James Buchanan’s Precarious Election

In 1856, only the Northerners who lived closest to the South could stop the North’s anti–Slave Power surge, newly institutionalized in the Republican Party. To stymie the Republicans, James Buchanan, son of the northern borderlands and presidential nominee of the National Democratic Party, needed to combine almost all of the Border North’s Electoral College votes with all of the South’s. But a coalition tipped so far southward could easily reignite Yankees’ hatred for Slave Power defenses. Before Buchanan even started his presidency, his cabinet selections, featuring a southern Camelot, foretold trouble ahead for a Yankee borderite who might not be Yankee enough.

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Buchanan’s Border North differed from the farther northern states as much as the Border South differed from the Lower South. The Border North, meaning free labor states adjoining slaveholding states, included Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Compared to Yankees who lived farther from the South, and especially New Englanders, Border Northerners voted for Democrats and southern proposals more often. Their southern North attracted fewer New England puritans and more Border Southerners. Among Northerners, they clung to slavery longer, legislated against free blacks more repressively, and would harbor more so-called Copperhead opponents of Lincoln’s Civil War. Particularly the Border North’s southernmost areas little differed from the Border South’s northernmost areas.

James Buchanan grew up in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, a scant ten miles north of slaveholding Maryland. He prospered as an adult in Lancaster, only another fifteen miles above the slavocracy’s border. No other important pre–Civil War Northerner lived closer to the South or befriended so many Southerners.

James Buchanan especially savored Southerners who emotionally resided where he did: on the edge of both sections. The lifelong bachelor’s most frequent Washington, D.C. roommate, U.S. Senator William R. King of Alabama, and his most frequent overnight guest in the White House, Secretary of the Treasury Howell Cobb of Georgia, were Lower South titans who detested Lower South extremists. Buchanan’s other intimates included a native Northerner who lived in the South (U.S. Senator John Slidell of Louisiana), two native Southerners who lived in the North (U.S. Representative J. Glancy Jones of Pennsylvania and Robert Tyler of Philadelphia), and an Indianian who owned slaves in Kentucky (U.S. Senator Jesse Bright). The president gave his most sensitive office (territorial governor of Kansas) to a native Pennsylvanian who had been a U.S. senator from Mississippi and lately had haunted New York City (Robert J. Walker).

James Buchanan found the line between North and South almost invisible. This Border Northerner had been a slaveholder the Border South way. In 1834, Buchanan bought two female slaves, aged five and twenty-two. He immediately signed their freedom papers, to take effect in seven years (in the case of the twenty-two-year-old) and twenty-three years (in the case of the five-year-old). These blacks, he anticipated, would serve as unpaid household help in the interim.1

Buchanan’s turtle-slow manumission was vintage Border South practice. By offering a slave freedom tomorrow in exchange for hard work today, border capitalists usually secured a decent profit—and a safer profit than permanent slavery yielded. A permanently enslaved border black, possessing no promise of future freedom to lose, would more likely light out for the nearby North.

Yet temporary slaves’ expectation of eventual freedom could whet hunger for freedom sooner. Then blacks might make a dash beyond slavery’s border. Such flights could make semislavery’s risks outweigh its profits. Then sales of Border South slaves to the Lower South could increase, along with prospects that the fifteen slave states would be sliced to eleven. That specter helped prod borderites to initiate both the Fugitive Slave Law and the Kansas-Nebraska Act and to use the edicts to provoke more crises still.

James Buchanan, gradual emancipator, experienced not only temporary slavery’s rewards but also its risks and its nation-shattering riots. The worst riot over semislavery occurred in Buchanan’s neighborhood, five years before the Pennsylvanian won the presidency. In 1851, a northern Maryland slaveholder, Edward Gorsuch, rode with his son into the rural hamlet of Christiana, Pennsylvania, located under fifteen miles from Buchanan’s Lancaster doorstep. Gorsuch demanded the return of his four runaway slaves, harbored in Christiana structures. His slaves and their rescuers, black and white, instead rained bullets on the intruders. Gorsuch was slain, his son badly wounded, his slaves never returned, and his killers never convicted.2

Gorsuch had had a Buchanan-like agreement with his border slaves. He had pledged to free them in some eight years, if they would work hard. But instead of settling for freedom eventually, Gorsuch’s slaves gambled on freedom now. They thereby pronounced semislavery insufferable and a semimaster befouled.

