Without change of position, without recantation of principle, without abatement even of declared party doctrine, honestly executing only the high mandate of the Constitution, he could turn from the old issues and take up the new. A single stride, and from the flying leader of a discomfited rout he might become the mailed hero of an overpowering host. Tradition, patriotism, duty, the sleepless monition of a solemn official oath, all summoned him to take this step, and the brilliant example set by President Jackson—an incident forever luminous in American history—assured him of the plaudits of posterity.
Unfortunately for himself and for his country, President Buchanan had neither the intellectual independence nor the courage required for such an act of moral heroism. Of sincere patriotism and of blameless personal rectitude, he had reached political eminence by slow promotion through seniority, not by brilliancy of achievement. He was a politician, not a statesman. Of fair ability, and great industry in his earlier life, the irresolution and passiveness of advancing age and physical infirmity were now upon him. Though from the free-State of Pennsylvania, he saw with Southern eyes and heard with Southern ears, and had convinced himself that the South was acting under the impulse of resentment arising from deliberate and persistent injuries from the North.
The fragment of an autograph diary of John B. Floyd, Secretary of War, affords the exact evidence of the temper in which President Buchanan officially confronted the rebellion of the Southern States. The following are extracts from entries, on several days, beginning with November 7, 1860, the day following the Presidential election:
WASHINGTON CITY, November 7, 1860.
... The President wrote me a note this evening, alluding to a rumor which reached the city to the effect that an armed force had attacked and carried the forts in Charleston harbor. He desired me to visit him, which I did, and assured him that the rumor was altogether without foundation, and gave it as my opinion that there was no danger of such an attempt being made. We entered upon a general conversation upon the subject of disunion and discussed the probabilities of it pretty fully. We concurred in the opinion that all indications from the South looked as if disunion was inevitable. He said that whilst his reason told him there was great danger, yet his feelings repelled the conviction of his mind.
Judge Black, the Attorney-General, was present during a part of the conversation, and indicated an opinion, that any attempt at disunion by a State should be put down by all the power of the Government.
November 9 ... A Cabinet meeting was held as usual at I o’clock; all the members were present, and the President said the business of the meeting was the most important ever before the Cabinet since his induction into office.