This is a letter to the editor I wrote back in 1997 debunking an article someone had written praising attorney general Jeremiah Sullivan Black, who notoriously served under President James Buchanan.

The author had said the Black was a nice fellow from Pennsylvania who had brought credit to his state.

I pointed out that Black was notorious in the history books for conspiring with Buchanan and Chief Justice Roger Taney to bring about the awful ruling in Dred Scott, which helped bring about the Civil War and the secession of the Southern States.

It’s important to note that as late as 1857, prior to Dred Scott, the Civil War might still have been avoided.

But Buchanan, Black and Taney, with the awful Dred Scott decision, pretty much made sure that the US was plunged into what one Republican of the day called “the irrepressible conflict.”

So here’s what I wrote back in 1997 on the subject. It’s of interest today, of course, since we now have our first African-American President, to consider Dred Scott in retrospect, since everyone agrees it was the single worst decision of the United States Supreme Court.

April 6, 1997

To the Editor:

Regretfully I must take issue with my colleague ____________________ article praising James Buchanan’s Attorney General/Secretary of State and former Pennsylvania Chief Justice Jeremiah Sullivan Black for his role in “saving” the United States during the secession crisis of November 1860-March 1861.

To preface, why must we care about this critical aspect of United States history? The answer is simple. Racism is, was and continues to be the predominant issue of our society. To paraphrase W.E.B. DuBois, the color line has been the dividing line of the 20th century.

One of the most shocking aspects of this society is the extent to which racism still permeates and soaks our society in its noxious fumes. Without an understanding of the historical context of the civil war, the end of slavery and of the events immediately preceding the civil war, we fall victim to fooling ourselves into thinking that lawyerly compromisers like Jeremiah Sullivan Black, who were prepared to accept slavery, accept Dred Scott, and accept the extension of slavery all the way to California south of Missouri as called for in the Crittenden compromise, were the moral or ethical equivalent of real heroes like Garrison, Sumner, Seward and Lincoln. The fact is that all the historical revisionism in the world cannot make a Sumner or a Lincoln of a man as limited and narrow in his views as was Jeremiah Sullivan Black.

It was Dante who said that the lowest places in hell are reserved for those who fail to take an ethical stand in times of crisis.

The truth is that the real heroes of those times were Garrison, Sumner, Seward and the so-called “radicals” who understood that law books and laws meant nothing when dealing with the moral wrongness of slavery and men in chains, sold as chattels. And yet, those individuals were vilified in their day, seen as extremists, radicals, far-left wingers–simply because they advocated the political and legal freedom and equality of African-Americans with all other Americans guaranteed to them in the Declaration of Independence, a position most eloquently argued by Lincoln in his debates with Douglas in 1858 and one which is clearly accepted today by the vast majority of law-abiding and freedom-loving Americans.

But what were those men but heroes taking an ethical and moral stand in a time of crisis? Isn’t this why we celebrate Lincoln, while James Buchanan is all but forgotten?

Unfortunately, there must be a historical litmus test applied to persons alive and practicing law and holding high office in the years when slavery was the law of this land. Simply because Black corresponded to the so-called safe middle and the racist, legalistic tenor of his times, exemplified in Dred Scott and in the subsequent 1858-59 prosecution of John Brown, Attorneys General like Jeremiah Sullivan Black can never be praiseworthy or praised historically, legally or ethically in retrospect. His actions were by and large wrong, they contributed to the death and suffering of millions of African-Americans, and they helped bring on the Dred Scott decision, the Harpers Ferry incident, the secession crisis and the Civil War, which in turn lead to the enormous bloodshed of the American Civil War.

Jeremiah Sullivan Black was hardly a Charles Sumner or William Seward to begin with. He was appointed Attorney General almost simultaneously with the announcement on March 6, 1857 of the Dred Scott decision, a decision which many historians agree was the product in part of direct and improper solicitations by Buchanan of individual justices constituting the Southern majority on the court, in order to persuade them to come up with a broader decision expanding slavery beyond its current territorial bounds. In those days, the Presidential inauguration was held on March 4, and therefore Dred Scott was announced just two days after Buchanan took office on March 4, 1857.

Was this timing mere coincidence? The best research suggests that it was not so.

