The Presidential Transition That Shattered America

A Trump-Biden transition is sure to be scary. But it’d be hard to beat Buchanan-Lincoln.

An illustration of Lincoln being sworn in on a Bible with James Buchanan standing next to him.
Abraham Lincoln wasn’t inaugurated until March of 1861. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ullstein Bild via Getty Images.

Whatever the results of the presidential vote on Nov. 3, the time between Election Day and Inauguration Day seems set to be a dark and terrifying 11 weeks in the history of the United States. However, perhaps there’s some comfort to be taken in the fact that we’ve experienced fraught transitions before—and longer ones. To wit: When Abraham Lincoln won the election of 1860 and prepared to take the reins from James Buchanan, who had kept a promise he made in his inaugural address not run for a second term, we suffered through a four-month slog of turmoil, because until the passage of the 20th Amendment in 1933, inaugurations used to take place in March. And during Buchanan’s endless lame-duck period, quite a bit went down: Seven states declared for secession, and Southerners seized forts and garrisons, arming themselves for the war we know now was coming.

I spoke about the Buchanan-Lincoln transition with historian Susan Schulten, whose most recent book is A History of America in 100 Maps. I wondered what, exactly, the lame duck thought he was doing and what the incoming president could (or couldn’t!) have said or done to change the transition period’s outcomes. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Rebecca Onion: How did the 1860 election set Lincoln up for this rough transition?

Susan Schulten: The 1860 election was unlike any other, because for the first time the contest wasn’t only party versus party. Of course there was a long history of robust partisanship in the antebellum era, but for the first time the country was also divided politically by section.

The Democratic Party broke apart on sectional lines. They couldn’t even agree on a single candidate in the summer of 1860, so the North went with Stephen Douglas, and the Southerners went their way with John Breckinridge, a pro-slavery, states-rights, pro-secession candidate. And of course the Republicans had no hope of getting any electoral votes in the South; they barely appeared on any Southern ballots.

In the postmortem, even if you add up the electoral votes of the other three candidates [Douglas, Breckinridge, and the Constitutional Union candidate John Bell], Lincoln still prevailed. That’s really important because part of the radical Southern pro-slavery position had to do with the fact that they considered the Republican Party illegitimate. By its party platform, radical Southerners considered it by definition hostile to slavery—because the party, of course, was born out of the desire of Congress to regulate slavery.

So the very outcome of the election confirmed to the South, particularly South Carolina, which ended up leading the secessionist movement, that it had no voice.

Now Northerners would say, and Lincoln says something like this in his first inaugural address: Get over it. We had elections; this is what democracy is.

Basically, “elections have consequences.” 

Right. But for Deep Southern pro-slavery ideologues, the election itself was unacceptable, and so the outcome wasn’t a surprise to them. And as soon as the outcome was clear, they put their plans in motion.

If you were paying attention, in the sense that you knew where Electoral College power was in 1860, it wasn’t a surprise that the Republicans won. But in the aftermath of that, there was this interminable period of transition—four months. It must have felt like an absolute eternity.

What did Buchanan do during that time?

What he did had tremendous consequences. He had this weird position, which is that he was against secession. He was a Unionist—he didn’t believe that the Constitution gave the Southern states the right to secede. But at the same time, he repeatedly made these public statements, saying, I don’t have any power to bring these seceding states back, and I have no power to control federal forts or garrisons. So his actions seemed to belie his stated commitments.

Some historians have said that, as a result of what he did, the Confederacy started out far richer and far better prepared for a war. If we’d had a different person in office, who actually used a little bit of force during the lame-duck period—it’s not that we wouldn’t have had a war, but it might have looked really different.

Was he helping the South this way on purpose, do we know?

Well, you may notice that he routinely makes it to the top of the list of the worst presidents. His administration was full of gestures toward the South. He tried to bring Kansas in as a slave state, he actually meddled with the Supreme Court as it moved toward the Dred Scott decision, he was openly sympathetic to Southerners, and had many in his Cabinet who were not just Southerners but slaveholders.

But at the same time, I think that during the transition period, as he made these statements, he couldn’t have imagined what could happen. Did he intentionally fuel secession? It’s trickier. I think his ineptitude kept the secession conversation going, and he didn’t just shut it down. Which is not to say that he had the power to do that—if he had stood up to the South, Southerners might have just used force earlier.

What were these forts and garrisons you mentioned? He let federal armaments go into Southern hands?

All during that winter, Buchanan didn’t think he had the power to forcibly protect federal forts on Southern land. So what happened along the coast of Georgia, South Carolina, and I think also Florida and Louisiana was that even before some of those states declared themselves out of the Union, they used militias or local forces to take control of these federal outposts. In that way, armaments were actually taken by Southerners long before those states even seceded.

