Jeremiah Black To the Public

I have just returned from Washington, from the Library of Congress, where I found many interesting and useful sources.  What is sad is that, in most cases, I will be able to quote only a few words from these sources, not whole paragraphs.  In an effort to right that wrong, I attach here my rough transcript of a document entitled “To the Public” in the papers of Jeremiah Black.  Black was Stanton’s friend and colleague in the Buchanan cabinet.  Not long after Stanton’s death, articles appeared talking about Stanton as an “anti-Buchanan” man, saying that he had argued with Buchanan, threatened to resign, to force Buchanan to defend the South Carolina forts.  Black was drafting a response to those articles, in early 1870, but for some reason never published it, perhaps because it was “overtaken by events” when Henry Wilson published an article about Stanton in February 1870, an article to which Black responded at length.

“To the Public” is interesting, I think, in giving the Buchanan/Black version of the last few weeks of the Buchanan administration, in arguing that Buchanan really had no choice other than to do what he did.

“Since the death of Mr. Stanton some newspaper writers have revived the scandalous accounts which began to be perpetrated I think in 1863 concerning his conduct while a member of Mr. Buchanan’s cabinet.  It is stated that he came into that administration with views entirely opposed to those of the President and the men who were his colleagues all of whom except Messrs Holt and Dix were in favor of the Southern Confederacy and ready to sacrifice the Union–that supported by these two he bullied the rest–that he terrified the President by threats of resignation into measures which otherwise would not have been thought of–that he urged immediate war upon the seceding states to crush out the rebellion–that though defeated in this by the treason of his associates he did carry with a high hand other points of policy which eventually saved the country–that these hardy displays of hostility to the administration which trusted him he promoted the interests and won the gratitude of its enemies.

His political attitude towards the Buchanan administration previous to his appointment as Attorney General is wholly misunderstood or else willfully misrepresented.  He believed as firmly as we did that the only hope of salvation for the country was in the election of Breckinridge to the Presidency.  He was fully with us at every step of the Kansas question and no man felt a more loathing contempt than he did for the knavery of the Abolitionists in refusing to vote upon the Lecompton Constitution when nothing but a vote was needed to expel slavery from the new state and thus terminate the dispute by deciding it in the way they pretended to wish.  He wholly denied Mr. Douglas’s notions and he blamed him severely for the unreasonable and mischievous schism which he had created in the party.  The Know Nothingism of Bell and Everett found no favor in his eyes.  In the canvass of 1860 he regarded the salvation of the country as hanging upon the forlorn hope of Breckinridge’s election.  We knew the Abolitionists to be the open and avowed enemies of the Constitution and the Union and thought the Republicans would [necessarily] be corrupted by their alliance with them.  As we saw the march of these combined forces upon the Capitol we felt that the institutions of our country were in as much peril as Rome was when the Gauls were pouring over the broken defenses of the city.  Whether we were right or wrong is not the question now.  It is enough to say that Mr. Stanton shared these apprehensions fully.  He more than shared them, to some extent he inspired them, for he knew Mr. Lincoln personally and the account he gave of him was anything but favorable.

The 6th of November came and Mr. Lincoln was legally chosen President by the electoral machinery of the Constitution though the majority of the popular vote was against him by more than a million.  The question was now to be tested by actual experiment whether a party which existed only in a section and which was organized on the sole principle of hostility to the interests and feelings of the other could or would administer the federal government in a righteous spirit of justice; or whether the predictions of our great statesmen for twenty years must be verified that the Abolitionists when they got into power would disregard their sworn duty to the Constitution break down the judicial authorities and claim obedience to their own mere will as ‘higher law’ than the law of the land.  The danger was greatly aggravated by the criminal conduct of large bodies in the South and particularly in South Carolina where preparations were openly made for rebellion.  What was the federal Executive to do in these circumstances?  Make war?  He had neither authority or means to do that and Congress would not give him the one or the other.  Should we compromise the dispute?  He could offer nothing and make no pledges which would not be repudiated by the new administration.  Could he mediate between the parties?  Both would refuse his umpiring for both were as hostile to him as they were to one another.  Nevertheless he was bound to do them the best service he could in spite of their teeth; and that service consisted in preserving the peace of the nation.  It was his especial and most imperative duty not to embroil the incoming administration by a civil war which his successor might be unwilling to approve or to prosecute.  It was undoubtedly right to leave the President elect and his advisors in a situation where they could take their choice between compromise and fighting..  In fact Mr. Lincoln was in favor of the former if his inaugural be any sign of his sentiments.  This first six weeks of his administration [crossed out]

The mind of no man was more deeply involved with these opinions than Mr. Stanton’s.  The idea never entered his head–certainly never passed his lips–that the President ought to make war upon states, to put the whole people out of the protection of the laws, and expose them all to indiscriminate slaughter as public enemies because some individuals among them had done or threatened to do what was inconsistent with their obligations to the United States.  He knew very well that no such thing was either legally or physically possible.  General Scott had reported officially that five companies constituted the whole available force which could be sent to the South for any purpose offensive or defensive.  Is it possible that Mr. Stanton would have undertaken to conquer the South with half a regiment?  He was thoroughly convinced that a war at that time, of that kind and under those circumstances would not only fire the Southern heart but give to the secessionists the sympathy of all the world and ultimately insure their success while it could not help but cripple disgrace and ruin the cause of the Union.  Nor did he feel pleasure in the anticipation of any civil war between the two sections of the country.  From the standpoint which he then occupied he saw that war was disunion; it was blood conflagration terror tears public debt and general corruption of morals ending at last not in the union of the states but the subjugation of some to the despotic will of the others. He was apt to take a somber view of things and he looked at the dark side of this subject.  The glory profit and plunder of the political distinction and pride of power which brighten it now were not included in his prospective survey.