Buchanan’s role, and by implication Black’s role, in doing nothing to criticize Dred Scott, and doing everything to bring about Dred Scott and to broaden its applicability, are reprehensible in historical hindsight. Moreover, the best evidence suggests that President-Elect Buchanan solicited the Southern Judges on the Supreme Court in early 1857 to deliver the broad Dred Scott decision in a deliberate effort to broaden the reach of slavery to a constitutionally protected level beyond the power of the legislative enactments such as the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850 and Kansas-Nebraska of 1854.

Historian Allan Nevins in his landmark work The Emergence of Lincoln 1950) advances strong proof of evidence of impropriety in communications between Buchanan and members of the Supreme Court in the days before the decision was announced; and the decision was announced on March 6, 1857, two days after Buchanan was inaugurated.

The evidence as marshalled by Nevins and many other prominent historians suggests that Buchanan asked the Southern majority on the Court to decide Dred Scott broadly. The Oxford Guide to the Supreme Court specifically notes that Buchanan used an intermediary associate justice of the Supreme Court to convey his wishes to Chief Justice Taney that the Court rule broadly in Dred Scott, and that if they did so, the Buchanan Administration was prepared to enforce the decision legally and if necessary, by force.

As the attorney general appointed directly in the wake of Dred Scott, it was Black’s role specifically to defend and uphold Dred Scott, particularly in jurisdictions which up to that point had been considered “free” under the Missouri compromise and other laws separating free from slave.

As a defender of Dred Scott, and indeed, as Attorney General during the implementation of Dred Scott, Black’s historical role is nothing less than despicable. No just-thinking person in today’s world should have anything good to say about a man like Black given his actions from 1857 on in defending the Dred Scott decision. Black did everything in his power as Attorney General to defend Dred Scott, broaden the reach of slavery and thereby delay the emancipation of African-Americans in the United States.

It was this interference of Buchanan directly with the Supreme Court’s Southern wing which wrote the Dred Scott ruling which triggered William Seward’s famous speech “The Irrepressible Conflict,” delivered October 25, 1858 in Rochester, New York. Incidentally, ____________________ incorrectly cites the speech to 1850 at p. 66 of his article, a gross historical inaccuracy since the speech clearly post-dates and is in response to the Dred Scott decision.

In this brilliant speech, William Seward, a great man of history, sets out to demonstrate that “[t]he history of the Democratic party commits it to the policy of slavery. It has been the Democratic party, and no other agency, which has carried that policy up to its present alarming culmination.” William Henry Seward, “The Irrepressible Conflict”, The World’s Great Speeches (Dover 1973) at 295-96. After a historical exegesis, Seward continues;

“The Democratic party, finally, has procured from a supreme judiciary, fixed in its interest, a decree that slavery exists by force of the constitution in every territory of the United States, paramount to all legislative authority, either within the territory or residing in Congress. Such is the Democratic party….It is positive and uncompromising in the interest of slavery….” David Donald, Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (U. of Chicago 1960) at 180-81.

The direct solicitation of Dred Scott by Buchanan was a charge made and repeated often in the days following Dred Scott, and in reading the primary sources today buttressed by historical research done more recently, there is no reason to doubt the contemporary conclusions that Buchanan wanted Dred Scott and sought it out. The charge was made at the time, the charge is made today, and frankly, the charges are true. If it walks like a duck, and it talks like a duck, chances are, it’s a duck.

Seward’s speech should be read and re-read 100 times by all american citizens.

Black was no more and no less than a legalistic defender of slavery in his time. Given the chance to do something historically important, he chose to do nothing at all good and lots of things bad. Nothing he did or said can ever render him a hero.

Black was the kind of gutless wonder that belongs in those lower pits of Dante’s Inferno.

Nor can we allow to pass ____________________’s incomprehensible conclusion that “Buchanan and Black were right–abolitionist pressure did bring on the Civil War.” Buchanan was the key instigator of the secession crisis because Buchanan solicited the Dred Scott decision and then went out of his way (together with Black) to defend it and urge it on all Americans. Moreover, in historical hindsight, everything which the abolitionists did and said was completely and 100% correct and morally and legally justified.

The arguments and moral force of Sumner and Garrison and Seward are the only words from that period which ring true today. In dealing with slavery and comparable morally compelling situations (the German Nazi regime of the 1930s and 1940s comes to mind) there is no room for compromise or for hugging the middle.