James Buchanan loathed the verdict. Border North slave rescuers and Border South fugitive slaves, this border man conceived, decimated property, order, and Union. In contrast, borderland gradual emancipators, Buchanan congratulated himself, followed Christian principles, the genial way. James Buchanan was a northern man with southern principles, if one means a Border North man with Border South principles.

Both sections shared his paternalistic principles. According to proslavery polemicists (and according to an especially dubious current historical wisdom), only the ownership of servants creates paternalism toward dependents. Supposedly, the employer of labor necessarily lacks paternalistic feelings toward his employee. But wealthy Anglo-Americans’ caring relationships with hired servants show that paychecks hardly forbid paternalism. Witness the famous upstairs-downstairs relationships in English grand houses, the intimate connections between upper-class Northerners and lifelong servants, and the paternalistic regime in the nineteenth-century Lowell (Massachusetts) Mill.

North or South, England or America, what counted was the caring, not whether the superior paid or owned the inferior. Buchanan’s paternalistic, lifelong relationship with his beloved paid housekeeper, Miss Hetty, epitomized the hardly exclusively southern paternalistic ideal.3 This patriarch, residing an easy two hours’ horseback ride from the South, saw himself and his southern friends as equally responsible for their domestic folk, white or black, paid or owned, manumitted someday or always enslaved.

Buchanan thus instinctively understood his southern pals’ outrage when abolitionists called them monsters. To hear zealots tell it, Buchanan’s southern favorites smashed black families and raped black favorites. But his friends, the Pennsylvanian conceived, would no more sell or sexually assault their family friends than he would fire or violate Miss Hetty. So when Buchanan’s roommate William R. King raged in 1837 that, unless Northerners silenced foul-tongued abolitionists, “we will separate from them,” the Pennsylvanian credited the threat. Buchanan meant to deter “a catastrophe” that “may come sooner than any of us anticipate.”4

Like many pre–Civil War aspirants to save the Union, Buchanan’s defining act of deterrence came in the Gag Rule Controversy of the 1830s. When petitions to abolish slavery first flooded congressmen’s mails, the then most powerful Northern Democrat, New York’s Martin Van Buren, offered a compromised way of silencing debate. Van Buren would admit antislavery petitions for congressional consideration, send them to committee, and there bury them.

Buchanan, who lived much closer to the South than did the New Yorker, would instead trash the petitions before they reached committee. But this borderland appeaser stopped short of South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun. Calhoun insisted that Congress must not even receive antislavery petitions. In a representative democracy, Buchanan responded, representatives must at least receive constituents’ prayers for action. Pennsylvania’s U.S. senator would do almost anything to calm rightfully outraged southern friends. But they must allow him to stop slightly short of enraging Border North constituents.5

That borderland way to avert civil war informed Buchanan’s appeasements of indignant Southerners throughout his ascending career as U.S. representative, U.S. senator, minister to Russia, minister to England, and secretary of state. Despite that superb training for the presidency and despite Buchanan’s long-standing sympathy for Southerners, Southern Democrats preferred other candidates for the party’s presidential nomination in 1856. Southerners vaguely sensed what the secession crisis would prove: that despite his empathy for Southerners, Buchanan remained narrowly a Yankee. Buchanan seldom read broadening books and traveled for pleasure less. His conversation usually centered on Lancaster enterprise (he was a rich lawyer) and on Pennsylvania politics (he manipulated patronage very successfully).

