Buchanan won, but his term in office began inauspiciously. Two days after his inauguration, the Supreme Court handed down its long‐awaited decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford, a key case that addressed the status of African Americans in American society. The ruling of Chief Justice Roger Taney was hailed in the South but blasted by infuriated antislavery forces in the North. The decision further heightened the sectional tensions in the country.
The Dred Scott decision. As a slave, Dred Scott had been taken by his master from the slave state of Missouri to the free state of Illinois and then to the free territory of Wisconsin, where they lived during the 1830s. After his master died, Scott tried to buy his freedom; when that failed, he sought relief in the courts. He claimed that although he had been brought back to Missouri, his past residence in a free state and territory had made him a free person.
Taney's decision effectively rejected Scott's claim from the outset. He stated that Scott was a slave, not a citizen of either the United States or Missouri, and therefore had no right to bring suit in the federal courts. Taney put forward a racial justification for denying blacks, free or slave, the rights of citizenship. From the time the Constitution was ratified, African Americans were “regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations.” Further, Taney declared that the Missouri Compromise, which had created the concept of free and slave states based on geography, had been unconstitutional from its inception because it violated the Fifth Amendment's protection of property. In his view, slaves were nothing more than property, as southerners had always asserted they were.
The Dred Scott decision astonished antislavery northerners, who took their wrath out on Buchanan. Even though the president had not appointed the Taney Court and had no influence on its decision, he was seen as another puppet of the slaveowners. The fact that Buchanan was one of the signatories of the Ostend Manifesto (1854), which threatened an American takeover of Cuba after Spain had spurned an offer from the United States to buy the colony, seemed to give additional credence to this view. It was widely believed that the South was interested in acquiring Cuba to make it a slave state.
More trouble in Kansas. Despite his political troubles, Buchanan hoped to bring about a solution to the tensions in Kansas between the rival territorial governments. He suggested that an elected territorial convention create a constitution either permitting or prohibiting slavery and that Congress, after reviewing the document, vote on admitting Kansas as a state. The president failed to take into account the numerous instances of voting fraud in the territory's brief history. Although in the majority, free‐staters boycotted the election for the convention, and the proslavery delegates left in control drafted a constitution that permitted slavery. Through a territorial referendum limited to just the constitution's slavery provisions, also boycotted by the antislavery forces, the Lecompton Constitution was approved. The free‐state legislature called for another vote on the constitution, and the result was overwhelmingly negative. Although a proponent of popular sovereignty, Buchanan endorsed the Lecompton Constitution anyway as a way of paying back his southern supporters and tried to get Kansas admitted to the Union as a slave state. Congress, however, ordered yet another closely supervised election, and the voters rejected the Lecompton Constitution for a second time. With that vote, Kansas was no longer a burning issue in national politics. Buchanan's inept handling of the Kansas constitution succeeded only in alienating northern Democrats.
The Panic of 1857. An economic downturn in late 1857 hurt business conditions. California gold had inflated the nation's currency, and speculators had overly promoted railroads and real estate. Unemployment rose, and grain prices fell because of oversupply, but cotton prices dipped and then quickly recovered. The fact that the South weathered the depression much better than the North was taken by southerners as an important sign of the strength of the southern economy. The more radical individuals in the region, who were seriously considering secession, believed that the South could function independently of the North on cotton exports alone. Northern business interests blamed their problems squarely on Democratic policies, particularly the Tariff of 1857, which had lowered rates significantly. The panic gave the Republicans powerful ammunition for the upcoming presidential election: protective tariffs for business and liberal land laws for encouraging the creation of family farms.
The Lincoln‐Douglas debates. Senator Douglas had broken with Buchanan over the Lecompton Constitution and was a likely challenge to him for the Democratic nomination in 1860. In Douglas's crucial 1858 Senate reelection campaign, his Republican opponent was Abraham Lincoln, who had been long involved in first Whig and men Republican party politics but had little personal national experience. The debates between the two candidates revolved around their position on slavery. Although Lincoln favored limiting slavery to the states where it already existed and accepted that race made social and political equality for blacks impossible, Douglas was able to portray him as an abolitionist for all intents and purposes. When Douglas was asked how he could reconcile popular sovereignty with the Dred Scott decision, the best he could come up with was a weak argument that voters in a territory could reject laws that protected slaves as property. This concept became known as the Freeport Doctrine, after the town where the particular debate took place. Although Lincoln lost the election, he did become a national figure, popular in the North but hated in the South.