On the 20th of November I answered the President’s questions concerning his legal powers and duties; holding that the ordinances of secession were mere nullities, that the seceding states were and would be as much in the Union as ever; that the federal executive was bound there as well as elsewhere to execute the laws to hold the public property & to collect the revenue; that if the means & machinery furnished by law for these purposes were inadequate he could not adopt others and usurp powers which had not been delegated . . . . This is the ‘opinion’ which has since been so often so much and so well abused denounced and vilified.  Mr. Stanton did not stultify himself by denying the plain obvious and simple truths which it expressed.  The paper was shown him before it went to the President and after a slight alteration suggested by himself he not only approved but applauded it enthusiastically. . . .

Soon after this General Cass retired; I was requested to take the State Department and Mr. Stanton was appointed Attorney General upon my declaring that I was unwilling to leave the care of certain causes pending in the Supreme Court to any hands but his.  This appointment alone without other proof ought to satisfy any reasoning mind that all I have said of Mr. Stanton’s sentiments must be true.  No man in his sober senses can believe that I would have urged or that Mr. Buchanan would have made the appointment if we had not both known with perfect certainty that he agreed with us entirely on those fundamental doctrines of constitutional law to which we were committed.  the faintest suspicion of the contrary would have put the attorney general’s office as far beyond his reach as the throne of France.  We both knew him for what he professed to be–a firm friend of the Union –a devout believer in the Constitution–a faithful man who would not violate his oath of office by willful disobedience to the laws.  I am still convinced that he did not deceive us.  If he abandoned those principles in 1862 the change, however sudden and unaccountable, is not satisfactory evidence that he was an imposter and a hypocrite in 1860.

He did not find Mr. Holt and General Dix contending alone (or contending at all) the President and the rest of the Administration.  Mr. Holt on the 3d of March 1861 appended to his letter of resignation a strong expression of his gratitude for the ‘firm and generous support’ which Mr. Buchanan had constantly extended to him and pays a warm tribute to the ‘enlightened statesmanship and unsullied patriotism’ of the outgoing President.  General Dix was not there at all when Mr. Stanton cam in.  He was appointed a month afterwards when there was no disagreement in the Cabinet.  He took up his residence at the President’s house as a member of his family and remained there during the whole time of his service as Head of the Treasury Department.  He performed his duties faithfully firmly and in a way which met with universal approbation.  I do not recollect that he had one word of serious controversy either with the President or with any body else.  If therefore Mr. Stanton was at any time engaged in dragooning the President and hectoring his colleagues he could not have had Mr. Holt and General Dix for his coadjutors.

There were disputes and serious disagreements in the Cabinet in the period of Mr. Stanton’s service but his share in them has not been truly stated.  I am not writing the history of those times and therefore I say nothing of what others did or forbore to do except so far as may be necessary to show Mr. Stanton’s acts and opinions in their true light.

Before the election it was determined that the forts in Charleston harbor should be strengthened so as to make them impregnable. . . . At length the President produced his decision in the form of an answer to the Commissioners.  While it was far from satisfactory to the Southern members it filled us with consternation and grief.  Then came the desperate struggle of one alone to do what all had failed to effect.  It was painful in the extreme but unexpectedly short & decisive.  The President gave up his first ground, yielded the points on which he had seemed most tenuous; the answer to South Carolina was substantially changed and it was agreed that Fort Sumter should have men and provisions.

During these discussions Mr. Stanton was always firm and true but the part he took was by no means a leading one.  He said many times that he was there only that I might have two votes instead of one.  On no one occasion was there the slightest conflict between him and me.  He exhibited none of the coarseness for which his later friends give him so much credit.  He never spoke without the greatest respect for his colleagues and the profoundest deference to the President.  He said no word to the President about resigning.  He told me that he would resign if I did; but when certain concessions were made to my wishes he expressed himself perfectly satisfied.  He did not furnish one atom of the influence which brought the president round on the answer to South Carolina.  Nor did he ever propose or carry any measure of his own directly or indirectly relating to the secession troubles.  He uniformly professed to be as anxious for the preservation of the public peace as any man there.

It would be a wrong to the memory of Mr. Stanton not to add that so far as I know he never gave countenance or encouragement to those fabulous stories of his behavior.  All the facts within my personal knowledge show that he had no share in those fabrications.  Soon after his appointment as Secretary of War some of them appeared in the London Spectator.  His attention was called to the article with a request that he would publicly contradict it.  His answer was that every body must know it to be a mere tissue of lies; it was too absurd to be worthy of notice; and he undertook to explain how by whom and for what purpose the falsehood had been got up.  I was bound then and am now to believe that he was free from all blame in the matter except for a silence which I think has been more prejudicial to his own fame than to that of his early political associates.”

End quotation.  I look forward to the day when the Library has this and other documents in the Black papers, the Welles papers, the Johnson papers, “up” online for all to see.