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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

Have checked the Secessionist movement


As I have said, she regarded

the Union simply as a diplomatic arrangement to be maintained while it was advantageous, and again and again doubts had been expressed as to whether in fact it was advantageous. The fiscal question which had been the ostensible cause of the Nullification movement in the 'thirties was still considered a matter of grievance. As an independent nation, it was pointed out, South Carolina would be free to meet England on the basis of reciprocal Free Trade, to market her cotton in Lancashire to the best advantage, and to receive in return a cheap and plentiful supply of British manufactures. At any moment since 1832 a good opportunity might have led her to attempt to break away. The election of Lincoln was to her not so much a grievance as a signal--and not altogether an unwelcome one. No time was lost in discussion, for the State was unanimous. The legislature had been in session choosing Presidential electors--for in South Carolina these were chosen by the legislature and not by the people. When the results of the voting in Pennsylvania and Indiana made it probable that the Republicans would have a majority, the Governor intimated that it should continue to sit in order to consider the probable necessity of taking action to save the State. The news of Lincoln's election reached Charleston on the 7th of November. On the 10th of November the legislature unanimously voted for the holding of a specific Convention to consider the relations of South Carolina with the United States. The Convention
met early in December, and before the month was out South Carolina had in her own view taken her place in the world as an independent nation. The Stars and Stripes was hauled down, and the new "Palmetto Flag"--a palm-tree and a single star--raised over the public buildings throughout the State.

Many Southerners, including not a few who were inclined to Secession as the only course in the face of the Republican victory, considered the precipitancy of South Carolina unwise and unjustifiable. She should, they thought, rather have awaited a conference with the other Southern States and the determination of a common policy. But in fact there can be little doubt that the audacity of her action was a distinct spur to the Secessionist movement. It gave it a focus, a point round which to rally. The idea of a Southern Confederacy was undoubtedly already in the air. But it might have remained long and perhaps permanently in the air if no State had been ready at once to take the first definite and material step. It was now no longer a mere abstract conception or inspiration. The nucleus of the thing actually existed in the Republic of South Carolina, which every believer in State Sovereignty was bound to recognize as a present independent State. It acted, so to speak, as a magnet to draw other alarmed and discontented States out of the Union.

The energy of the South Carolinian Secessionists might have produced less effect had anything like a corresponding energy been displayed by the Government of the United States. But when men impatiently looked to Washington for counsel and decision they found neither. The conduct of President Buchanan moved men at the time to contemptuous impatience, and history has echoed the contemporary verdict. Just one fact may perhaps be urged in extenuation: if he was a weak man he was also in a weak position. A real and very practical defect, as it seems to me, in the Constitution of the United States is the four months' interval between the election of a President and his installation. The origin of the practice is obvious enough: it is a relic of the fiction of the Electoral College, which is supposed to be spending those months in searching America for the fittest man to be chief magistrate. But now that everyone knows on the morrow of the election of the College who is to be President, the effect may easily be to leave the immense power and responsibility of the American Executive during a critical period in the hands of a man who has no longer the moral authority of a popular mandate--whose policy the people have perhaps just rejected. So it was in this case. Buchanan was called upon to face a crisis produced by the defeat of his own party, followed by the threatened rebellion of the men to whom he largely owed his election, and with it what moral authority he might be supposed to possess. Had Lincoln been able to take command in November he might, by a combination of firmness and conciliation, have checked the Secessionist movement. Buchanan, perhaps, could do little; but that little he did not do.


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