Buchanan’s tastes also betrayed the Yankee puritan. While he was fond of liquor, no one considered him a drunkard. While he was a notorious flirt, no one called him a womanizer. While he gave the merriest presidential parties in decades, he banned cards and dancing from the White House. This wealthy Yankee accounted for every penny and advised southern friends to hoard their every nickel. That brand of Yankee rectitude stopped miles short of looking down on slaveholding. But slaveholders somewhat kept their secrets from (and sometimes privately ridiculed) this slightly judgmental, slightly pompous, slightly humorless, slightly fastidious, slightly ponderous, slightly inflexible white-haired northern materialist.

In early 1856, Southern Democrats most regretted that Buchanan was not President Franklin Pierce or U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas.6 Those Northern Democrats had given slaveholders the Kansas-Nebraska Act, while Buchanan served as minister to England. Most Northern Democrats, however, preferred Buchanan precisely because of the Pennsylvanian’s noninvolvement with the Kansas-Nebraska Act. These Yankee politicos feared that Pierce or Douglas would turn 1856 into a repetition of 1854, when northern voters had purged congressional supporters of the Slave Power’s favorite law. At the Democratic National Convention, fifteen stalemated ballots proved that Southern Democrats’ two preferred Northern Democrats could not be nominated. So Southerners settled for their third choice, the largely asectional James Buchanan.

In his ensuing campaign for the presidency, Buchanan made the nonsectional case he cared most about: saving the Union.7 By 1856, the Republican Party had emerged from the demise of the Whigs as most ex–Northern Whigs’ party of choice. Anti–Slave Power had also emerged as most Republicans’ issue of choice. If Republicans won on that insulting issue, the Pennsylvanian believed, resentful Southerners would secede before the president-elect could be inaugurated. Republicans could win without a single southern electoral vote, Buchanan correctly saw, if they swept his own Pennsylvania, a couple of other Border North states, and all states farther northward.

Buchanan also correctly saw that the Border North could best stop the Republicans and that civil war would most batter the borderlands. Maryland and Pennsylvania, he exclaimed, would “suffer more than any other members of the Confederacy.” Thus only “the grand and appalling issue of union or disunion should matter.”8

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For Buchanan’s issue to matter decisively, at least Border Northerners had to be convinced that the South would secede if a Republican won the 1856 presidential election. But that disunion scenario did not seem then (and does not seem now) altogether certain. True, a prime provoker of secession, southern hatred of Yankee holier-than-thou attitudes, reached scornful heights in 1856, boosted by Republicans’ charge of Slave Power barbarism. Still, the towering roadblock to disunion, most Southerners’ love of Union and terror of civil war, was also omnipresent, and very obvious to Yankees who considered secessionists but blowhards and Buchanan but a scaremonger. Moreover, Southerners’ favorite alternative to disunion, the National Democratic Party, remained alive and well and perhaps still capable of furthering southern rule through the nation’s majority party.

The lack of an organized southern effort for supposedly inevitable secession also undermined Buchanan’s scary prophecy. In the fall of 1856, secessionists’ only visible planning looked abortive. After Virginia’s Henry Wise invited eleven fellow southern governors to a mid-October conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, to plot strategy in case Buchanan lost, empty seats dominated the conference table. Only the governor from North Carolina (who opposed disunion and had but to step across the street) and from (where else!) South Carolina came to hear Wise’s irresolute gasconade.9

If northern voters had been privy to secessionists’ private mail in 1856, they would have been even less convinced that revolution loomed ahead. Compared to the conspiratorial correspondence that had occurred in 1850–52 and would occur in 1860–61, disunionists scarcely corresponded, much less plotted, with each other in 1856.10 Southern extremists expected Buchanan to win, making disunion premature.

