Monday, December 06, 2010

Sesquicentennial, Part VII: Where Were They?


One hundred fifty years ago, delegates in South Carolina were on their way to Columbia, where the legislature had voted to assemble a Convention for the purpose of considering secession from the Union in response to the election of a Republican to the Presidency. The result of this convention was almost a foregone conclusion. The only questions remaining were when, how, and codifying the reasons why. Elsewhere in the country, other men went about their daily duties, some rather ordinary, some already extraordinary. Although some of them were rather obscure at the time, we would come to know them very well indeed in the months and years to come.

Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it. -- Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln spent the winter of 1860 at his home in Springfield, preparing for his Presidency to being on March 4 of the following year. Much of his time was consumed dealing with office-seekers, a task that would take up much of his time until he actually assumed the Presidency. The President-Elect not only had to assemble a team with which to govern, he also faced the prospect of governing vast territories that had no wish to be governed, at least not by him. This would be the last winter he would ever spend at his home.

One of the fruitful sources, as I hold it, of the errors which prevail in our country, is the theory that this is a government of one people; that the government of the United States was formed by a mass; and therefore it is taken that all are responsible for the institutions and policies of each. The government of the United States is a compact between the sovereign members who formed it; and if there be one feature common to all the colonies planted upon the shores of America, it was the steady assertion of, and uncompromising desire for, community independence. -- Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis was a United States Senator from Mississippi. He argued forcefully for the rights of the several States against those of the Federal government. Ironically, that winter, he also argued against Mississippi's secession from the Union. But like so many others of his class and time, where Mississippi went, he would follow.

He habitually wears an expression as if he had determined to drive his head through a brick wall, and was about to do it. -- Col. Theodore Lyman, describing Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant was a West Point man, and had a creditable record of service in the Mexican War, but had fallen on hard times. After a string of failed business ventures, he was working as an assistant in his father's leather goods store in Galena, Illinois. Somewhat ironically, considering his later life, he was a supporter of Stephen Douglas in the 1860 election.

I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. -- Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee was second in his class at West Point, and was enjoying a promising career as one of the U.S. Army's rising stars. He had served with distinction in the Corps of Engineers, and had been Superintendent of West Point. In the winter of 1860 Lee was in Texas, but was planning to report to Washington for reassignment.

You people of the South don't know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don't know what you're talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it… Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth — right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail. -- William Tecumseh Sherman

William Tecumseh Sherman was also a West Point man, but was assigned to administrative duties in California during the Mexican War. His lack of combat experience, and the lack of future opportunity that implied, led to his decision to resign his commission in 1853. He went through a series of jobs without much success, but found a position that fit his character when he was appointed superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary in 1859. Many of his colleagues at this southern institution were quite openly pro-secession ... and most learned not to mention this around Sherman. Very little of what was to come came as a surprise to him.

The course of events is so rapidly hastening forward that the emergency may soon arise when you may be called upon to decide the momentous question whether you possess the power by force of arms to compel a State to remain in the Union. I should feel myself recreant to my duty were I not to express an opinion on this important subject. -- James Buchanan

It is grimly amusing that Buchanan would use the words "recreant to my duty" in a non-ironic sense. Nominally speaking, in the winter of 1860, James Buchanan was the President of the United States. Practically speaking, he was an empty suit. He believed that secession was illegal -- but he also believed he had no legal powers to do anything about it. This, quite frankly, baffles me. If something is illegal, does that not imply that there is a law? And does the Chief Executive not have, by definition, the authority -- no, the duty -- to enforce law? But no, James Buchanan would fiddle while America burned. Mark this well: Buchanan wasn't a bad President because he made bad decisions. Buchanan was a bad President because, at the most critical juncture of the nation's history, he made no decisions.

His waffling would cost his countrymen dearly.

The conventioneers were set to meet in Columbia, South Carolina, on December 17th, 1860.

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