Here’s another example of Buchanan’s ineptitude. In January, Buchanan got convinced by some of his Cabinet that he should resupply the federal troops who had dug in at Fort Sumter in Charleston, after abandoning Fort Moultrie to the secessionists in December. There were all kinds of crossed signals, and the major at Fort Sumter didn’t know the supply ship was coming, but Southern spies did. So they fired on it. We focus on the crisis at Sumter in April under Lincoln, but there was actually this minicrisis in January.

Some Southerners said, of the resupply attempt, That’s the first act of aggression. That failed attempt was in early January and then immediately after that, you get the decisions by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and finally Texas, to secede, all in January and early February.* That resupply attempt, to Northerners, looked like a perfectly legal, rational thing to do—to preserve federal forts—but to the Deep South it looked like a betrayal. The word they use is “coercion.”

What was Lincoln doing during this time? Was he speaking publicly? Was he trying to influence events? Or did he not see it as his position to do that?

For a long time, when the reigning theory among historians was that the war was avoidable, people looked at Buchanan and talked about his ineptitude, his gestures toward the South … but people also pointed to Lincoln and said he could have, in this long interregnum, been far more active toward soliciting the South.

Personally, I see it differently. He was elected on a certain platform. And once he won, it’s true he was not very vocal. He stayed in Springfield, made one visit to D.C., and then of course took his long train ride from Springfield to D.C. for the inauguration, but he was essentially saying, If you have questions, refer to my campaign—to the many statements he had made over the past six months.

And I think in a way, that was strategic. Because there were things on which he was willing to compromise, and things on which he was not, and the one thing he would not bend on was the extension of slavery into the West. No way would he concede that point; that was the founding principle of the Republican Party. But that is one thing that Southerners by now were insistent on.

I’m sure Lincoln was watching the furious activity in Congress, where they spent months trying to come up with a compromise. Could he have been more solicitous? He did write letters. He wrote a letter to Alexander Stephens, who would become the vice president of the Confederacy, and who he knew from serving in Congress together, saying, you know, There’s really only one thing separating you and I, and that is you think slavery is right and should be extended; I think it’s wrong and ought to be limited, but there’s nothing else I’ve said that threatens slavery where it is. 

He even went so far as to imply to some Southern leaders, in private communications during this transition period, that he would support the Corwin Amendment—a compromise passed by Congress that would have been the 13th Amendment, that would prohibit any interference with slavery forever. Of course, the president doesn’t affect the amendment adoption process, but he even said in his inaugural address that he supported it; I think he thought this would be an olive branch to the South.

Did he have allies in Washington who could help him have influence over what was happening, or just feed him information?

We think of this as such a small circle of power brokers, but one thing I learned this year while teaching is that Lincoln had not met his vice president in person. I don’t think he had met Buchanan.*

And since he spent most of that president-elect period in Illinois, it must have been difficult. This was just the very beginning of the era of the telegraph—communication was nothing like what we have today.

And one more thing to remember is that the Republican Party was only five years old. Lincoln was a novice, who had lost his last election for Senate, against Douglas. William Seward, who was the real power broker, thought he would get the nomination and ended up actively trying to craft a Cabinet and a party that would limit Lincoln’s power, because he was so inexperienced. Lincoln puts a stop to that; he grows in the office.

But if you think about the coalition that makes up that fragile new Republican Party, it’s radical anti-slavery activists, fringe abolitionists, conservative Democrats who don’t think the South has the right to secede, anti-slavery Democrats, former Whigs … all these people in this coalition that Lincoln is trying to manage. And at the same time, thinking, What the hell am I going to do with the court? He came into office elected on the platform of a party that’s openly at odds with the Supreme Court, which had just issued the Dred Scott decision. So, another conflict there.

At the end of this long transition period, what was Lincoln’s attitude toward the situation?

It’s really important to remember that secession happened in two waves. There was that first wave, and then a long period where nothing happened, from Feb. 1 through Lincoln’s inauguration in March, through to the crisis at Fort Sumter in April. Two and a half months, and nothing happens! A number of Southern states even defeated secession efforts. There were really positive signs that secession might have played itself out, and the Confederacy might just be seven states.

So when Lincoln was inaugurated, that affected what he said in his inauguration. He had reason to think the upper South will remain with him. That turned out not to be true, but it meant that he came into the speech making it very clear that he had no power to affect slavery where it exists, but also that secession was, in his words, “anarchy”—not just illegal, but impossible.

So interesting to think of those words, coming between the two waves.

Right! He was putting it to rest: “This is over for now.” But for a lot of Southerners, they listened to that speech and saw it as provocative and hostile, despite the conciliatory conclusion—the famous “better angels of our nature” part, which Seward helped him rewrite from something more forceful. But of course, now we know—even that conclusion wasn’t enough to bring back the Deep South, or to stop what happened next.

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Correction, Oct. 29, 2020: This piece originally misstated that Lincoln had not met William Seward in person before 1861. In fact, they first met in 1848.

Correction, Oct. 28, 2020: Due to an editing error, this piece originally left Georgia out of a list of states that seceded in early 1861.