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"On the Eve of Revolution"
An Evening with President James Buchanan
This is an historical play based on "On the Eve of Revolution," a history by the 15th President of the United States, James Buchanan, Jr. (March 4, 1857 – March 4, 1861). It tells the story of America and slavery in America from the time of the Constitutional Convention until the eve of the Civil War.
It is the sweeping story of James Buchanan, Andrew Jackson, Joseph Story, Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, John C. Calhoun, Roger B. Taney, Robert J. Walker, Abraham Lincoln, John J. Crittenden, John Brown, Horace Greeley, John Tyler and many other prominent Americans whose lives played a role in the coming of the Civil War.
It is also the story of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, The Dred Scott decision, Bloody Kansas, the raid on the arsenal at Harper's Ferry, John Brown's hanging, the Baltimore Democratic Convention and a myriad of other historic events leading up to the America's Civil War.
And it is the story of abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates, the abandonment of the traditional understanding of the meaning of the Constitution, and the division of America into two intransigent factions neither of which weighed the horrors of Civil War against the correctness of their beliefs.
The play tells the story of America disastrously sliding into Civil War through the eyes of President Buchanan. The words of the play are President Buchanan's. I have paraphrased them at times to keep the play from running four hours, but in all cases I have tried to faithfully retain his intent and meaning.
President Buchanan quotes the great men of his time throughout his history. I have added those historical figures to my play so as to put the words of these Americans in their own mouths.
When I found "On the Eve of Revolution," I did not know what to expect. I was a history major at Notre Dame. I knew little of President Buchanan other than that he has been generally portrayed by historians as a weak, southern sympathizing, failed President.
Over the years, I have read and re-read a considerable amount about President Lincoln, including Carl Sandburg's "Prairie Years" and "War Years." I have always considered Mr. Lincoln as our greatest President.
But as I have grown older, I have wondered whether the Civil War was a "just war," given the death, carnage and utter destruction, especially of the South, that resulted therefrom. The slaves were freed. That was the primary good. The Union was saved.
But to achieve those ends, half the nation was devastated, and remained so for years. Sons, brothers and husbands were killed or maimed physically and mentally in frightening numbers. The lives of a generation of American men was destroyed or crippled.
As I read President Buchanan's book, I came away with a high respect for President Buchanan. He writes with clarity and, I think, sincerity. He saw the moral and social evil of slavery. But he understood the necessity of the compromise that was made over slavery. Without it there would have been no America, no Constitution - just thirteen squabbling states, each free to make their alliances were they might find them. Buchanan understood without the slavery compromise the result of our Revolutionary War might well have been reversed.
President Buchanan was a man who did not believe the President had a right to govern by "decrees" or by "executive orders." He believed the "Chief Executive" to be the "Chief Executor" of the will of Congress. If Congress failed or refused to express its will in law, there was nothing for the Chief Executive to execute (domestically).
I have written this play because I think President Buchanan's understanding of the Constitution was precisely in accord with the notions of the men who wrote it. I fear modern Presidents have moved irredeemably beyond that view. I believe it is important for modern Americans to understand that original view. Our freedom and liberty depend on it.
President Buchanan's notions of President powers cannot be squared with those of President Lincoln. But I believe they are entirely congruent with those of President Washington.
Had President Buchanan had the cooperation of Congress, would their have been a Civil War? I doubt it. But would slavery have continued? Sadly. yes. Perhaps until the beginning of the 20th Century.
As you consider my play, the ultimate question for me is this: Was immediately ending the gross moral evil of slavery worth the results of the civil war?
As you read or perform my play, please consider what the Catechism of the Catholic Church ("CCC") §2414, says of slavery: The enslavement of human beings ... is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights ...." For me, that raises a myriad of questions that the Catechism doesn't answer.
If I had been a non-slave holding resident of South Carolina in 1859, would I have been justified in killing my slave-holding next door neighbor to free his slaves, if after I had insisted he free his slaves, he refused to do so? To act in "defense of others?" (Similar to "self defense.")
Given the fact that slavery was a grave sin against the dignity of the slave, and a denial of his fundamental rights, was President Lincoln justified in prosecuting the Civil War?
I have always felt that if the Civil War was a "just war," it was just because slavery was a grave moral wrong that cried out to be eradicated. For me, the war was never justifiable to "save the Union."
"CCC" §2309 states, however, that there are four conditions, all of which must be met, before a "war can be just." The fourth provides, "the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition."
The Census of 1860 tells use there were 3,950,000 slaves in the U.S. at war's outset.
By war's end, the North had suffered 828,000 casualties: 110,000 were killed in action; 230,000 died of accident or disease, 30,000 died while prisoners of war, and 282,000 were wounded in action. Southern forces suffered 864,000 casualties. In addition, 50,000 civilians and more than 80,000 slaves perished.
Neither the Southern "fire-eaters," nor the abolitionists, nor President Lincoln dreamed the war would last five years. Nor did they contemplate the terrible casualties and physical devastation of of the war.
The average price of a slave in 1860 was $800. It would have cost the country about $3.2 billion dollars to exercise eminent domain to buy and free all the slaves. "The total cost of the war to North and South may be estimated at well over $20 billion -- five times all the expenditures of the Federal Government over the 70 year period from 1789 until the Civil War.
I originally conceived of my work as a play. I have also written, with enormous help from President Buchanan, an excellent history of the years leading up to our Civil War. Anybody who reads this play will have a better understanding of those years than any that he is likely to obtain from a high school or college history text.
"ON THE EVE OF REVOLUTION"
CAST OF CHARACTERS
(31 males. Many can be "doubled")
Member of Press
George Wythe Randolph
President Andrew Jackson
Mr. Justice Joseph Story
Congressman David Wilmot (Pa)
Sen. Stephen A. Douglas
Henry Clay (Ky.)
Sen. Archibald Dixon (Ky)
Robert J. Walker, Gov. of Kansas Territory
Chief Justice Roger B. Taney
Sen. Henry Seward NY)
Hinton Helper, author
Wm. W. Avery (NC)
Benjamin M. Samuels (Ia)
Charles W. Russell (Va)
Benjamin C. Howard (Tn)
John Quincy Adams
Sen. John C. Calhoun (SC)
Horace Greeley, editor
Gen. Winfield Scott
Sen. Andrew Johnson
Sen. John J. Crittenden (Ky)
Senator Robert Toombs (Ga)
Former President John Tyler
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