With no preexisting revolutionary organization to push the southern majority toward disunion, enough Southerners would have to consider disunion necessary. But if a Republican won the presidency, would the winner necessarily menace slavery? When debate swirled on that question in 1860–61, the elected Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, had a long, clear record of at least moral opposition to slavery. In contrast, John C. Frémont, Republicans’ 1856 candidate, had no record on much of anything. Republicans nominated the charismatic “Pathfinder” because of his fabled explorations out west, not because he ever called slavery iniquitous.11

With Frémont silent on slavery’s morality and offering no antislavery plan, Southerners could only scrutinize the Republican Party’s position. Republicans agreed that the Slave Power menaced white men’s republicanism outside the South; that the menace must be contained inside the South; and that the Missouri Compromise’s containment must be restored. Republicans also concurred on slavery’s inequity. Their 1856 platform linked the South’s Peculiar Institution with Mormon polygamy as a “a twin relic of barbarism.” Republicans here repeated Charles Sumner’s slur. By calling slaveholders twins of Mormons who enjoyed several wives, the Republican platform alluded to supposed paternalists who allegedly bedded their slaves. The party’s platform pledged to bar the Slave Power from new U.S. territory. Republicans would thus jail the supposed horror inside old southern states, like a rat in a cage. But would they inject antislavery poison inside the imprisoned South?

Republicans seldom answered. Their coalition of racist reactionaries and colorblind radicals, nativists and foreigners, and lower-class Democrats and upper-class Whigs only agreed that the Slave Power must be contained. A march beyond containment might split the alliance before the Slave Power had been imprisoned.

A premature advance also would throw away the Republicans’ politically brilliant half-adoption of antislavery. By the mid-1850s, antislavery extremists had convinced most Northerners that slavery was an abomination. That crucial triumph, along with abolitionists’ equally crucial provocation of a furiously aggressive southern defensiveness, turned Yankee extremists into indispensable actors in causing the Civil War. But antislavery extremism never conquered the prewar North’s racism, or its dread of civil war, or its conviction that forcible intervention inside the South, to emancipate the slaves, would be unconstitutional. To bring antislavery into the antebellum mainstream, a moderate form of the radicalism became mandatory.

Mainstream Republicans’ moderating impulse took the form of opposition to the southern zealotry that northern zealots had provoked, while keeping Yankee extremists themselves at arm’s length. Moderate Republicans demanded that the Slave Power’s defenses must be stopped from polluting white men’s republican procedures. But Republicans stopped short of demanding that the federal government impose freedom for blacks on the contained South. By insisting on the immediate end of the Slave Power’s supposed enslavement of white citizens, while only vaguely talking about ultimate freedom for black slaves (say in a hundred years, speculated Abraham Lincoln), Republicans played on Northerners’ perception that the South’s late national proslavery victories fastened shackles on northern whites more infuriatingly than on southern blacks.

When the more radical Republicans occasionally and gingerly explained how they would move from containing the Slave Power to attaining slavery’s ultimate extinction (Lincoln never did explain), they usually stressed that Southerners must do the emancipating. Radical Republicans’ main postcontainment plan involved using federal patronage to encourage the South’s own politicians to build a Southern Republican Party. Then home-grown Southern Republicans might bring forth what Salmon P. Chase called a “vast… dormant mass of antislavery feeling at the South.”12

Yet as Ohio’s Chase knew well, a vast antiblack feeling helped keep antislavery feeling dormant, North as well as South and especially in both sections’ borderlands. Against that paralyzing racism, Republicans offered only the hope that the federal government would remove freed blacks from America. The colonization strategy recognized that almost all potential Border South Republicans favored removing free blacks from their states, including the Blairs of Missouri and Cassius Clay of Kentucky. As Wisconsin’s U.S. Senator James Doolittle explained, colonization of free blacks would help “our friends in Missouri, Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Virginia” to emancipate “and Republicanize these states.”13

The colonization strategy also helped distinguish radical abolitionists from moderate Republicans. Garrisonian antislavery campaigns assaulted colonizationists as vehemently as slaveholders. These radicals called expelling blacks as repulsive as enslaving the unfortunates.

