At a time of national crisis, with the very future of the Union at stake, President Buchanan could've risen to the occasion and proposed a bold, radical solution for dealing with the vexed issue of slavery. But he did no such thing. Instead, in his fourth annual message to Congress in 1860, he put all the blame for the nation's constitutional problems firmly on Northern abolitionists.
In his speech Buchanan accuses the abolitionists of having caused dangerous divisions in the country between North and South. In making such an assertion, he conveniently overlooks the fact that such divisions had been developing over many decades and had been caused by the intransigence of the South as much as anything.
But none of that interests Buchanan in the slightest. At a time of national crisis, the greatest that the United States has experienced since achieving independence, he chooses to make a blatantly partisan speech in which he openly takes sides with the slave states of the South.
In one particular passage, Buchanan takes aim at abolitionists for encouraging slave uprisings. He regards such insurrections as a clear and present danger to public order, as well as conducive to war. The unspoken assumption in this part of Buchanan's speech is that it would be inherently wrong for black slaves to rebel against their white masters, not least because it would turn the existing social order upside-down.
Despite his evident sympathy for the South, however, Buchanan is insistent that there is no justification for secession from the Union. Mindful of the South's unease at the recent election victory of Abraham Lincoln, Buchanan nonetheless states that the election of any fellow citizen to the office of President does not warrant secession. Though he acknowledges the South's concerns over the potential infringement of its constitutional rights, he is explicit that any differences between North and South should be decided by the existing institutions of American government.
Buchanan's solution to the current crisis—if indeed "solution" is the right word—is to allow each state to manage its own affairs. In saying this, Buchanan is endorsing the principle behind the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which made provision for the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide by a popular vote whether they wished to have slavery on their soil.
Yet this legislative compromise, like all the others that had been tried down the years, didn't begin to take the heat out of the slavery question; if anything, it exacerbated it. The Kansas-Nebraska Act and the idea behind it created more division between North and South, between slave state and free, than anything that abolitionists had ever done.
All in all, Buchanan failed to provide leadership at this crucial juncture in American history. His fourth annual message shows us that he simply didn't grasp the full scale of the crisis enveloping the United States, nor did he have the vision or the imagination to find workable solutions to the problems caused by slavery.
Instead, he simply retreated to his comfort zone, spewing out the same old bromides that successive generations of pro-slavery campaigners had been coming out with for decades. Buchanan's inability to rise to the challenges of his office, coupled with his blatant partisanship, would have tragic consequences for the United States.