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Posted at 9:30 AM ET, 01/31/2011

Harold Holzer: Why did the Peace Conference in Washington fail in its mission?

By Harold Holzer

Author or editor of 36 books, many on Lincoln, and chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation

Holzer

The real question perhaps was: why did the peace convention try?

There is nothing in American law or political tradition, much less the Constitution, that punts crisis management to an independent body of unelected politicians -- especially between an election and inauguration, pending the succession to office of a legally chosen new government.

Sure, such interregnums can be nail-biting (especially when they lasted between November and March, rather than January 20), and the “secession winter” was the most perilous of all.

But Abraham Lincoln had no intention of abiding by any compromise that extended slavery west or north -- he had so pledged for years and was not about to change his mind now, especially on the suggestion of a group of rump conferees with more chutzpah than real authority. And since Lincoln knew that the only way Southern delegates would be placated was with a compromise plan that did exactly what the President-elect rejected, the Convention was doomed to failure before it even gaveled to order at the Willard in February 1861.

That said, Lincoln played the blame game ingeniously. He never attacked the proceedings directly, but rather made certain that his allies knew where he stood. With private and confidential letters earlier in the interregnum, he had made clear his opposition to a resumption of popular sovereignty and slavery extension to Senators and Congressmen entertaining similar compromise schemes in their respective chambers.

Lincoln disarmed the Peace Convention entirely when he arrived in Washington on February 23. Delegates met him that night at his Willard suite, and vented some of their hostility in his direction, some questioning his very right to assume office. He remained calm and dignified throughout their session, feinting rather than responding, and giving no quarter to the Southerners. Those who thought the incoming president was a country bumpkin incapable of handling the emergency left at least understanding that Lincoln was neither a boob nor a pushover.

Abraham Lincoln never spoke out publicly against the Convention or its ultimate compromise plan (which he never would have supported). But “wholesale” inside politics nourished by resolute anti-slavery-extension conviction, he sabotaged them as surely as if he had ordered the hotel annex where they met surrounded by troops and its participants thrown into prison.

In Abraham Lincoln, the Peace Convention met its match. As Lincoln put it, “the tug” had to come.

By Harold Holzer  | January 31, 2011; 9:30 AM ET
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Next: Frank Williams: Why did the Peace Conference fail in its mission?

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