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Slavery, the Constitution, and The Presidency

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By Stuart Leibiger, Ph.D.


On March 4, 1857, outside the east front of the capitol building in Washington, D.C., Democrat James Buchanan of Pennsylvania took the oath of office as fifteenth president of the United States. Buchanan’s Inaugural Address alluded to a landmark decision soon to be handed down by the Supreme Court on the issue of slavery. Whatever the court ruled, Buchanan admonished, Americans must accept it as a final settlement of the controversy. Two days later, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney of Maryland delivered the much-anticipated opinion—a complete victory for the pro-slavery South. The Court ruled that Dred Scott, a Missouri slave whose master had temporarily taken him into a free state and a free territory, could not thereby claim his freedom. The most explosive part of the ruling declared that Congress could not exclude slavery from any western territory without violating the property rights of Southerners protected by the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution. Northern antislavery forces roared in anger, both against the ruling itself, and against the new president who had pre-endorsed the decision. Buchanan was accused of being a “Doughface,” a Northern man with Southern principles, who caved in to the South on the moral issue of slavery to further his own political career. Opponents even charged that Buchanan had advance knowledge of the ruling, and that he was part of a vast “Slave Power Conspiracy.” Buchanan, who believed that the Union could only be saved by allowing slavery into the territories and by stopping antislavery agitation, had indeed been secretly tipped off by his friend Justice Robert Grier.

If Buchanan thought taking sides would settle the slavery controversy once and for all, he was sorely mistaken. In framing the Constitution, the Founders resorted to compromise (for example, by counting three-fifths of slave populations in apportioning Congress), and evasion (the document does not even use the word slave). Presidents George Washington, James Monroe, and Millard Fillmore also avoided or compromised the issue, recognizing that it could tear the republic apart.

In the 1840s, President James K. Polk, in contrast, ignited the slavery debate by waging war against Mexico and acquiring land upon which the “peculiar institution” might spread. In 1854, President Franklin Pierce further stoked the fire when he signed the Kansas- Nebraska Act overturning the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Instead of being forever free, Kansas and Nebraska would now be organized as territories on the basis of popular sovereignty—the settlers themselves would decide in a referendum whether or not they wanted slavery.

Buchanan’s policies, like Polk’s and Pierce’s, only inflamed matters. When a pro-slavery government was fraudulently elected in Kansas, Buchanan again took the Southern side, supporting it as legitimate. The president’s course not only divided the Democrats along sectional lines, it also fueled the new Republican Party, a Northern organization dedicated to stopping the spread of slavery.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois won the White House, carrying every single Northern state except New Jersey. (Although he was not on the ballot in ten Southern states.) In response to Lincoln’s election, the Southern states seceded from the Union to create their own nation, the Confederate States of America. Buchanan, still in office during the winter of 1860-1861, argued that secession was unconstitutional, but that he as president was powerless to take decisive measures to combat it.

Abraham Lincoln always opposed slavery as an immoral institution that contradicted the Declaration of Independence and made American republicanism look hypocritical. He argued that the Founders had wisely placed slavery on the road to extinction, for example by banning it from the Northwest Territory in 1787, and by ending the international slave trade in 1808 (as soon as the Constitution permitted) under President Thomas Jefferson. In his 1858 Illinois senatorial election campaign, Lincoln tenaciously defended the right of African Americans to enjoy the fruits of their own labor, even when his Democratic opponent, Senator Stephen A. Douglas, played the race card by calling him a “Black Republican” abolitionist. With his back to the wall on the race issue, Lincoln still refused to concede the biological inferiority of blacks.

Nor would Lincoln back down from his opposition to the spread of slavery into the territories. His personal abhorrence of slavery did not, however, mean that he could strike at it as president. Although slavery, coupled with Southern assertion of states’ rights, caused the war, the North fought not to abolish slavery, but to uphold majority rule, to save the Union, and to preserve the world’s only democratic republic. Lincoln understood that if he moved against slavery prematurely, Northern Democrats might turn against the war, and that Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and Delaware (all border slave states) might join the South in rebellion. He also recognized that the president lacked the legal and constitutional authority to deprive slaveholders of their property without due process of law.

Unlike his predecessor, Lincoln stretched the powers of the presidency to what he saw as the constitutional limit to emancipate the slaves. He timed and justified emancipation, waiting until it became clear that the North could not win without emancipation, and defending it as a confiscation of enemy war material. The President had first tried unsuccessfully to persuade the loyal border states to accept gradual, compensated emancipation. When Confederate forces under Robert E. Lee invaded Maryland in August 1862, Lincoln made a promise to God that if Lee were driven back to Virginia, he would emancipate. After the Union victory in the Battle of Antietam in September, he kept his promise, issuing a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, followed by the final version on January 1, 1863. Since emancipation was a war measure, Lincoln could only emancipate behind Confederate lines, leaving slaves in loyal areas unaffected. Of course, emancipation meant little unless the North won the war. Lincoln now tenaciously fought for both Union and emancipation, refusing to back down from either goal, even when the war bogged down in the summer of 1864 and his reelection seemed unlikely. When last-minute Northern victories produced a landslide victory November, the Confederacy and slavery were doomed. For Lincoln, two problems remained: He still harbored doubts about emancipation’s legality, and blacks in the loyal slave states remained in bondage. Both problems were solved by the Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery, which the president doggedly pushed through Congress.

Lincoln, an adept public communicator, articulated the North’s expanded war aims in his Gettysburg Address by referencing the Declaration of Independence. He called for “a new birth of freedom,” and vowing that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, a true historical accident who had been vice president for only six weeks, took office upon Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865. He had become Lincoln’s 1864 running mate as a reward for his Unionism (he was the only Senator from a seceded state to remain loyal to the Union), and to send a message to the South that it was safe to lay down arms. Although Johnson claimed to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps by being lenient toward the defeated South, he actually went in a different direction.

A former poor white Democrat from the mountains of east Tennessee, Johnson hated rich planters, African-Americans, and an energetic federal government. He saw the poor whites of the South as the real victims of slavery, believing that they had been held down by a combination of planters and slaves. Johnson opposed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, granting citizenship and suffrage to African-Americans, respectively. Instead he pursued a policy of extreme lenience toward the defeated South, even supporting state governments staffed by former Confederate leaders that virtually reenslaved the freed people. Johnson obstructed Reconstruction laws so severely that he drove the Republicans in Congress to impeach him in 1867. The impeachment trial ended in acquittal, the prosecution having fallen one vote short of the two-thirds majority of the Senate needed for conviction. Had Johnson been convicted, it might have upset the balance of powers among the federal government’s branches and crippled the presidency, allowing Congress to get rid of chief executives it did not like.

Owing partly to Johnson’s encouragement, the South dug in its heels against any degree of black equality. Reconstruction thus became a sad chapter in American history, in which African Americans of the South briefly attained rights, only to see them swept away until the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century. The silver lining to Reconstruction was the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, passed in 1865, 1868, and 1870, but not permanently enforced for nearly one hundred years.


Dr. Stuart Leibiger is Associate Professor and History Department Chair at La Salle University. He is the author of Founding Friendship: George Washington, James Madison, and the Creation of the American Republic. In 2009, he was recognized as a “Distinguished Lecturer” by the Organization of American Historians.