What was needed was Lincoln’s and Teddy Roosevelt’s man of action. Instead, what we got in Buchanan and Black were a pair of Pennsylvania apologists for the Southern slavery regime.

Worse, Buchanan appears to have secretly intrigued to bring about Dred Scott and to secretly help his Southern Democratic slaveholding backers. By attacking the abolitionists, Buchanan and Black revealed themselves only to be apologists for a system of slavery which was inhuman, immoral and unconscionable.

Compared to the noble and dignified campaign of men like Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who struggled from day one against all odds to do the right thing and campaign for the freedom, dignity and human rights of African-Americans in this country, Black was a moral midget.

Senator Sumner in 1849 attacked the legality of segregated schools in Boston and coined the phrase “equality before the law.” Although Sumner lost the Roberts case, six years later the Massachusetts legislature outlawed racial segregation in all schools in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Senator Sumner’s statue dominates the entrance to Harvard University at Johnston Gate even today, across from Mt. Auburn cemetary. It should. Senator Sumner is and was a great man.

For those who believe that a man like Black can be excused by the times and by the thoughts of his fellow man for being unenlightened, a short time reading Sumner’s works and speeches should disabuse anyone of such apologias. Unrestrained by the times or by the thoughts of his fellow men, Sumner, a practicing attorney and Harvard law school graduate, saw the truth for what it was and spoke directly and clearly about what he saw as the moral and ethical quicksand of any legal regime supporting slavery. To his eternal credit, Sumner opposed not only slavery but also segregation. Consequently, if Sumner could come to those views in the midst of his century, then a man like Black cannot be excused for failing to do so.

Indeed, Buchanan’s (and Black’s) celebration of Dred Scott, and their defense of it on the grounds that it was the “law” was what drove Lincoln in the Lincoln-Douglas debates to derive that there was a natural law, a law from a higher source, that in times like these had to substitute for the corrupt and improper judgment of a few men on an individual Supreme Court acting in concert with what they perceived to be a corrupt President (and Attorney General) openly siding with the forces of slavery.

This appeal to natural law, too, is the central argument of John Brown in his final speech before the Court before receiving sentence–“This Court acknowledges, too, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed, which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament, which teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to remember them that are in bonds as bound with them. I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of His despised poor, I did no wrong, but right.” See John Brown, “On Being Sentenced to Death,” The World’s Great Speeches. (Dover 1973) at pp. 298-99.

We all know what John Brown was talking about. We know why he went to Harper’s Ferry on a virtual suicide mission, to liberate the slaves of the United States by force. John Brown’s death was a stirring call to action to many who had previously resisted force, and it scared the South deeply.

Jeremiah Sullivan Black as Attorney General also presided over the John Brown/Harpers Ferry incident of October-November 1859 and he did nothing during his Attorney Generalship to suggest that he possessed anything like the principled opposition to slavery which characterized Sumner, Garrison, Whittier, Garrett and other activists of the day. Nor did he ever evidence any understanding of the existence of a moral or natural law superior to the man-made law of his day.

Moreover, turning to the secession crisis period of December 1860-March 1861 which is the subject of _______________________’s piece, Black’s role during the secession crisis is not particularly worthy of praise.

In the first instance, Black’s views during these matters is a matter of public knowledge, since he carried on a virtually daily communication with the incoming Secretary of State William Seward, from December of 1860 to March of 1861. Seward visited Black freely during this time.

President Buchanan actually refused to meet with Seward, who was in charge of transition for Lincoln, and therefore Black played a go-between role between the incoming and outgoing administrations. The evidence suggests that Black’s main concern, far from saving the Union, was to avoid being prosecuted for treason by the incoming administration for the crime of cooperating too closely with the Southern states and particularly of conspiring with South Carolina to surrender Federal property in furtherance of a treasonous conspiracy.

Had Buchanan actually surrendered the forts and not followed Black’s advice, there is little doubt but that such a prosecution would have occurred upon Lincoln’s accession to power.

Compare this with modern Presidential transitions, and you readily see what the problem is.

