A narrative history of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference, the bipartisan, last-ditch effort to prevent the Civil War, an effort that nearly averted the carnage that followed.
In February 1861, most of AmericaÆs great statesmenùincluding a former president, dozens of current and former senators, Supreme Court justices, governors, and congressmenùcame together at the historic Willard Hotel in a desperate attempt to stave off Civil War.
Seven southern states had already seceded, and the conferees battled against time to craft a compromise to protect slavery and thus preserve the union and prevent war. Participants included former President John Tyler, General William ShermanÆs Catholic step-father, General Winfield Scott, and LincolnÆs future Treasury Secretary, Salmon Chaseùand from a room upstairs at the hotel, Lincoln himself. Revelatory and definitive, The Peace That Almost Was demonstrates that slavery was the main issue of the conferenceùand thus of the war itselfùand that no matter the shared faith, family, and friendships of the participants, ultimately no compromise could be reached.
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About the Author
Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, DC. His writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, National Review Online, The Washington Examiner, The Chicago Tribune, The St. Louis Post Dispatch, Christianity Today, World, and Gettysburg. He writes regularly for The American Spectator and The Weekly Standard and lives outside of northern Virginia.
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The Peace That Almost Was
The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War
By Mark Tooley
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2015 Mark Tooley
All rights reserved.
The conqueror will walk at every step over smoldering ashes. —John Tyler
About 60 of the 131 statesmen dispatched by their states to the Washington Peace Conference trooped into the assembly hall at Willard's Hotel in Washington, DC. It was noon on a chilly Monday, February 4, 1861. It had snowed late in the night, accumulating more than two inches, with the skies clearing by early afternoon. A hotel concessioner, targeting the peace commissioners, sold cockades, worn on the chest to demonstrate Union or Secession loyalty, "suitable for all political sentiments."
A Washington newspaper pleadingly editorialized that morning:
We are sure we echo the consenting prayer of a great majority of our countrymen, who will mark the proceedings with a solicitude second to that which has attached to no similar meeting in our civil history.... We cannot doubt that every member will act with a deep and solemn sense of his responsibility in the sight of God and fellow-citizens throughout the whole land.
Even with such prayers, the cold and snow perhaps added to the gloom in the nation's capital. Nearly every day since Abraham Lincoln's election four months earlier brought more reports of the Union's disintegration. Six Deep South states, starting with South Carolina in December, had already seceded, their congressional delegations having quit the US Congress. On that very day, February 4, their representatives convened in Montgomery, Alabama, as the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America. Federal facilities in the Deep South were seized by state authorities, excepting a few US Army installations like Fort Sumter, South Carolina, whose resistance would spark the war.
President James Buchanan dithered over resistance or acquiescence to the secession. In his final annual message to Congress in December, he faulted the unfolding crisis on the "long-continued and intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery." He further blamed the "incessant and violent agitation of the slavery question throughout the North for the last quarter of a century" for its "malign influence on the slaves and inspired them with vague notions of freedom." It had left no "sense of security ... around the family altar," thanks to "apprehensions of servile insurrections," with "many a matron throughout the South ... at night in dread of what may befall herself and children before the morning."
The solution was "easy," Buchanan promised. All the American people must do to "settle the slavery question forever" was to leave the Southern slave states alone to "manage their domestic institutions in their own way." After all, he reasoned, "as sovereign States, they, and they alone, are responsible before God and the world for the slavery existing among them." He asserted that "the people of the North are not more responsible and have no more right to interfere than with similar institutions in Russia or in Brazil."
Easy indeed. Buchanan warned Southern states they had no right to quit the Union, while professing he had no constitutional authority to hold them by force. His secretary of state, Lewis Cass of Michigan, resigned in December to protest Buchanan's inaction. The secretary of war, John Floyd of Virginia, was fired weeks later for suspiciously relocating US military resources to the South. Deep South members of the cabinet resigned in solidarity with their departing states.
