of the secessionists both urgent and
1 The Sherman Letters, 95.
easy. If the Union was to be maintained, it must be done under Republican leadership. Yet the members of the other parties felt so confident that there was an ulterior purpose to make unconstitutional inroads upon slavery that they were unwilling to support the Republicans. Even the victors themselves saw that they might precipitate hostilities without having the strength necessary for successful resistance. The possibility that vigorous measures might result in a civil war caused many even of their own partisans to look with favor upon some of the propositions for compromise. Hence there was danger that Lincoln might come into power with the strength of his party much reduced since November, confronted with an organized confederacy of several states, and with an opposition at home that would make any attempt to conquer secession futile, if not foolhardy.
Before Congress had time to consider any compromises, the leading secessionists issued an appeal urging every slave-holding state to "seek speedy and absolute separation from the unnatural and hostile Union." This fanned the cotton-state fires into a blaze. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina passed an ordinance of secession. Then she sent commissioners to Washington to seek recognition of her independence, and despatched agents to urge other states hurriedly to withdraw from the Union and to choose delegates to a southern congress. The business interests of the North were greatly affected. No one could anticipate events for more than a few hours. Yet secession was still in a theoretical stage; no violence had been used against the Federal government, although it had been threatened. Buchanan had not positively announced what his posi tion would be in that event. Naturally, Lincoln had not
1 McPherson's Political History of the Rebellion, 37.
yet shaped a definite policy, and did not wish to be held responsible for one before his time.
Seward's past no less than his present position in his party gave him special responsibilities and opportunities in such a crisis. Every one regarded him as the foremost Republican. At times he had talked like a radical, but he had always acted upon the maxim that the highest statesmanship consists in getting the best results from actual conditions. No one on his side of the Senate, and perhaps no one in either house, had such pleasant personal relations with the other members of Congress. It was assumed as a matter of course that he would be the controlling influence in the coming administration. His pre-eminence, together with his immovable calmness. when others were excited, caused the country to suppose that he had a solution for the difficulties, and that his actions would be indicative of Lincoln's present opinions and future policy. But for weeks he carefully refrained from expressing his opinions publicly; privately he wrote such sentences as these:
December 7: "The madcaps of the South want to be inflamed, so as to make their secession irretrievable. Good men there want moderation on the part of the government, so that they may in time produce a counter-movement." December 8: "I am, thus far, silent, not because I am thinking of proposing compromises, but because I wish to avoid, myself, and restrain other Republicans, from intermeddling, just now-when concession, or solicitation, or solicitude would encourage, and demonstrations of firmness of purpose would exasperate."
In the middle of December he went North intending to spend the holidays at home. He had declined an invitation to attend the annual dinner of the New Eng land Society in New York, December 22d. But senatorial duties made it urgent for him to be in Washington Monday, December 24th. Leaving Auburn Saturday
morning, the 22d, he arrived late that evening at the Astor House, where the members of the New England Society were still at table. As soon as his presence in the hotel became known, a special committee was sent to fetch him. He went reluctantly, and was received with such enthusiasm that he was compelled to speak. With humor in perfect harmony with the circumstances of his impressment and the mood of the banqueters over their liqueurs and cigars, he began by saying that he had heard they were all Yankees, and he inferred that they would, therefore, want to know all about the status. In colloquial phrases, with a pun or two, and with amusing repartee at their interjected questions, he made several diverting references to some of those present, and to a few matters in state and national politics.1 He believed that the old centripetal force of common interest, which had drawn the states into a confederation and which the fathers had concisely expressed in E pluribus unum, still existed. Therefore, secession must be a passion, a delusion, a “humbug” even, which could not withstand a calm debate.
"We all know that [that New York would go to the defence of Charleston in case of her being attacked by a foreign nation]; everybody knows that: therefore they do not humbug me with their secession. I do not believe they will humbug you, and I do not believe that if they do not humbug you or me that they will succeed very long in humbugging themselves."
Here was his first hint of a dangerous illusion, as will be seen later. He concluded with an expression of his opinion that the agitation for secession had steadily declined in strength since the day of the election, and
1 Moore's Rebellion Record, Documents, pp. 4–7, and N. Y. Times of December 24th, give verbatim reports of the speech, indicating the applause and interruptions. The speech printed in 4 Works, 644–50, omits much and is a careful revision.
that "sixty days' more suns will give you a much brighter and more cheerful atmosphere."1
At the time many were shocked by Seward's levity, and he has been severely criticised since because he was jovial, evasive, and over-optimistic, rather than serious, frank, and precise. While the censure is not altogether unjust, it at least overlooks two most important facts: that it was still too soon for the Republican leaders to have shaped a definite policy; and that, in any case, this occasion would have been a most unfit one on which to explain it. It was necessary for Seward to speak in order to prevent damaging inferences; he had spoken without creating excitement or committing himself or his party to any plans for the future. His opinions were soothing and tentative, and the extraordinary applause with which they were received was good evidence that they were opportune. Two days later he partially explained his optimism by saying: "Stocks were up and commercial skies were brightening. The apprehension of disunion had, for that reason, visibly abated." "
On December 24th he met his colleagues of the "Union Saving Committee of Thirteen." With the unanimous consent of the members from his section, he offered three propositions: First, that the Constitution should never be altered so as to authorize Congress to abolish or interfere with slavery in the states; second, that the fugitive-slave law should be amended so as to grant a jury-trial to the fugitive; third, that Congress should request all the states to revise their legislation concerning persons recently resident in other states, and to repeal all laws that contravened the Constitution of the United States or any law of Congress made in pursuance there
1 1 Moore's Rebellion Record, Documents, p. 7. This prophecy was left out of his Works. 22 Seward, 483.