Today, the James Buchanan Presidential Dollar Coin remembers the meeting the president had with three gentlemen from South Carolina on December 28, 1860, just over three months prior to the first shot of the Civil War.
From the book, Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion, by James Buchanan, published in 1866:
On the 20th December, 1860, the South Carolina Convention adopted an ordinance of secession, and on the 22d appointed three of their most distinguished citizens to proceed forthwith to Washington to treat with the Government of the United States concerning the relations between the parties.
These were Robert W. Barnwell, James H. Adams, and James L. Orr. They arrived in Washington on Wednesday, the 26th December.
On the next morning they received intelligence by telegraph that Major Anderson had, on Christmas night, secretly dismantled Fort Moultrie; had spiked his cannon, had burnt his gun-carriages, and had removed with his troops to Fort Sumter, as if from an impending attack.
This information they sent to the President. He received it with astonishment and regret.
With astonishment, because he had believed Major Anderson to be in security at Fort Moultrie; and this more especially whilst the commissioners appointed but three days before were on their way to Washington.
With regret, because this movement would probably impel the other cotton and border States into active sympathy with South Carolina, and thereby defeat the measures of compromise still before the Committee of Thirteen of the Senate, from which he had hoped to confine secession to that State alone.
The President never doubted for a moment that Major Anderson believed before the movement that he had “the tangible evidence” of an impending attack required by his instructions.
Still it was difficult to imagine that South Carolina would be guilty of the base perfidy of attacking any of these forts during the pendency of her mission to Washington, for the avowed purpose of preserving the peace and preventing collision.
Such treacherous conduct would have been considered infamous among all her sister States. She has always strenuously denied that such was her intention.
In this state of suspense the President determined to await official information from Major Anderson himself.
After its receipt, should he be convinced upon full examination that the Major, on a false alarm, had violated his instructions, he might then think seriously of restoring for the present the former status quo of the forts.
This, however, was soon after known to be impossible, in consequence of the violent conduct of South Carolina in seizing all the other forts and public property in the harbor and city of Charleston.
It was under these circumstances that the President, on Friday, the 28th December, held his first and only interview with the commissioners from South Carolina.
He determined to listen with patience to what they had to communicate, taking as little part himself in the conversation as civility would permit.
On their introduction he stated that he could recognize them only as private gentlemen and not as commissioners from a sovereign State; that it was to Congress, and to Congress alone, they must appeal.
He, nevertheless, expressed his willingness to communicate to that body, as the only competent tribunal, any propositions they might have to offer.
They then proceeded, evidently under much excitement, to state their grievances arising out of the removal of Major Anderson to Fort Sumter, and declared that for these they must obtain redress preliminary to entering upon the negotiation with which they had been in trusted; that it was impossible for them to make any proposition until this removal should be satisfactorily explained; and they even insisted upon the immediate withdrawal of the Major and his troops, not only from Fort Sumter, but from the harbor of Charleston, as a sine qua non to any negotiation.
In their letter to the President of the next day, they repeat this demand, saying: “And, in conclusion, we would urge upon you the immediate withdrawal of the troops from the harbor of Charleston. Under present circumstances they are a standing menace which renders negotiation impossible, and, as our recent experience shows, threatens to bring to a bloody issue questions which ought to be settled with temperance and judgment.”
This demand, accompanied by an unmistakable threat of attacking Major Anderson if not yielded, was of the most extravagant character. To comply with it, the commissioners must have known, would be impossible.
Had they simply requested that Major Anderson might be restored to his former position at Fort Moultrie, upon a guarantee from the State that neither it nor the other forts or public property should be molested; this, at the moment, might have been worthy of serious consideration.
But to abandon all these forts to South Carolina, on the demand of commissioners claiming to represent her as an independent State, would have been a recognition, on the part of the Executive, of her right to secede from the Union. This was not to be thought of for a moment.
The President replied to the letter of the commissioners on Monday, 31st December.
In the meantime information had reached him that the State authorities, without waiting to hear from Washington, had, on the day after Major Anderson’s removal, seized Fort Moultrie, Castle Pinckney, the custom house, and post office, and over them all had raised the Palmetto flag; and moreover, that every officer of the customs, collector, naval officer, surveyor, appraisers, together with the postmaster, had resigned their appointments; and that on Sunday, the 30th December, they had captured from Major Humphreys, the officer in charge, the arsenal of the United States, containing public property estimated to be worth half a million of dollars.