On February 13, the Electoral College results of the presidential election were scheduled for ratification in a joint session of the US Congress. Some wondered if a sufficient congressional quorum would even be present. Others harbored dark fears of possibly violent plots to disrupt the ratification, over which pro-Southern Vice President John Breckenridge of Kentucky, one of Lincoln's presidential opponents, would preside.
In January Congress had rejected the "Crittenden Compromise." It came from aging Kentucky US Senator John Crittenden. Through constitutional amendments and congressional resolutions, it mandated that slavery could spread to new southern states in the West, in sync with the old Missouri Compromise of 1820. And it forbade congressional interference with the intrastate slave trade or any abolition of slavery by Congress, plus guaranteed federal reimbursement to owners of escaped slaves. President-elect Lincoln and his newly empowered Republican Party did not dispute slavery's legality where it was already existing, but they would not permit its spread, as their 1860 Chicago party platform stipulated.
Amid this brewing crisis, former president John Tyler, nearly age seventy-one, emerged from sixteen years of quiet retirement at his romantically named Sherwood Forest Virginia plantation on the James River, surging suddenly back into public life. On December 14, 1860, before South Carolina's secession, privately pondering the "lunacy which seems to have seized the North," he suggested to a Northern friend a "consultation" among border states, six free and six slave, as the "most interested in keeping the peace," and without whose agreement the "union is gone."
A month later, on January 10, Tyler told his son that the "pressure on me for an opinion on the crisis leaves me no alternative." His public proposal would soon appear in a Richmond newspaper; he thought it would "strengthen our friends in the north." Published on January 17, and nationally publicized, Tyler's letter proposed a possible alternative to the "dissolution of that confederacy in the service of which so great a portion of my life has been passed." Virginia's legislature having already scheduled a state convention in February to ponder secession, to which he was himself elected, Tyler suggested the legislature also, in a final bid for "quiet and harmony," invite six free and six border slave states to negotiate preservation of the Union through "adjustment" of the Constitution. Absent such agreement, "peace and concord has become impossible," and the South should create its own new union, under the same Constitution, inviting all states to join it, "with the old flag flying over one and all."
Virginia's legislature, the oldest elected assembly in the Western Hemisphere, expanded Tyler's idea. On January 19 it proposed a convention of all states to adjudicate their differences, lest disunion be "inevitable," and to "avert so dire a calamity" by making a "final effort to restore the Union and the Constitution, in the spirit in which they were established by the Fathers of the Republic." The Virginians commended the Crittenden Compromise, which protected "slavery of the African race" in the southwestern territories and the right of slave owners to transmit slaves across free territory, as a solution to the "unhappy controversy."
Tyler was privately disappointed that the legislature had expanded his idea into an invitation to all states, which he feared would lead to Northern domination and gridlock. Northern and Southern diehards were exasperated and suspicious of Virginia's plea for reconciliation. A Richmond newspaper hyperbolically denounced the Virginia legislature's peace convention idea for supposedly suggesting that Virginia "submit to anti-slavery oppression" by the North. But a Cincinnati newspaper denied that Virginia's appeal "conceals some dark design of the Disunionists," asserting that it instead showed "perfect good faith." A Washington newspaper hailed the "ancient commonwealth" for trying to mediate "between the alienated sections of a common country."
Hedging its bets, the Virginia legislature also affirmed that if reconciliation failed, Virginia would "unite her destinies with her sister slaveholding states." Firebrand legislator James Seddon was appointed to the Peace Conference with Tyler and three others who were more moderate. He successfully proposed that Virginia accept no restoration of the Union that didn't allow to "each section self-protecting power against any invasion of the Federal Union."
As his ancient state's most prominent senior statesman, Tyler was quickly dispatched by the Virginia legislature to President Buchanan, bearing its peace proposal. He was to appeal in the interim for federal restraint toward the seceding states, "avoiding all acts calculated to produce a collision of arms." On January 23, Tyler left for Washington, by way of Richmond. Mrs. Tyler noted he was "very unwell," heavily medicated with mercury and chalk, but he felt he "must go." She observed, the "excitement of convention always agrees with him." Mrs. Tyler expected Southern states to "stay" their secession out of respect to her husband, who was accompanied by their fourteen-year-old son playing the part of his courier with the White House.
