Buchanan Takes a Stand: This I Cannot Do; This I Will Not Do

Sunday, December 30, 1860

Secretary of State Jeremiah Black did not sleep well last night. He may not have slept at all. The President’s reply to the South Carolina Commissioners conceded too much to the rebels.

Buchanan had heard that Black was also looking to resign his post. When seeing him, he asked if that were true. Black launched into a speech, telling the President that his reply would drive out the entire Cabinet and would suit nobody. Buchanan, in opposition to his nature, handed Black the first draft of the reply and told him, “Here. Take this paper and modify it to suit yourself, but do it before the sun goes down.”

Black rushed off to Attorney General Edwin M. Stanton’s office and together they drafted a new reply. Their first order of business was that these Commissioners must not be recognized as such. They could only be addressed as “private gentlemen of the highest character.” They had no right to negotiate anything, not being real representatives of any real, separate state.

Choosing to address a point or two, Black wrote that though the President never gave Major Anderson permission to move from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter, at Fort Sumter he would stay. Anderson would have been ordered back to Moultrie, but it had been seized by South Carolina before the orders could be relayed. And about removing troops, the President flatly stated: “This I cannot do; this I will not do.”

Buchanan made a change or two before sending it to the “private gentlemen of the highest character.” But that was that. Buchanan had finally made a stand (even if it took the Secretary of State to make it for him).

Though this solved one fairly minor problem, it opened up several major ones. Would the Southern half of his Cabinet also resign? Was Anderson to be reinforced? How?1

Pushing for the reinforcement, General Winfield Scott, commander of US forces, had written to Floyd two days ago, but had not received a reply. On this day, he wrote to the President himself.

Will the President permit General Scott, without reference to the War Department and otherwise, as secretly as possible, to send two hundred and fifty recruits from New York Harbor to re-enforce Fort Sumter, together with some extra muskets or rifles, ammunition, and subsistence stores?

It is hoped that a sloop of war and cutter may be ordered for the same purpose as early as to-morrow.



  1. From Official Records Vol. 1, p 115 – 118 and Days of Defiance by Maury Klein. []
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2 thoughts on “Buchanan Takes a Stand: This I Cannot Do; This I Will Not Do

  1. I understand that it is sometimes human nature to try and please all parties, but I am amazed at how Buchanan dithered haplessly into war. In cases where two or more parties desire completely different outcomes and each is threatening violence if not given their way it seems obvious that a stand has to be taken. Done early and firmly enough, he might have avoided conflict at all. But having waited as long as he did he gave the South time to build up their courage and gather support. It seems his lack of conviction allowed him to fall “accidentally” into this apparently inevitable conflict. Had he chosen to accept and embrace the fact that there could not be a resolution that satisfied all parties he might have compelled a settlement. This, among others, is one reason I believe in a strong executive.

    1. He certainly had a very long “deer in the headlights” moment here. And not to really defend him, but the threats of disunion and secession had been around for decades. It was used by both abolitionists and slaveowners as sort of a last resort/threat. There was probably a bit of “boy who cried wolf” thing going on with it.

      Now, obviously, by this time, things were rapidly progressing, but I don’t think anyone figured anyone else would take it this far.

      It was clear, however, that the South as a whole did not want Lincoln (or almost any Republican) in the White House. Some had threatened secession and even war, but they and many before them had threatened such things over and over.

      Also, the legality of secession was sort of a fuzzy area. Like Black (the US Attorney General) told Buchanan, there wasn’t much he could do to keep a state in the Union. This was a whole new thing going on and few (including Lincoln) had any real idea what to do with it.

      All that said, there were probably many who could have handled it better than Buck… and few worse.

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