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Defenders of the Union: Five antebellum presidents and the Civil War

Scott David Stempson, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Every American president who served in the turbulent antebellum years of the 1830s through the 1850s did everything in his power to avoid what many today look back on as the unavoidable: Civil War. Southern states first began discussing secession in response to the Nullification Crisis during the Jackson Administration in the early 1830s. While it would take almost thirty years before South Carolina passed its ordinance of secession touching off the first spark of war, Jackson's successors walked a tightrope trying to pacify the Southern states enough to keep them from leaving the Union. Five of these presidents lived to see the firing on Fort Sumter and at least the opening stages of the bloodiest conflict in this nation's history. The five presidents in chronological order of their terns are Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan. These five men, who are the subject of this study, have many things in common, not the least of which being their use of the Constitution as a basis for their stance on virtually every issue that presented itself. While they each swore an oath to preserve, protect and defend that document, some would say they used it more as a kind of barricade to hide behind, particularly with the most divisive issue of the time---slavery's expansion. This dissertation examines secondary sources dealing with this explosive period as well as the primary sources of these men---both their public utterances as well as their private correspondence---prior to, during, and especially following their terms in office. Repeated again and again in nearly every statement from these presidents is their strong belief in their oath of office as well as the importance of the Union. This strong belief in the Union by these men as well as the historical circumstances that link them together provided the title of this study. ^

Subject Area

Biography|History, United States

Recommended Citation

Stempson, Scott David, "Defenders of the Union: Five antebellum presidents and the Civil War" (2006). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3208126.