The Government was thus expelled from all its property except Fort Sumter, and no Federal officers, whether civil or military, remained in the city or harbor of Charleston.
The secession leaders in Congress attempted to justify these violent proceedings of South Carolina as acts of self-defense, on the assumption that Major Anderson had already commenced hostilities.
It is certain that their tone instantly changed after his removal; and they urged its secrecy, the hour of the night when it was made, the destruction of his gun-carriages, and other attendant incidents, to inflame the passions of their followers.
It was under these circumstances that the President was called upon to reply to the letter of the South Carolina commissioners, demanding the immediate withdrawal of the troops of the United States from the harbor of Charleston.
In this reply he peremptorily rejected the demand in firm but courteous terms, and declared his purpose to defend Fort Sumter by all the means in his power against hostile attacks, from whatever quarter they might proceed.
To this the commissioners sent their answer, dated on the 2d January, 1861.
This was so violent, unfounded, and disrespectful, and so regardless of what is due to any individual whom the people have honored with the office of President, that the reading of it in the Cabinet excited indignation among all the members.
With their unanimous approbation it was immediately, on the day of its date, returned to the commissioners with the following endorsement: “This paper, just presented to the President, is of such a character that he declines to receive it.”
Surely no negotiation was ever conducted in such a manner, unless, indeed, it had been the predetermined purpose of the negotiators to produce an open and immediate rupture.
It may be asked, why did the President, at his interview with the South Carolina commissioners, on the 28th December, offer to lay the propositions they had to make before Congress, when he must have been morally certain they would not meet a favorable response?
This was to gain time for passion to subside, and for reason to resume her sway; to bring the whole subject before the representatives of the people in such a manner as to cause them to express an authoritative opinion on secession, and the other dangerous questions then before the country, and adopt such measures for their peaceable adjustment as might possibly reclaim even South Carolina herself; but whether or not, might prevent the other cotton States from following her evil and rash example.
The insulting letter of the commissioners, which had been returned to them, was notwithstanding presented to the Senate by Mr. Jefferson Davis, immediately after the reading of the President’s special message of the 8th January; and such was the temper of that body at the time, that it was received and read, and entered upon their journal.
Mr. Davis, not content with this success, followed it up by a severe and unjust attack against the President, and his example was followed by several of his adherents.
From this time forward, as has been already stated, all social and political intercourse ceased between the disunion Senators and the President.
It is worth notice, that whilst this letter of the commissioners was published at length in the “Congressional Globe,” among the proceedings of the Senate, their previous letter to the President of the 28th December, and his answer thereto of the 31st, were never published in this so-called official register, although copies of both had accompanied his special message.
By this means the offensive letter was scattered broadcast over the country, whilst the letter of the President, to which this professed to be an answer, was buried in one of the numerous and long after published volumes of executive documents.
It is proper to advert to the allegation of the commissioners, in their letter of the 28th December, that the removal of Major Anderson to Fort Sumter was made in violation of pledges given by the President.
They also say that “since our arrival an officer of the United States, acting, as we are assured, not only without but against your orders, has dismantled one fort and occupied another, thus altering to a most important extent the condition of affairs under which we came.” As to the alleged pledge, we have already shown that no such thing existed.
It has never been pretended that it rests upon any pretext except the note of the 9th December, delivered to the President by the South Carolina members of Congress, and what occurred on that occasion.
All this has been already stated. But if additional evidence were wanting to refute the assertion of a pledge, this might be found in the statement published afterwards in Charleston by two of their number (Messrs. Miles and Keitt), who, in giving an account of this interview, do not pretend or even intimate that anything passed even in their opinion on either side in the nature of a pledge.
By what officer, then, was the assurance given to the commissioners since their arrival in Washington, that Major Anderson had acted not only without but against the President’s order?
It was none other than the Secretary of War himself, notwithstanding it was in obedience to his own instructions but a few days before that the removal was made from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter.
The James Buchanan Presidential Dollar Coin shows with an image of the president, circa 1860.