By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist
This is the first installment of a series on the diary of William Logan Rodman. Stay tuned to the Beehive for more.
About a year ago, the MHS acquired a very interesting diary kept by William Logan Rodman of New Bedford, Mass. Though it covers only a year and a half of Rodman’s life, it’s full of terrific anecdotes, descriptions, and hot takes on current events leading up to and including the first year of the Civil War.
If he sounds familiar to you, that may be because of his grandfather Samuel Rodman (1753-1835), a very prosperous merchant who made his name in the whaling centers of Nantucket and New Bedford. Samuel married Elizabeth Rotch, and several other Rodmans also married into that family, interweaving the two powerful New England whaling dynasties. William’s maternal grandfather, meanwhile, was Thomas Morgan, a prominent merchant of Philadelphia.
Members of the Rodman, Rotch, and Morgan families were also practicing Quakers and fervent opponents of slavery.
In October 1860, when he began his diary, William Rodman had a comfortable life. He was 38 years old, unmarried, living in New Bedford, and “participat[ing] moderately in business,” as his Harvard biography puts it. But his life would change dramatically in the coming months, and it all began with the momentous election of Abraham Lincoln on 6 November.
Southern backlash to the election was fierce, but Rodman was initially sanguine about it, writing the day after, “I have no fears of Secession or Revolution. The South will bluster & Resolve but […] all will be quiet.” And a few days later: “They will have to submit to the will of the majority viz the Union or go to everlasting smash out of it.” He dismissed what he called “Southern secession nonsense” in the newspapers.
James Buchanan was now a lame-duck president. Rodman hated him, and he did not mince words. He called the administration “corrupt and degraded” and the man himself “the meanest & vilest of the American Presidents,” lacking “a vertebral column.” He rarely even referred to Buchanan by name, preferring epithets such as “the Old Public Functionary,” “an inefficient old fool,” and even “Mrs. Buchanan,” probably a not-so-veiled reference to rumors about the bachelor president’s sexuality.
Buchanan’s political positions were abhorrent to opponents of slavery like Rodman. Buchanan had intervened in the deliberations of the U.S. Supreme Court in Dred Scott, pressuring justices to rule against Scott and deny citizenship to Black people. He supported the Fugitive Slave Law requiring free states to return enslaved people to their enslavers and argued for a federal law protecting slavery in the territories. And he used his 1860 State of the Union address to pre-emptively blame the Northern states for Southern secession (emphasis mine):
The long-continued and intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern States has at length produced its natural effects. The different sections of the Union are now arrayed against each other, and the time has arrived, so much dreaded by the Father of his Country, when hostile geographical parties have been formed.
I have long foreseen and often forewarned my countrymen of the now impending danger. This does not proceed solely from the claim on the part of Congress or the Territorial legislatures to exclude slavery from the Territories, nor from the efforts of different States to defeat the execution of the fugitive-slave law. All or any of these evils might have been endured by the South without danger to the Union (as others have been) in the hope that time and reflection might apply the remedy. The immediate peril arises not so much from these causes as from the fact that the incessant and violent agitation of the slavery question throughout the North for the last quarter of a century has at length produced its malign influence on the slaves and inspired them with vague notions of freedom. Hence a sense of security no longer exists around the family altar. This feeling of peace at home has given place to apprehensions of servile insurrections. Many a matron throughout the South retires at night in dread of what may befall herself and children before the morning. Should this apprehension of domestic danger, whether real or imaginary, extend and intensify itself until it shall pervade the masses of the Southern people, then disunion will become inevitable. […]
How easy would it be for the American people to settle the slavery question forever and to restore peace and harmony to this distracted country! They, and they alone, can do it. All that is necessary to accomplish the object, and all for which the slave States have ever contended, is to be let alone and permitted to manage their domestic institutions in their own way.
Historians have consistently ranked Buchanan at or near the bottom in lists of U.S. presidents. One 2015 biography is even called The Worst President: The Story of James Buchanan.
At the beginning of December, still three months away from Lincoln’s inauguration, Rodman was beginning to sound a little less sure of himself on the question of secession. He wrote, “I cannot feel that this great confederacy is to be destroyed just yet and I dont like to contemplate the fearful ruin that must overtake the South if they pursue their mad schemes.”
Sure enough, on 20 December 1860, South Carolina became the first of eleven states to dissolve its ties with the Union. Rodman had not wanted to see it happen, but now that it was underway, he recorded his feelings in his diary:
Some of our citizens talk blood and warfare, but this is easy talking far away from the probable scenes of danger. I hope we may have peace without blood but if not why my first wish is for wiping Charleston off the face of creation.