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The cataclysm of the Civil War is the defining moment in the history of the United States. At the cost of more than 750,000 dead and that many more wounded, it guaranteed the preservation of the Union and abolished the institution of racial slavery. Even with that frightful human toll, the outcome made it a good war for the United States. These generalizations are well known and shared by most Americans of our time.
Yet the men who made the fateful decisions leading to that massive conflict did not share our perspective. The great historian David M. Potter commented on the difficulty, but necessity, of understanding the perspective of those we study. “The supreme task of the historian,” he wrote, “and the one of most superlative difficulty, is to see the past through the imperfect eyes of those who lived it and not with his own omniscient twenty-twenty vision.” Recognizing the arduousness of his assigned task, Potter concluded, “I am not suggesting that any of us can really do this, but only that it is what we must attempt.”
In this book I have tried to adhere to Potter’s charge. In the months between the election of the Republican Abraham Lincoln as president in November 1860 and the outbreak of hostilities in April 1861, no one knew whether war would occur, or if it did, no one could foresee the price, course, or result of that war. Even those who did expect armed conflict, a few excitedly, more fearfully, had no conception of its magnitude.
Slavery and the political issues surrounding it occupy a central place in my account. Yes, the war ended slavery, and to most Americans of today it was fought for that cause. The war was not begun to eradicate slavery, however. Even the leading Republican policymakers understood that a war started to kill slavery could not command united northern support and could quite possibly destroy their party.
This judgment was based on the reality that Americans, Republicans included, overwhelmingly believed that the Constitution protected slavery in the states where it existed. Moreover, except in extreme antislavery circles, owning slaves did not make a person a moral ogre or persona non grata in civil society. Additionally, the racial character of American slavery was of cardinal importance. In the mid-nineteenth century almost all white Americans and Western Europeans believed in the supremacy of the white race. I will not keep pointing out that this outlook is different from mine and that of our own era. I should not need to.
Before the Civil War, white southerners constantly talked about liberty—its preciousness and their commitment to it. They perceived no contradiction between their faith in liberty and the existence of slavery. From at least the period of the American Revolution, white southerners defined their liberty, in part, as their right to own slaves and to decide the fate of the institution without any outside interference. In their view, living in a slave society made them no less American than their fellow citizens in the free states. While such a concept is foreign to our thinking, it was fundamental to white southerners until 1865.
Writing a book about the coming of the Civil War, even one so chronologically restricted as mine, I place myself in a long line of historians who have grappled with the causes of the war. I owe an enormous debt to my predecessors, who have illuminated so many facets of the sectional struggle from abolition to secession. Answering the question of why the war came is not my aim. My goal is not so grand. I want to tell the story of those whose action and inaction brought the country to the precipice and finally over it.
I concentrate on the five months between Lincoln’s election and the commencement of fighting. During those weeks the attention of Americans became increasingly riveted on the great crisis of the Union. The southern states threatened to break up the Union. The immediate crucial issue was the place of slavery in the national territories; the longer-term question concerned the character of the Union and who would wield power in it.
At the outset, many Americans assumed that a political compromise fashioned in Congress would settle the dispute. Compromising sectional disagreements had been a hallmark of the nation since the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The precedent set there had been followed on several volatile occasions during the succeeding three-quarters of a century.
But not all Americans wanted another compromise. In the South, radical secessionists saw this moment, the election of a northern president heading a northern party by northern voters, as their opportunity to disrupt the Union. The North had its own segment that spurned any compromise with the South. These vigorous partisans of the triumphant Republican party were determined to celebrate their victory without any deal with an alarmed, uneasy South.
Between these extremes, Americans in both sections ardently desired to reach an equitable settlement between North and South. Although this pro-compromise sentiment could be found in the Deep South and in the Republican party, it flourished among northern Democrats and in the Upper South and Border. A fact often overlooked is that pro-compromise forces included men both antislavery and proslavery.