Tyler headed north along the route between Richmond and Washington, where hundreds of thousands from Northern and Southern armies would clash almost continuously for the next four years. From his rickety and likely not well-heated train on that winter afternoon, he could view from his window what would be some of the bloodiest battlefields in American history: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania, among others. His warnings about the violent consequences of failure to conciliate the dividing sections, and his Virginia statesman's knowledge of war and geography, indicate he must have quietly pondered the possibility, even likelihood, that he was traveling through lands soon to be blood drenched and ruined.
Tyler was committed to the Union, but his love began with his native Virginia, which he foresaw being especially ravaged by war. Four years earlier, he had given a speech commemorating the anniversary of English settlement at Jamestown, with Northern abolitionists probably in mind. He declared: "Political demagogues may revile and abuse, but they cannot detract from the high and lofty fame which belongs to this time-honored commonwealth."
Tyler Meets Buchanan
Upon Tyler's arrival in Washington, he sent a note requesting an immediate meeting with President Buchanan. The president readily invited him to the White House that evening. Tyler and Buchanan had known each other since Buchanan joined him in the US Senate in 1834. Tyler had even supported his earlier failed 1852 attempt for the Democratic presidential nomination. But Tyler had little warmth for Buchanan, once explaining, "he had none for me in my severe trials." Now explaining his health was "too delicate to make it prudent for me to encounter the night air" of a cold January, Tyler instead visited Buchanan the next morning for ninety minutes.
Buchanan received his predecessor cordially. Nearly age seventy, just a year younger than Tyler, he was desperate for national conciliation, having served in public office nearly a half century as Pennsylvania state legislator, US congressman, US senator, minister to Russia under Andrew Jackson, minister to Britain under President Franklin Pierce, and US secretary of state under President James Polk. He came from modest means, literally born in a log cabin, with a Scots-Irish immigrant farmer for a father. Buchanan began politically as an antiwar Federalist and later became a Democrat. The last War of 1812 veteran to sit in the White House, and the last US president born in the eighteenth century, he had overcome his war skepticism to serve in the defense of Baltimore against the British in 1814—the battle that would inspire Francis Scott Key's "Star Spangled Banner."
In 1834, when Buchanan was a rising politician, he was alarmed by the implications for his career when his sister married a Virginia slave owner. Buchanan purchased two of their slaves for manumission, although Pennsylvania law kept the adult woman bound to Buchanan for seven years and the five-year-old girl until age twenty-eight. In 1836 he had warned his fellow US senators, "touch this issue of slavery seriously ... and the Union is from that moment dissolved." He explained that Pennsylvanians "are all opposed to slavery in the abstract" but would never violate Southern rights.
In an 1844 US Senate speech, Buchanan argued that annexing Texas as a slave state would facilitate gradual emancipation by drawing slaves from throughout the South and ultimately funneling them into Mexico, where they could attain "social equality." He faulted the "mad interference" of abolitionists for interrupting public opinion's trend toward gradual emancipation.
Fussy, gossipy, obsessed with detail, sometimes irritable, ever ambitious, and often eager to please, Buchanan reputedly was derided in private by President Jackson as "Miss Nancy." He was a lifelong bachelor whose First Lady during his presidency was his attractive and coldly proper young niece, the very devoted Harriet Lane, whom he had adopted after her parents' death, and with whom he maintained a sometimes tense but still solid social partnership.
Seen as sanctimonious, Buchanan was sarcastically called "the Pride of the Christian World" or "Old Gurley," after his sometime Presbyterian pastor and US Senate Chaplain Phineas Gurley. Late in his presidency he reportedly conferred with a New York Presbyterian minister about "regeneration, atonement, repentance, and faith," after which he indicated he had "much of the experience which you describe." He promised to formally "unite" with Presbyterianism after retirement, to avoid charges of hypocrisy, lest he seem to profess religion only for political gain.
