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The Inspired Leak
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
A leak of quite a different kind came three years later. James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, another amiable man, known in the political jargon of the times as a doughface—a northern man with southern principles—had been elected President of the United States and was to take office on March 4, 1857. The nation just then was wracked by the question of Popular Sovereignty—the notion that the people of a territory should decide for themselves, before statehood, whether in that territory slavery should be permitted or excluded. Stephen Douglas of Illinois, proprietor of the northern half of the Democratic Party, had staked his political future on the idea that the people of a territory should have that right; the party’s southern wing, with which Buchanan was intimately allied, was firm in the faith that such a right did not and under the Constitution should not exist. Buchanan was about to deliver an inaugural address in which he was bound to declare himself on this issue, and he was painfully aware that no matter which side he took he would alienate—probably forever, because tempers were inflamed—half of the party that had elected him. A politician who believed in offending nobody could not face a more dreadful situation.
However, he saw a glimmer of hope. The Supreme Court was about to hand down a decision in the case of Dred Scott, and there was a fair chance that this might take Buchanan off the hook—if he could just know in advance which way the cat was going to jump.
Dred Scott was a black slave, originally owned by an army officer in St. Louis. This officer presently was transferred to duty in Rock Island, Illinois, and later to Fort Snelling, Minnesota. He took Scott with him, and when at last he was ordered back to St. Louis he took Scott along; and now Scott was suing for his freedom, on the ground that he had lived for some years in free states and that Fort Snelling was on soil which Congress, by the Missouri Compromise, had declared forever free.
If the Supreme Court did not want to handle a hot potato it had an easy way out. It could hold that Scott as a slave could not be a citizen and so could not sue in federal court, and it could also hold that it was his status in Missouri that determined whether he was a slave or a free man. But the interesting part about the case was the Missouri Compromise angle. Did Congress have the power to legislate freedom in a territory? If it did not, the old Missouri Compromise was dead; furthermore, if Congress could not prohibit slavery in a territory, the territory itself—a creature of Congress—could not do so either; in which case Senator Douglas’ Popular Sovereignty plan was as dead as Moses … and in which case, also, Mr. Buchanan would be off of a cruel hook.
So in the weeks before his inauguration the Presidentelect undertook to open a leak. He wrote to his friend Justice James Catron asking how the court was going to rule, and when Justice Catron, after stalling briefly, indicated that the odds were favorable and suggested that Buchanan write also to Justice Robert Grier, Buchanan did so. Grier replied that he had shown the letter to Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and Justice James M. Wayne, and that “we fully appreciate and concur in your views as to the desirableness at the time of having an expression of the opinion of the Court on this troublesome question.” This was plain as a pikestaff; the court was going to make a sweeping ruling on the whole broad question of slavery in the territories, and knowing the justices as he did, Buchanan had no doubt at all what the ruling was going to say.
Fortified by advance knowledge, then, Buchanan in his inaugural referred to the vexing question of slavery in the territories. This, he said, was “a judicial question, which legitimately belongs to the Supreme Court of the United States, before whom it is now pending and will, it is understood, be speedily and finally settled.” With unctuous rectitude he went on to say: “To their decision, in common with all good citizens, I shall cheerfully submit.”
Sure enough, two days later the court handed down its decision, declaring that nobody anywhere could keep slavery out of a territory; whereby it knocked out the Missouri Compromise, destroyed Douglas’ Popular Sovereignty idea, and brought the nation a long step nearer to its most terrible war.
It was all a little too obvious: Buchanan had so clearly known what the answer was going to be when he piously called on his countrymen to abide by the court’s findings. The Republicans loudly charged that the President and the Chief Justice had been conspiring together; and while this was not true, the President had exposed himself as a weakling who had schemed ineptly. He had succeeded only in splitting the Democratic Party.
A half century later a stronger President was at least partly involved in a leak of a very different sort, with a happier result.