Lot 67
  • 67

Judah P. Benjamin, as Senator from Louisiana

Estimate
15,000 - 25,000 USD
Sold
18,750 USD
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Description

  • Autograph letter signed ("J. P. Benjamin") and six other United States Senators, written at the height of the Fort Sumter Crisis
  • Paper, Ink
2 pages (9 7/8 x 7 7/8 in.; 245 x 198 mm) on a sheet of lined paper embossed “Platner & Porter, Congress,” Washington, D.C., 23 January 1861, to Isaac W. Hayne, co-signed by U.S. Senators John Hemphill of Texas, John Slidell of Louisiana, Clement Claiborne Clay, Jr. of Alabama, Louis T. Wigfall of Texas, David Levy Yulee of Florida, and Alfred Iverson, Sr. of Georgia, integral blank present, but detached, and docketed "Senators to Col Hayne, 23 June 1861."

Catalogue Note

SOUTHERN SENATORS STALL FOR TIME BEFORE SOUTH CAROLINA ATTACKS FORT SUMTER

The future Confederate Secretary of War, writing at the height of the Fort Sumter crisis, attempts a last-ditch effort to prevent—or at least delay—bloodshed. Along with six U.S. Senate colleagues whose states had already seceded or were about to secede, Judah P. Benjamin urges South Carolina’s attorney general and "Special Envoy" to hold off delivering an ultimatum to President Buchanan:

"...on the subject of our propositions, which letter we now enclose to you – Altho’ its terms are not as satisfactory as we could have desired in relation to the ulterior purposes of the executive, we have no hesitation in expressing our entire confidence that no reinforcements will be sent to Fort Sumter, nor will the public peace be disturbed within the period requisite for full Communication between yourself and your government, and we trust therefore that you will feel justified in applying for further instructions before delivering to the President any message with which you may have been charged.

"We take this occasion to renew the expression of an earnest hope that South Carolina will not deem it incompatible with her safety, dignity, or honor to refrain from initiating any hostilities against any power whatever, or from taking any steps tending to produce collision, until our States which are to share her fortunes shall have an opportunity of joining their Counsels with hers. …"

After signing the Ordinance of Secession declaring South Carolina an independent republic, Governor Francis W. Pickens named attorney general Isaac W. Hayne as a “Special Envoy” to Washington, D.C., “the capital of a foreign power.” Hayne carried a letter to President James Buchanan in which Pickens asserted that Federal possession of Fort Sumter was “not consistent with the dignity or safety of the State of South Carolina”: "[I] have instructed [Hayne] to demand the delivery of Fort Sumter, in the harbor of Charleston, to the constituted authorities of the State of South Carolina. The demand … is suggested because of my earnest desire to avoid bloodshed which a persistence of your attempt to retain possession of that fort will cause. …"

The missive, a virtual declaration of war, would leave no room for the president to maneuver. Hayne met with Buchanan on January 14 and agreed to deliver Pickens’s letter to him the next day, along with a formal cover letter. In the meantime, Southern senators Jefferson Davis (the future Confederate president), Benjamin Fitzpatrick, Stephen Mallory, and the seven signers of the present letter had learned something of the contents of the governor’s letter. On January 15, they wrote to Hayne, asking him to hold off delivering it to the president.

The senators, identifying themselves in their first letter as representatives of states that “have already seceded … or will have done so before the first of February,” felt that the Fort Sumter impasse might still be resolved peacefully, “without any compromise of right or breach of duty on either side.” They gave assurance that “Our people feel that they have a common destiny with your people … we must and will share your fortunes—suffering with you the evils of war if it cannot be avoided, and enjoying with you the blessings of peace, if it can be preserved.” But they asked South Carolina to agree to work with the president to delay any irrevocable actions, at least until the seceded states discussed the issue in their February 15 convention. If Buchanan agreed not to reinforce Sumter, then South Carolina should agree to allow a free flow of communication and essential supplies to the fort. The senators would offer the same terms to the president.  The proposal was made against the backdrop of ongoing Congressional attempts to amend the Constitution to protect slavery. 

Hayne agreed to refer the proposal to his superiors and abide by the terms in the interim. A representative group of the senators then relayed a copy of their letter and Hayne’s response to the president. On January 22, Secretary of War ad interim Joseph Holt responded on behalf of Buchanan. The president would make every attempt to prevent bloodshed, but could not promise to refrain from reinforcing Fort Sumter. As for preserving the peace, that was constitutionally within the power of Congress, not the president.

Holt’s letter is the response that Judah P. Benjamin and his colleagues originally enclosed in the present letter. The writers constituted the last Southern senators still in Washington. Davis, Mallory, Fitzpatrick, Yulee, and Clay had formally bid farewell to the Senate the previous day. The first three men were already en route home, as Benjamin indicates in his postscript. (Iverson would withdraw on January 28. Benjamin and Slidell held on until February 4; Wigfall until March 23. Hemphill simply didn’t show up when Congress reconvened in the spring.)

In this letter to Hayne, Benjamin and his colleagues try to put the best face on Holt’s reply—“Altho’ its terms are not as satisfactory as we could have desired … we have no hesitation in expressing our entire confidence that no reinforcements will be sent.” The closing wording is far less optimistic than that of their January 15 letter, but still holds out some hope that presenting a united front at the February convention will bring Buchanan to his senses. Though the senators’ wish for peace appears to have been sincere, the request could also serve as a simple play for time. Carl Sandburg remarked that their underlying message was “Don’t start shooting now – if you wait we’ll be shooting with you."

When Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861, no progress had been made in resolving the stand-off. Realizing that Union forces at Fort Sumter needed to be resupplied or withdrawn, Lincoln faced the first serious challenge of his presidency.  On April 13, 1861, the Battle of Fort Sumter ended in the surrender of the citadel to Confederate forces under P.G.T. Beauregard.

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