The Harpers Ferry incident. As the decade drew to a close, the North and South grew increasingly polarized. It became difficult to distinguish among those who wanted to abolish slavery immediately, those who simply opposed slavery, and those who were just against the extension of slavery. To southerners, particularly the more radical, anything less than unconditional acceptance of slavery was intolerable. The time for reasoned debate was quickly passing, and critical events escalated the tension.
In October 1859, the fiery John Brown, who had already gained national notoriety for his actions in Kansas, raided the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with the apparent objective of fomenting a slave revolt. Federal troops captured Brown and his small band; tried for and convicted of treason, he was hanged on December 2. Southerners soon learned that Brown had connections with prominent abolitionists. While many northerners hailed him as a martyr to the cause of freedom, southerners concluded that the raid on Harpers Ferry was not an isolated incident but part of a conspiracy to mobilize slaves in a mass insurrection. Feeling that their entire way of life was under imminent attack, some southerners looked to secession—leaving the Union—as the only solution. The outcome of the upcoming presidential election would be crucial.
The election of 1860. To counteract the image of the Republican party as the party of the abolitionists, the Republicans broadened their program to include a protective tariff, free 160‐acre homesteads from the public domain, and a more moderate stand on slavery. New York's William Seward, long known for his abolitionist views, was too radical a candidate; therefore, the Republicans nominated Lincoln.
The Democratic party, faced with the challenge of choosing someone who could appeal to all their factions, split in two. The Democrats' convention was in Charleston, South Carolina, the home of the late Calhoun and a hot bed of radical southern sentiment since the 1820s. A platform plank endorsing popular sovereignty was adopted, which prompted the delegates from the Deep South to bolt the convention; the remaining delegates could not agree on a nominee. The Democrats then moved to Baltimore and eventually selected Stephen Douglas for their candidate—the decision that split the party. Southern Democrats, who wanted federal protection of slavery in the territories, opted to run their own candidate, Buchanan's vice president, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. Meanwhile, a group of southern moderates joined with former northern Whigs to form the Constitutional Union party, and they chose John Bell, a Tennessee slaveowner who had opposed the Lecompton Constitution, for their candidate.
With the Democratic party divided, Lincoln's election was effectively guaranteed. Although Douglas did relatively well in the popular vote, Lincoln won every state north of the Mason‐Dixon Line, along with California and Oregon. The Deep South, from North Carolina to Texas, went to Breckinridge, while Bell took Virginia, Kentucky, and his home state of Tennessee.
From secession to Fort Sumter. Lincoln's election was the signal for secession. Not surprising, South Carolina left first (December 20, 1860), followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Representatives of the seven states met in Montgomery, Alabama, in February 1861 to form the Confederate States of America, draft a new constitution, and elect Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as their first president. Last‐minute efforts to compromise failed. Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky tried to work out an arrangement whereby owners of runaway slaves would be compensated for their loss and to amend the Constitution to bar the federal government from interfering with slavery in the South, but events had moved beyond compromise, and the Republicans rejected Crittenden's proposals in any event.
The crucial issue was no longer slavery but whether the southern states would be allowed to secede. By the time Lincoln took office in March, the Confederacy had already commandeered federal arsenals, post offices, government buildings and offices, and most military installations within its territory. Fort Sumter, located on an island in Charleston Harbor, was still in the hands of the United States. Buchanan had tried to send reinforcements and supplies to the fort but backed off when the relief ship was fired upon from the mainland shore. Lincoln tried another approach, announcing that he was sending in just food and medical supplies, not additional troops or ammunition. The South could not abide a continued Union presence in Charleston, and early on April 12, 1861, Confederate artillery opened fire on Fort Sumter. The U.S. forces surrendered the next day. The South had fired the first shot, and Lincoln called for seventy‐five thousand volunteers to suppress the insurrection. Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee joined the Confederacy during the next month. The Civil War had begun.