My book focuses on why the pro-compromise legions lost, or why the American tradition of sectional compromise failed. In the past few years, several scholars have investigated different parts of this story, most notably the success of the secessionists and the dynamics within the Republican party. But no one has treated North and South, Republican and Democrat, sectional radicals and sectional conservatives in the same place. I have done that.
“Is This Not a Remarkable Spectacle?”
In the early evening of Sunday, March 3, 1861, the white-headed gentleman stood once more among his fellow senators. Of medium height, spare and erect, with a face deeply lined, almost craggy, John J. Crittenden commanded attention. With a long commitment to his country and an unsurpassed reputation for integrity, he was foremost a man of character. But Crittenden’s audience consisted of more than his Senate colleagues. Spectators jammed the galleries long before he spoke at 7:00 p.m. In this assembly sat Abraham Lincoln, to be inaugurated president the next day.
For the past three months, during the entire span of the Second Session of the 36th Congress, Senator Crittenden had striven to get his colleagues to address the crisis that convulsed the nation. The Union he cherished was coming apart. Since December 1860, seven southern states, from South Carolina west to Texas, had severed their relations with the United States. In mid-February these seceders had created a new polity, the Confederate States of America. Furthermore, turmoil and uncertainty about their future course dominated discussion in most of the remaining eight slave states. Recognizing his inability thus far to secure any congressional action to prevent this dismemberment, Crittenden on that Sunday made a final plea for his beloved Union.
John Jordan Crittenden is not a name remembered today. But in 1860 and 1861 he was a consequential man, with admirers in both North and South. A native Kentuckian, born in 1786 and trained in the law, he had spent most of his life serving his state and nation in various offices: state legislator, governor, twice a cabinet officer, and on four separate occasionsa United States senator. Since the 1830s he had always been a Whig, the party formed to oppose Andrew Jackson’s Democratic party. The Whigs generally believed in active government to facilitate the material growth and cultural progress of the country. Moreover, Crittenden was a political disciple and proteìgeì of one of the giants of antebellum American politics, Henry Clay, a fellow Kentuckian. Even though the Whig party as an organized force disappeared in the mid-1850s, a victim in large part of increasing sectional tension, Crittenden in 1860 still called himself a Whig.
In the Second Session, Crittenden worked to emulate Clay, who had gained fame as the Great Compromiser or the Great Pacificator. On three occasions when sectional strife had endangered the stability, even the con- tinuation, of the Union, Clay, as congressman or senator, had assumed a major role in finding a legislative settlement. In 1820, when a dispute over the admission of Missouri as a slave state caused a national crisis, Speaker of the House Clay was central in fashioning the Missouri Compromise. Then, in 1832 and 1833, during the Nullification Crisis, which brought South Carolina and the administration of Andrew Jackson to the brink of armed conflict, Clay, now in the U.S. Senate, was instrumental in crafting the Compromise of 1833 and defusing the explosive situation. Finally, toward the end of his life, again a senator, he initiated a drive to settle the struggle between North and South over slavery’s future in the Mexican Cession, territory that came to the United States following the Mexican War—California and the modern Southwest. The resulting Compromise of 1850 thwarted what could have become a full-blown secession crisis. In 1860 and 1861, Crittenden wanted to replicate Clay’s achievement.
The same subject that underlay the political clash of 1850 occupied the country and Senator Crittenden in 1860 and 1861—the future of slavery in the territories belonging to the United States, or, more fundamentally, the future of slavery in the nation. Southerners and many northerners disagreed. Overwhelmingly, southerners asserted their right as Americans to go into the national territory with their property, including slave property. In 1860, southerners based their claim not only on the general southern understanding of their constitutional rights, but also on a recent ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court. In its Dred Scott decision of 1857, the Court declared that southerners enjoyed a constitutional right to carry slaves into the territories, a right that Congress could not proscribe.
