Edna Greene Medford: Why did the Peace Conference in Washington fail in its mission?
Professor and chairperson of the Department of History at Howard University
Despite the earnest desire of many of the delegates to find an amicable solution to the growing crisis, the stated mission of the conference was doomed from the start. Widespread distrust and unrestrained partisanship combined with legitimate and deep-rooted differences to quash any chances for peace. Failure was both expected and preferred by certain of the conference participants.
Virginia’s final hour request that the states meet to consider the issues that divided them alarmed Republicans who feared that the secession crisis might weaken the resolve of the northern states to fight slavery’s expansion. Although they objected to the very idea of a conference, especially before the president-elect could take office, they recognized that their absence from the meeting would embolden the southern rights advocates and endanger the anti-slavery platform that had led the Republican Party to victory.
The composition of the delegations hindered serious considerations of compromise. While delegations were not always of one mind, states under the control of Republicans selected delegates generally favorable to its ideology, and those in the hands of the Democrats did likewise. A litmus test was employed that assured loyalty to partisan interests, and delegates were instructed to hold firm to party positions. Partisanship trumped everything else, as each side defined peace as acquiescence by the other. The compromises that were reached—passed by narrow margins—pleased few and guaranteed rejection when proposed to Congress.
The delegates who participated in the conference suffered from a crisis of faith—they held serious doubts about the nation’s ability to coax the seceded states back into the Union. Their presence at the meeting reflected less a desire to recapture the states that had broken away than it did an interest in securing the loyalty of the Border States. The conference, they believed, would keep those states engaged in dialogue until Lincoln could take office and implement a plan of action that would address the secession crisis. A proposed national convention to address the issue of Constitutional amendments as a “fixer” for a divided nation was meant to further extend the time in which the nation might come to a peaceful resolution of the problem of slavery.
To that extent, the conference was not an utter failure. Certainly, peace was not secured, and ultimately, all but four of the Border States joined their sisters in dissolving their ties with the Union. But the three weeks of negotiation made it possible for Lincoln to enter the White House, extend an olive branch to the South, and it having been rejected (repeatedly), he embraced a course of action that he hoped would lead to lasting peace.
Edna Greene Medford
| January 31, 2011; 9:45 AM ET
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