By embracing supposedly repulsive colonization, Republicans completed the task of drawing the fangs from antislavery radicalism, yet still claiming its moral glory. They sought ultimate freedom from slaveholders for blacks—but immediate freedom from the Slave Power for whites. They favored emancipation in the South—but only if Southerners became the emancipators. They would lure southern emancipators—but only with federal patronage. They would help allay southern racism—but only with freedmen’s federal tickets to Africa.

The most secessionist Southerners considered this half endorsement of radical abolitionism nothing short of the whole dread thing. Southern social control demanded that antislavery agitation be silenced, lest slaves or nonslaveholders be exposed to heresy. Now a Southern Republican Party, financed by federal patronage, might pry open the closed society. “Did you ever expect to see the day,” Virginia Congressman William O. Goode privately asked a friend, “when the success of a presidential candidate would probably fill every Federal office in the South—with a Free Soiler?” Goode, a charter member of the F Street Mess that had pressured Stephen A. Douglas on Kansas-Nebraska, would secede rather than allow “Black Republicanism … to plant and rear their party in the South.” Since “everything must be done to prevent a result so fatal,” climaxed Goode, we must teach “our people… a proper appreciation of the danger.”14

A proper appreciation of the Southern Republican menace would have been as crucial to secessionists’ success in 1856 as it would become in 1860. All other possible Republican menaces to slavery—abolishing territorial slavery, repealing fugitive slave laws, prohibiting slave sales between slave states, forbidding the institution in federal forts inside slave states—all such new laws would require Republican dominion over both houses of Congress as well over the White House. Republicans had as little chance to win congressional majorities in 1856 as they would in 1860. So southern unionists’ prime cry in 1860—that disunion could safely wait until Congress passed an “overt act” against slavery—would have been omnipresent in 1856 and to even more effect, for the National Democratic Party then still existed, to win the next congressional election.

Technically, a Republican president’s power to menace slavery by appointing Southern Republicans also required a congressional majority (to approve the appointments). But Congress had never rejected every presidential nomination; and Southerners would have considered any Republican officeholder beholden to the enemy. Nor could Northern Democrats help Southerners stop every appointment, lest they be the more dammed as slaves of the Slave Power. Thus southern unionists almost never protested that Congress would save the South from Republican local appointments. That power a Republican president would have, almost everyone assumed. If a president’s appointing power inside the South could immediately menace slavery, the unionist case for awaiting congressional “overt acts” would be irrelevant.

But in 1856 as William O. Goode conceded, southern voters still lacked widespread understanding of the Southern Republican danger. Here as everywhere, the secessionists’ problem, if Frémont had won in 1856, would have been that the final boosts to disunionism had not yet developed. In early 1860, a major national crisis over Northern Republicans’ Southern Republican strategy would advertise the menace. So too, during the 1860 election campaign, Republicans would run an explicitly antislavery (in theory) presidential candidate, the National Democratic Party would split in half, and Lower South governors would commence a conspiratorial correspondence. Even then, securing secession against the wishes of a vast majority of southern whites would become a tense adventure. In 1856, an even tenser escapade would have had to feature even wilder scenes.

Still, the 1856 South contained some wild secessionists, insisting that southern honor and safety required defiance of an elected Republican president. Virginia’s U.S. Senator James Mason, for example, pledged that if Frémont won, “one course remains for the South: Immediate, absolute, and eternal separation.”15 No 1856 bet against Mason, yet another powerful resident of the F Street Mess, would have been a sure thing. But four years before Lincoln’s election, Buchanan’s trouble, as he tried to convince Northerners that only his election could save the Union, remained that disunion, if he lost, looked uncertain.

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At the 1856 polls, Buchanan’s scaremongering only worked inside and near the South. Democrats won 56 percent of southern popular votes and every southern electoral vote except Know-Nothing Maryland’s. In contrast, Buchanan secured only 41 percent of Northerners’ ballots (compared to Republicans’ 45 percent) and only three of ten northern electoral votes.