That judicial conclusion directly contradicted the main tenet of one of the two major parties—the Republican party, which had grown in the North from the rubble of the old Whig party and from Democrats disaffected by what they perceived as an increasingly pro-southern bias in their former political home. With its single-minded commitment to the North, the Republican party had barely a footprint in the South, and that only in the Border slave states. From the very inception of their party, Republicans had preached no slavery in the territories as their gospel. Even in the face of Dred Scott they refused to back away. In 1860, the Republican candidate for president, Abraham Lincoln, running on a platform that trumpeted territorial prohibition, was elected president of the United States without a single electoral vote from a slave state.
Lincoln’s triumph overturned American politics. A new party with a solely northern constituency would take control of the executive branch of the federal government. That had never happened before; previously, all victorious parties had had a southern connection. Republicans were exuberant, though inexperienced in governing. The defeated Democrats confronted their own problem. Many in the South, the base of the party’s strength, were distraught, even fearful; they foresaw a Republican administration threatening their most basic interests. In the slave states, sectional radicals called fire-eaters cheered the Republican victory as the catalyst for their chief goal, breaking up the Union. Although southerners were certainly not unified on secession, tumult wracked the South. Yet while Republicans basked in the glow of victory and southerners debated their course, the nation turned its eyes to Congress. The Second Session of the 36th Congress would convene in early December, less than a month after the election.
When Congress met, however, no clear statement signaled that it would settle the sectional dispute that had rapidly ascended to the level of national crisis. No person, group, or party immediately stepped forward to calm the excitement. In fact, leadership appeared alarmingly absent. Turning to the Bible, a reporter wrote, “Babel was not in a more confused condition than is Congress at this time.” This witness found “the gabbing, gibbering, many who have nothing to lose, and some hope that they may gain by disorder and dissolution, and who laugh, cackle and gossip over the general conflagration.” The tradition of Congress grasping and handling major crises was seemingly in jeopardy. Southern fire-eaters strutted; Republicans crowed. In contrast, anguished men on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line struggled to find a way toward reconciliation.
Senator Crittenden came forward with proposals, chiefly to settle the territorial question by extending the old Missouri Compromise line westward to California and embedding the division in the Constitution. Between December and March he pushed, at times altering the specifics of his plan to attract support. Other senators and congressmen floated additional suggestions; none went anywhere. The judgment of a close observer in mid-January described the plight of the would-be compromisers: “Things look dark here today. The utter inactivity of Congress stupefies those who would otherwise have some hope.” Most Republicans were fundamentally obdurate in opposing any compromise touching the territories, even in permitting either House or Senate to vote on any such measure. Their strength increased in both houses as congressmen and senators from seceded states left the capital. Despite his arduous efforts, Crittenden never even succeeded in getting the Senate to say aye or nay to his plan.
Now, with the session coming to a close and no congressional action on his or any other proposal, the venerable lawmaker gave his final assessment. It was also his valedictory, for his term expired with the 36th Congress. Crittenden spoke the language of failure, but even more of incomprehension. Addressing his fellow senators, Crittenden asked, “Is this not a remarkable spectacle?” He wanted to know why “when the country trusted to our hands is going to ruin,” the Senate has been unable “to devise any measure of public safety.” “We see the danger,” he announced; “we acknowledge our duty.” Yet, he sorrowfully noted, “we are acknowledging before the world we can do nothing; acknowledging before the world, or appearing to all the world as men who do nothing.” “The saddest spectacle,” he deplored.
Denying accusations hurled at him that he acted as if he had a special commission to make peace, Crittenden heaped praise upon colleagues who had also worked for settlement. He had done no more, he declared, than those others. He also made clear that he was no evangelist for slavery, announcing, “I appear here as the advocate of Union.” Borrowing from Shakespeare, he told senators their role “must be to do something, or to do nothing.”
