The President took the first of the three courses. He held it with the nervous clutch of a weak nature until overmastered by two grim men who gradually hypnotized his will. The turning-point for Buchanan, and the last poor crisis in his inglorious career, came on Sunday, December 30th. Before that day arrived, his vacillation had moved his friends to pity and his enemies to scorn. One of his best friends wrote privately, "The President is pale with fear"; and the hostile point of view found expression in such comments as this, "Buchanan, it is said, divides his time between praying and crying. Such a perfect imbecile never held office before."
With the question what to do about the forts hanging over his bewildered soul, Buchanan sent a message to Congress on December 4, 1860, in which he sought to defend the traditional evasive policy of his party. He denied the constitutional right of secession, but he was also denied his own right to oppose such a course. Seward was not unfair to the mental caliber of the message when he wrote to his wife that Buchanan showed "conclusively that it is the duty of the President to execute the laws--unless somebody opposes him; and that no State has a right to go out of the Union unless it wants to."
This message of Buchanan's hastened the inevitable separation of the Democratic party into its elements. The ablest Southern member of the Cabinet, Cobb, resigned. He was too strong an intellect to continue the policy of "nothing doing" now that the crisis had come. He was too devoted a Southerner to come out of political evasion except on one side. On the day Cobb resigned the South Carolina Representatives called on Buchanan and asked him not to make any change in the disposition of troops at Charleston, and particularly not to strengthen Sumter, a fortress on an island in the midst of the harbor, without at least giving notice to the state authorities. What was said in this interview was not put in writing but was remembered afterward in different ways with unfortunate consequences.
Every action of Buchanan in this fateful month continued the disintegration of his following. Just as Cobb had to choose between his reasonings as a Democratic party man and his feelings as a Southerner, so the aged Cass, his Secretary of State, and an old personal friend, now felt constrained to choose between his Democratic reasoning and his Northern sympathies, and resigned from the Cabinet on the 11th of December. Buchanan then turned instinctively to the strongest natures that remained among his close associates. It is a compliment to the innate force of Jeremiah S. Black, the Attorney-General, that Buchanan advanced him to the post of Secretary of State and allowed him to name as his successor in the Attorney-Generalship Edwin M. Stanton. Both were tried Democrats of the old style, "let-'em-alone" sort; and both had supported the President in his Kansas policy. But each, like every other member of his party, was being forced by circumstances to make his choice among the three inevitable courses, and each chose the Northern side. At once the question of the moment was whether the new Secretary of State and his powerful henchmen would hypnotize the President.
For a couple of weeks the issue hung in the balance. Then there appeared at Washington commissioners from South Carolina "empowered to treat...for the delivery of forts...and other real estate" held by the Federal Government within their State. On the day following their arrival, Buchanan was informed by telegraph that Anderson had dismantled Fort Moultrie on the north side of the harbor, had spiked its guns, and had removed its garrison to the island fortress, Sumter, which was supposed to be far more defensible. At Charleston his action was interpreted as preparation for war; and all South Carolinians saw in it a violation of a pledge which they believed the President had given their congressmen, three weeks previous, in that talk which had not been written down. Greatly excited and fearful of designs against them, the South Carolina commissioners held two conferences with the President on the 27th and 28th of December. They believed that he had broken his word, and they told him so. Deeply agitated and refusing to admit that he had committed himself at the earlier conference, he said that Anderson had acted on his own responsibility, but he refused to order him back to the now ruined Fort Moultrie. One remark which he let fall has been remembered as evidence of his querulous state of mind: "You are pressing me too importunately" exclaimed the unhappy President; "you don't give me time to consider; you don't give me time to say my prayers; I always say my prayers when required to act upon any great state affair." One remembers Hampden "seeking the Lord" about ship money, and one realizes that the same act may have a vastly different significance in different temperaments.
Buchanan, however, was virtually ready to give way to the demand of the commissioners. He drew up a paper to that effect and showed it to the Cabinet. Then the turning-point came. In a painful interview, Black, long one of his most trusted friends, told him of his intention to resign, and that Stanton would go with him and probably also the Postmaster-General, Holt. The idea of losing the support of these strong personalities terrified Buchanan, who immediately fell into a panic. Handing Black the paper he had drawn up, Buchanan begged him to retain office and to alter the paper as he saw fit. To this Black agreed. The demand for the surrender of the forts was refused; Anderson was not ordered back to Moultrie; and for the brief remainder of Buchanan's administration Black acted as prime minister.
A very powerful section of the Northern democracy, well typified by their leaders at Washington, had thus emerged from political evasion on the Northern side. These men, known afterwards as War Democrats, combined with the Republicans to form the composite Union party which supported Lincoln. It is significant that Stanton eventually reappeared in the Cabinet as Lincoln's Secretary of War, and that along with him appeared another War Democrat, Gideon Welles, Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy. With them, at last, Douglas, the greatest of all the old Democrats of the North, took his position. What became of the other factions of the old Democratic party remains to be told.
While Buchanan, early in the month, was weeping over the pitilessness of fate, more practical Northerners were grappling with the question of what was to be done about the situation. In their thoughts they anticipated a later statesman and realized that they were confronted by a condition and not by a theory. Secession was at last a reality. Which course should they take?