Buchanan’s State of the Union and an Idea Nobody Would Like

Tuesday, December 4, 1860

President Buchanan delivered his State of the Union address on this date. He first remarked that things weren’t so bad. The harvest had been a good one and there were “plenty of smiles throughout the land.” But that begged a question:

Why is it, then, that discontent now so extensively prevails, and the Union of the States, which is the source of all these blessings, is threatened with destruction?

Buchanan thought he had a pretty good idea why the threats of secession were flying. They don’t solely come from the question of slavery in the territories or from the opposition to the Fugitive Slave law. He conceded that these “evils” did not cause the rift.

The immediate peril arises not so much from these causes as from the fact that the incessant and violent agitation of the Slavery question throughout the North for the last quarter of a century has at length produced its malign influence on the slaves, and inspired them with vague notions of freedom.

This threat of secession “is revolution against an established Government, and not a voluntary secession from it, by virtue of an inherent constitutional right.” The states had no right to secede. However, if they did, there wasn’t much Buchanan could do about it. Since the Federal government could not recognize a state’s right to leave, if any state claimed to have left, it would actually still be part of the Union. There was no legal way to wage a war against yourself. That is, unless congress would somehow provide a way.

The President’s advice on how to keep the Union together, then, was simple. The country needed a 13th amendment to the Constitution; not one that forbade the enslavement of man, but one that ensured it for all time (or at least until Lincoln took office).

This amendment would cover three areas.

1. An express recognition of the right of property in slaves in the States where it now exists or may hereafter exist.

2. The duty of protecting this right in all the common Territories throughout their territorial existence, and until they shall be admitted as States into the Union, with or without Slavery, as their Constitutions may prescribe.

3. A like recognition of the right of the master to have his slave, who has escaped from one State to another, restored and “delivered up” to him, and of the validity of the Fugitive Slave law enacted for this purpose, together with a declaration that all State laws impairing or defeating this right are violations of the Constitution, and are consequently null and void.

With this amendment being ratified prior to Lincoln’s inauguration, no slave state would need to worry about anyone outlawing slavery and thus, would have no need to leave the Union. Problem solved. War averted.

There seems to be a confusion on dates. The New York Times printed the entire speech on December 5, stating that it was given on December 3. However, another newspaper, the Harrisburg Patriot and Union reported (on the 4th) that on the 3rd, Mr. Trumbull of Illinois “had been informed that the President would not be ready to communicate his annual message today [meaning the 3rd].” Therefore, the speech was delivered on this date, the 4th of December.


It was also on this day that the House Committee of Thirty-Three was formed to come to a peaceful solution of the National crisis. It contained one member from each state in the Union.

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Buchanan’s State of the Union and an Idea Nobody Would Like by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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