Moreover, Black’s ideas on averting the secession crisis as expressed directly to Seward were less than praiseworthy. He spent one of their meetings asking Seward to compromise by having Seward accept, as a basis of settlement, simply the Constitution and laws as interpreted by the judiciary, a position which meant acceptance of Dred Scott.

Anyone even vaguely familiar with Seward’s and Lincoln’s views on the subject could not possibly have expected them to agree to such a “cave-in” of principle. It shows that Black assumed implicitly that no politician (even Seward or Lincoln) could possibly elevate moral principle over political expedience and thus highlights his true indifference to the moral enormity of his (and the South’s) crimes in carrying on and defending the institution of slavery.

In other words, even after the Southern states had announced secession, Black was still attempting to evangelize Republicans committed to the end of slavery on behalf of upholding Dred Scott.

Black also supported the Crittenden Compromise, which would have extended slavery to the area below the latitude of 36o30′ permanently in exchange for the Southern states returning to the Union fold, a policy which would have permanently institutionalized slavery in Arizona, New Mexico and Southern California well into the 20th century.

The real hero in the Buchanan cabinet was not Jeremiah Black, a Dred Scott apologist and party hack who does not even merit a mention in the notes to David Donald’s landmark study of Sumner. David Donald, Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (U. of Chicago 1960).

Rather, the real hero was Edwin Stanton, who after becoming Attorney General and succeeding the inactive and pro-Southern Black, started meeting with Seward and advising him almost daily of the “treasons” being perpetrated in the Buchanan cabinet meetings.

It was Stanton who “leaked” to Seward the intent of Buchanan to essentially surrender the Southern forts (and specifically Ft. Sumter) over to the seceding South Carolinians, and by advising Lincoln through Seward, made it virtually impossible for Buchanan (and Black) to do anything other than the right thing and stand up for the Union. Henry Wilson, “Jeremiah S. Black and Edwin M. Stanton,” Atlantic Monthly (1870) at pp. 464-65.

Stanton, through his friend Peter H. Watson, kept Seward apprised daily of events in the Buchanan cabinet meetings. Stanton also met with Sen. Sumner and kept other apprised secretly as well.

Incidently, Black after the Civil War attempted to prove that Stanton had never discussed Cabinet meetings with Seward, but was later forced to admit that it was so. See David M. Potter, Lincoln and his Party in the Secession Crisis (Yale University Press, 1942) (5th printing 1967) at 252 et seq.

As a consequence, Seward was able to ask several congressmen to convene a Congressional select committee to look into the allegations of whether anyone in the Buchanan administration had improper connections with the South Carolina secessionists.

There is little question but that one of the implicit threats of convening the committee was to look into evidence for a possible criminal prosecution of Black, Buchanan and other pro-Southern members of the Cabinet in the event that Sumter and other forts were surrendered or less than vigorously defended. As such, Black in urging Buchanan to defend the forts from South Carolina acted not out of principle or out of devotion to the Union, but rather, out of calculated self-interest.

In short, Black wanted to save his own skin realizing that a new President and new Administration were coming into power and that wartime justice would soon be a reality. Trial and hanging for treason cannot have been far from Black’s mind in taking whatever actions he did to preserve the status quo of the South Carolina forts pending Lincoln’s accession to power.

Through this select committee and through the press Seward was able to circumscribe the Buchanan cabinet with a limited range of policy options so as to maintain the status quo until Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861.

It was this committee, together with the other actions of Seward and Stanton and others, which probably had the greatest influence on Black to persuade Buchanan to take actions to preserve the status quo. Buchanan’s (and Black’s) natural inclinations, as indeed he was accused of by the Republicans at the time, was to side with the South.

By contrast, in 1832, when faced with the nullification/secession crisis, also involving South Carolina, Andrew Jackson acted swiftly and decisively to muzzle and neuter the rebellion. Historians generally agree that there were many Southerners who did not wish to secede. The border states were still undecided on what to do and North Carolina and Virginia were not particularly willing to secede from the Union.

Strong action by Buchanan in December of 1860 and January of 1861 could have rallied the anti-secessionist forces in the Confederate states and stilled or stopped the secession crisis in its tracks. However, Buchanan did nothing of the kind, and but for the actions of Seward, Stanton and others which essentially orchestrated Black’s counsel, Buchanan would gladly have handed over all federal property to the South willingly.