For a man who professed no allegiance to an active party, Crittenden’s cry for patriotism to country over party loyalty posed no difficulty. Still, recognizing the power of party on professional politicians, he insisted that the Senate no longer confronted “a question of party,” but “a question of country and Union.” He went on to affirm the equality of all Americans under the Constitution.
Thus, in his view the South did have constitutional rights in the com- mon national territory. And these rights, in his mind, included taking slave property into that territory. He even admitted that the South had “some plausible reason to be discontented” because Republicans repeatedly maintained that they would bar southerners from the territories, taking all for the North. For Crittenden solving this problem was simple—a compromise, extending the Missouri line westward to California. This was more than an equitable division, he informed Republicans, for it gave the North fully two-thirds of the national domain. Furthermore, because of the inhospitable climate and terrain below that line, he foresaw little chance of slavery taking hold there. As a result, he defined Republican insistence on the total prohibition of slavery as “a mere question of abstract right.”
Crittenden said he would never waver in his great goal to halt any future secession and then aim for reconstruction of the Union. From Republicans he solicited compromise, “giv[ing] to the nation breathing-time” to get past the alarm pervading the country. But he admitted despite that single request “this is refused.” He pointed out to Republicans that they would control the executive branch, that the northern population and economy were outpacing the southern. Over time, northern power would only increase. Thus, offering the South now what he termed “a little boon” in order to save the country he saw as wise policy, not craven compromise. He chided the Republicans for their commitment to the shibboleth “woe to the conquered; no compromise,” comparing it to the proclamation of Roman emperors, “vae victis.” Simply put, it was not American. Moreover, he insisted that a large portion, “if not a majority,” of the northern electorate rejected Republican obduracy. Crittenden based this estimate on petitions and memorials flooding Congress. He specified that no less than a quarter million northern voters had signed petitions submitted to Congress. He also noted that legislatures had “memorialized, and, in fact, petitioned Congress in the name of the people of their States.” Even executives of railroad lines traversing the North testified to widespread backing for compromise and expressed their wishes for settlement along the lines of his proposals, Crittenden added. Given the “assurances” proclaimed by all these citizens and his “confidence in the intelligence and public virtue of the people, [which] is greater than it is in any body of their representatives,” Crittenden professed his conviction “that right will eventually be done.”
Identifying himself as a southern man, though one utterly attached to the Union, he urged southerners to recognize the moment as “a time of high party excitement by one Congress.” This emotional spasm would pass, he asserted. New elections would result in more balanced views in Congress. To buttress his case he emphasized the same petitions and memorials he used to appeal to Republicans. Reasonable and fair adjustment of even the territorial issue, he assured southerners, would result from their patience.
Although he tried hard to dam the torrent of disunion, Crittenden left no doubt about his personal position. “I am not for secession. No, sir,” he announced. Whatever came he would stand by the Union, and he urged his state, Kentucky, to do likewise. Nothing that secession could promise, he declared, could match the glory of the Union. Only “an imperious necessity” that he could not envision would legitimize Kentucky’s seceding. Kentucky, the Constitution, the Union—together they comprised the rock of Crittenden’s conviction and patriotism.
While Crittenden made clear his personal stance, he had no illusions. Realizing that Congress would not pass his propositions, he still clung to “every word I have said.” But he warned Republican senators not to feel triumphant, for “I tell you now that, whatever security the apparent peace that surrounds us may induce you to suppose exists in the country, it is a delusion.” His reading of the future was foreboding: “To-morrow, after to-morrow, and each to-morrow brings with it new fears and new apprehensions to my mind.” In his view, “rebellion, revolution, seem to be epidemic in the land.” Facing his fellow senators, he lamented, “I thought we could do something to stay it.” Crittenden and those like him failed, for when Congress adjourned the day after his speech, no settlement had been embraced.
“Restoration,” his major object, had not been achieved. No one at that time could tell whether the Union would again be whole or be engulfed by bloodshed.