The Senate Debates and Debates the President’s Address

Wednesday, December 5, 1860

The day after President Buchanan’s State of the Union address was read to congress1, the senators and politicians debated and speechified.

No one seemed to agree with all of it. Senator John P. Hale of New Hampshire, for example, simply hoped that the message “would commend itself cordially to somebody.” As for himself, he didn’t find much to like about it. He complained that it gave this “great and powerful country” the “power to do nothing at all” to stop a state from seceding.

Albert Iverson, Senator from Georgia, on the other hand, didn’t find too much to complain about. It’s true that he disagreed with the President on a state’s right to leave the Union, but did agree on pretty well every other point, focusing on “the secession of a state is an act of revolution.” He seemed to relish that thought. Other southern Senators may have talked of peacefully leaving the Union, but not Iverson.

“Sir, the Southern states that are now moving in this matter [towards war] are not doing it without due consideration. We have looked over the whole field. We believe that the only security for the institution to which we attach so much importance is secession and a southern Confederacy.”

Iverson also postulated that by March 4, five Southern states would leave the Union, “forcibly if we must.” But with all his big talk, he also predicted that there would be no war.

The Mississippi Senator, Albert Brown, was one of those Southern senators who wished not for war: “All we ask is that we be allowed to depart in peace.” This sentiment would become the soft rallying cry of the Confederacy, especially in its early days.

Senator Joseph Lane of Oregon didn’t have much to say on the President’s address or secession. He just wanted to let the record show that he found the election of Abraham Lincoln to be unconstitutional (Hale seemed to agree). At the end of his speech, he concedes that the election of Lincoln isn’t what is tearing this country apart, but instead the election of a Republican and what this Republican (Lincoln) says – he then paraphrased Lincoln’s 1858 “House Divided” speech.

Texas Senator Louis T. Wigfall disagreed with Buchanan that the Federal government was powerless to do anything to stop a state from seceding. Wigfall agreed (more for the sake of argument than anything else) that a state had a right to secede, but if they enacted that right, they were out of the Union. Being out of the Union, the Federal government should have every right to declare war upon them.

Wigfall, like most Americans, was conflicted with the President’s address. “I must confess, sir, I do not understand it [the address]; and the more I read it, the less do I comprehend it.”



  1. Many sources claim that it was read on the 3rd, however, newspapers of the time state that it was supposed to be read on the 3rd, but was postponed by the President until the 4th – the document, even officially, is still dated as “December 3, 1860.” []
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