In the North no less than in the nation, Buchanan support tilted southward. In the six free labor states bordering on a slave labor state, Democrat’s Border North presidential candidate secured 111,000 votes more than Frémont, while losing only Ohio. In the rest of the North, the Republicans secured 239,000 votes more than Buchanan, while losing only California.

The farthest southern sections of Border North states gave Buchanan his saving northern margin. In Pennsylvania, Frémont won all but one of the state’s northernmost counties (and two-thirds of the tier’s popular votes). But Buchanan won all the state’s southernmost counties (again by a twothirds majority). In the two tiers taken together, Buchanan secured 9000 more votes. So too, Buchanan’s overwhelming majorities in southern Illinois gave him more votes than Frémont’s overwhelming majorities in northern Illinois. A similar outcome allowed southern Indiana’s Buchanan supporters to whip northern Indiana’s Frémont supporters. No other national mandate bent further in the sectional minority’s direction.

The winner’s cabinet appointments furthered the image of a barely northern president, bending toward the South. Buchanan, seeking a more sectionally balanced image, gave his most prestigious post, secretary of state, to Michigan’s Lewis Cass. But Cass, in his midseventies and feeling his age, never amounted to much, especially not compared to Buchanan’s lively southern appointments.

Four of the seven cabinet posts went to energetic young Southerners. The youthful sports came to be called the Directory. Georgia’s Howell Cobb, a third of a century younger than Cass, became Buchanan’s secretary of the treasury and the Directory’s unofficial prime minister. Cobb, although barely thirty years old in Compromise of 1850 times, had precociously earned national fame by joining Robert Toombs and Alexander Stephens in a conquering Georgia unionist triumvirate. The trio had stopped midcentury secession as cold as Henry Wise would halt the Southern Know-Nothing movement in 1855.

The rotund Cobb wore his southernness lightly (he would free his darkies, he loved to tell Yankees, if only his family friends needed his kindly direction less totally). Cobb also displayed his love of Union ostentatiously, his capacity to dine robustly, and his taste for picky administrative labor ravenously. Buchanan loved the jolly workaholic. A Yankee could trust the Union, breathed the Border Northerner, in such a scrupulous Southerner’s neutral hand. But in the Kansas crisis, Buchanan would discover that Cobb, his supposedly saving southern neutral, tipped to the South. Similarly, in the secession crisis, the Directory would discover that the president, their allegedly saving northern neutral, tipped to the North.

Less worthy of the president’s trust than Cobb (and far less influential) was the less amiable, less middle-of-the-road, less drudging, less scrupulous secretary of war, Virginia’s John Floyd. During the Buchanan years, corruption would befoul Floyd’s department. The secretary of war escaped even more public outcry because his most important military act, secretly transferring thousands of stands of arms from northern to southern armories in case of secession, never became public knowledge.



President James Buchanan (left), his head cocked at its customary odd angle, as if announcing his atypical Northern Border political leanings—leanings still not ultimately southern enough for the Lower South’s Secretary of the Treasury Howell Cobb (right), the president’s favorite youthful, jovial southern moderate. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (both images).

Buchanan’s choice for secretary of the interior, Mississippi’s wealthy Jacob Thompson, emitted none of his fiery southernness unless a Yankee moralist damned his ethics. Then Thompson could become one mean antagonist, as the Pennsylvania-born Robert Walker, temporarily a Mississippi resident and U.S. senator, had discovered. But in the cocoon of the Buchanan circle, Thompson delighted the chief executive with his asectional hilarity, with his convivial wife, Kate, and with his talented niece, Miss Wiley. That maiden’s snow-white hand on the harp often strummed away Washingtonians’ broodings about political clouds.

Along with Tennessee’s Aaron Brown, Buchanan’s postmaster general and yet another southern grandee fond of sumptuous parties, Jacob Thompson controlled the most important patronage-dispensing departments. The two secretaries filled the federal government’s southern posts with proslavery Southrons. They thus demonstrated how much had been gained, in keeping Southern Republicans out of office.