Black did not like Seward and did not agree with any of the programs or plans of the Republicans. He saw nothing immoral or wrong about slavery. He also referred to Seward as the “Wolsey of the new administration” (a sarcastic referral to the Cardinal Wolsey of historical England) and later penned a famous work in part critical of Seward. See “The Character of Mr. Seward. Reply to C.F.Adams, Sr.” C.F. Black, Essays and Speeches of Jeremiah S. Black (New York, 1886).

Obviously the fact that Black continued to engage in debates with the New England liberals for years after the war demonstrates that Black was a man of limited moral and ethical sense who never understood the basic issue at hand, namely the moral and ethical wrongness of slavery.

Seward concluded his famous speech “The Irrepressible Conflict”, delivered October 25, 1858, as follows;

“I know, and you know, that a revolution has begun. I know, and all the world knows, that revolutions never go backward. Twenty senators and a hundred representatives proclaim boldly in Congress today sentiments and opinions and principles of freedom which hardly so many men, even in this free state [New York], dared to utter in their own homes twenty years ago. While the government of the United States, under the conduct of the Democratic party, has been all that time surrendering one plain and castle after another to slavery, the people of the United States have been no less steadily and perseveringly gathering together the forces with which to recover back again all the fields and all the castles which have been lost, and to confound and overthrow, by one decisive blow, the betrayers of the constitution and freedom forever.”

See William Henry Seward, “The Irrepressible Conflict”, The World’s Great Speeches (Dover 1973), at pp.297-98.

One can not imagine Attorney General Black or Secretary of State Black uttering those words of Seward, and indeed, Seward himself viewed Black together with Buchanan as “betrayers of the constitution and freedom”.

Nor can we forget Charles Sumner’s vigorous reply to Buchanan’s request that Massachusetts adopt the so-called Crittenden compromise;

“Massachusetts has not yet spoken directly on these propositions; but…such are the unalterable convictions of her people, they would see their state sink below the sea and become a sandbank before they would adopt those propositions acknowledging property in man.”

See Donald, cited supra, at p. 371.

Obviously, by contrast, Mr. Black celebrated Dred Scott, defended the Crittenden compromise, and as Attorney General and as ultimate prosecutor of John Brown, saw no problem morally, ethically or legally with the enforcement of laws and institutions designed solely to enslave others and keep them in a condition of slavery. That he counselled Buchanan to keep the South Carolina forts in American hands at the same time that he knew that William Seward (and Edwin Stanton), a Congressional select committee and others were looking directly over their shoulders and threatening to prosecute them after March of 1861 for treason, explains to a greater and more precise degree Black’s actions than any feelings of Black that the Union should be preserved.

Jeremiah Sullivan Black was presented a rare gift in life, the opportunity to be act rightly, to act moral, to be William Seward or Charles Sumner or Abraham Lincoln.

Given this opportunity, he chose to simply be Jeremiah Sullivan Black, just another Pennsylvania lawyer content to muddle through the middle rather than take a principled stand against what anyone could plainly see was wrong.

In his time, and in his day, Black was seen as a “betrayer” of freedom and of the constitution, and nothing advanced in ____________________’s article should lead us astray from Mr. William Seward’s well-developed and fully articulated conclusions of 1858 in that regard.

In his day, Black was derided and despised for his warm embrace of Dred Scott and Crittenden’s compromise, and it would be a waste of authorial energies to attempt to exhume his well-deserved historical internment.

In searching for Pennsylvanians to emulate, it would be wiser and better to dwell on the flower of Pennsylvania, our abolitionists and leaders of freedom like Garrett and Longwood and others who worked tirelessly for the end of slavery and for the equality before the law of African-Americans.

We have a proud and noble history of abolitionism and of many historical figures who risked their lives working on the underground railroad in the Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey regions.

Those are the local men and women whose works should be praised and discussed today. We cannot remind ourselves too many times of those great men and women who came before us. They were our Sumners and our Garrisons, our Lincolns and our Sewards. And that Martin Luther King studied seminary right here outside Philadelphia in the early 1950s.

If you have any questions, please kindly contact the undersigned.

Very truly yours,

By:
Arthur J. Kyriazis

AJK/vm
Enc.

Art Kyriazis
Philly/South Jersey
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