Buchanan preferred to be known as "the Old Public Functionary," signifying his years of public service and multiplicity of offices. Loyal to the Union he had served so long, he was long partial to Southern concerns and, like nearly all his presidential predecessors, never publicly criticized slavery. He had precipitously acclaimed the US Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott decision, which was announced right after his inauguration, and which denied any citizen rights even to free blacks, as permanently settling the slavery question.
As the nation crumbled over slavery, Buchanan nonchalantly insisted to all during his final months in office that he slept soundly. But some noticed that his hair had grown pure white. He was a tall, large bellied figure dressed formally in black, his head chronically tossed to one side. Reserved and with few close friends, he was still sociable, had female admirers, deployed warmth and charm when necessary, and could be physically demonstrative. He and his diligent niece tried with some success to cohere Washington socially even as it fractured politically. Their final New Year's Day reception, open nearly to all, had been mostly a success, even if many Southern notables were noticeably absent. Some attenders wore cockades of competing loyalties, and some defiant women ignored the offered hand of President Buchanan "with an effort at display of lofty disdain."
Buchanan's monthly levee a couple of weeks later was pronounced "elegant" but singularly unique. Most of his fellow Democrats were observed absent, while newly arrived Northern Republicans proliferated, offering him "many words of patriotism and kindness," which the president naturally, if nervously, appreciated. A Georgia newspaper more caustically portrayed Buchanan's reception as "thinly attended" and including "few congratulations," as his visitors were mainly his formerly "bitterest opponents." It warned the president: "Save me from my friends."
Buchanan was always a careful party loyalist who had fought his way upward politically from obscurity. But Tyler, on the other hand, was a self-assured, patrician political maverick born into Virginia aristocracy. He was confident he spoke for his commonwealth at the hour of its peril. On the morning of Thursday, January 24, at the White House, his own former residence, he assured Buchanan that Virginians were "almost universally inclined to peace and reconciliation" and urged his sharing with Congress Virginia's plea for the "status quo."
President Buchanan readily agreed to transmit to Congress Virginia's appeal for a peace summit of the states, which he "hailed with great satisfaction." But he complained that seceding Southern states had "not treated him properly" by "seizing unprotected arsenals and forts, and thus perpetrating useless acts of bravado, which had quite as well been let alone." Tyler admitted these acts were meant to "fret and irritate the Northern mind, that he could see in them only the necessary results of popular excitement which, after all, worked no mischief in the end if harmony between the States was once more restored."
Tyler met with Buchanan a second time the following day, and Buchanan approvingly reviewed the text of the presidential message to Congress. Tyler personally watched with satisfaction as Virginia's appeal for peace was presented to the US Senate, where it was received politely but without formal response. New York Republican Senator William Seward, soon to be Lincoln's secretary of state, approached him to shake hands, with a "timidity he could not disguise," Mrs. Tyler recalled. Buchanan's message stressed the urgency of ensuring the "slaveholding states adequate guarantees for the security of their rights" and commended to Congress Virginia's plea for a pledge to avoid force. Trusting that "Virginia's mediation" under the "Providence of God" would "perpetuate the Union," he declared with optimistic bravado: "I am one of those who will never despair of the Republic."
Excerpted from The Peace That Almost Was by Mark Tooley. Copyright © 2015 Mark Tooley. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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Table of Contents
ONE: Crisis, 1,
TWO: The Federal City, 30,
THREE: Opening Debate, 54,
FOUR: The Clergy and Churches, 85,
FIVE: The Compromise, 117,
SIX: Securing the Capitol, 162,
SEVEN: Lincoln's Arrival, 194,
EIGHT: Agreement and Rejection, 223,
Epilogue: Legacy, 249,
About the Author, 299,