To the Directory’s southern political direction, its wives added southern social dominance. Especially Howell Cobb, the epitome of Buchanan’s wish for an asouthern salvation of the Union, adored the new southern dominance in Washington parlors. Previously, this man huge in girth, in political power in the House, in material possessions (he owned well over a thousand slaves), and in domestic standing (he was wonderfully married to a Lamar, that southwestern clan oozing with wealth, influence, and respectability)—this man who seemed to have everything had ached for what he did not have. His congressional power, even when he was a Speaker, had fallen short of senatorial, cabinet, and presidential sway. His domestic life had also fallen short of his design. His wife, a potentially sterling asset in Washington society, had relished their plantation Big House too much to accompany Congressman Cobb to muddy Washington very often.

But after Cobb’s appointment as secretary of the treasury and his standing as second only to the president in cabinet councils, Mrs. Cobb cherished her role as second most important queen bee in the capital, behind only Harriet Lane, the bachelor president’s niece and hostess. Mary Ann Lamar Cobb called Miss Lane “the model of an American girl,” the Old Squire “the greatest President we have had since Washington and Jackson,” and White House parties “splendid, in spite of the damp air.”16

Mrs. Cobb’s new zest for her husband’s humid town sprang the treasury secretary from his cramped boardinghouse. For the then princely sum of $1800 a year, he rented a Washington mansion. The puritanical president, upon glimpsing the extravagant pile, twitted Cobb for displaying too many riches. I’m not rich, responded the secretary. Then your wife must be, smiled Buchanan. The two Cobbs twitted the president right on back for spoiling some Washington fun by barring cards whenever Miss Lane went out to party.17

The joshing spread from Buchanan and his southern dominated cabinet to the Southerners who often commanded the U.S. Senate. Buchanan’s old comrade, Louisiana’s U.S. Senator John Slidell, together with Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis, Alabama’s Clement C. Clay, Jr., and their spouses, shared the cabinet’s festivities. From these rural titans’ urban mansions, their favorite slaves carried notes back and forth. A missive from Mary Ann Lamar Cobb, for example, asked Mrs. Clement Clay to “please inform your liege lord that he missed an elegant breakfast this morning.” Senator Clay lost out on “beefsteak, mutton chops, sausages, Georgia biscuits,” and “fresh milk from our own cow.” A senator would have to “go far, even to Alabama,” teased Mrs. Cobb, “to get a better breakfast.” So too, Kate Thompson informed Howell Cobb that “the president says he will dine with me today at 5 o’clock—and you must come and join us, …for you cannot get dinner today at the White House.” As for the bachelor at the center of the Directory’s bonhomie, Varina Davis knitted the president some slippers, to remind him “of these who love you.”18

During Washington’s long, hot summers, Buchanan and his loving Directory moved southward, to the cool mountain air of White Sulphur Springs in western Virginia. Headquarters became not the White House but the Old White Hotel (the predecessor to the Greenbrier). There, sixteen hundred guests, mostly Southerners, joined Washington’s southern celebrities in whirling around the president. It was all so hearty, so happy, so heartwarming for provincials who had lately been so dammed by the insufferable Charles Sumner.

Their revenge provided yet another deterrent to disunion. Washington’s southern potentates had no desire to leave a town that had turned enchanted, not at least until James Buchanan had disappeared. For disunion to achieve full steam while the capital remained under Buchanan’s watch, the impetus would have to come from outside the Washington southern establishment that cherished the Old Squire.

Yet southern devotees’ delight threatened the Pennsylvanian’s presidency. In 1856, Buchanan’s northern electoral base had been precarious. To win the White House in 1860, his Republican foes would only have to retain their newly won northern terrain and add a few thousand Border North votes. Any further evidence that the southern minority dominated the majoritarian republic could boost Republicans’ almost victorious revolution against Slave Power dominion over the top. Despite the danger, James Buchanan began a stunning prosouthern intervention where no president or president-elect had dared trod, before he even issued his suspect Inaugural Address.

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