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Posted at 9:40 AM ET, 01/31/2011

John Marszalek: Why did the Peace Conference in Washington fail in its mission?

By John Marszalek

Giles Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history at Mississippi State University


In early 1861, with Lincoln already president-elect, President Buchanan dithering in the White House, the upper South still refusing to secede thus convincing many that Unionism survived there, Union-saving attempts emerged. Congress’s House Committee of Thirty-Three deliberated, and William Henry Seward wrote Abraham Lincoln in January that Republicans should do all they could to encourage Unionism. Lincoln seemed to approve as long as there was nothing in any agreement that permitted the extension of slavery into the territories, the cardinal principle of the newly victorious but loosely united Republican Party. Though Lincoln was willing to give in on some matters, even a thirteenth amendment to guarantee slavery where it already existed, when one of the parts of the resulting Crittenden Compromise called for an extension of the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific, the whole effort was doomed.

At the same time, another desperate attempt was proceeding at Virginia’s behest: a national peace conference. Historian Robert Gunderson entitled his book on this gathering “Old Gentlemen’s Convention,” and this aptly describes most of those who attended. Former president John Tyler of Virginia was in his early seventies and other by-passed political leaders like Thomas Ewing of Ohio (William T. Sherman’s foster father), David Wilmot of Pennsylvania (the author of the 1840s Wilmot Proviso) and others like them represented an earlier era. The press ridiculed the gathering, as did radicals on both sides who worked to ensure its failure. The seceded states and some others, thirteen in all, did not send delegates. Republicans were particularly opposed. The convention finally gave birth only to a version of the failed Crittenden Compromise, calling on the Missouri Compromise Line to affect only present not future territory, and mandating that a majority of free and slave state senators should be required to add new territory to the nation. This effort similarly failed.

Compromise solutions were impossible in a milieu of hardened resolution on both sides. Perhaps there was never any hope of compromise at this late date and the only reason any attempts were made was a misguided belief that the Upper South held significant numbers of Unionists. Ironically, these efforts at reconciliation did not avoid national disruption, rather they propelled the nation further down the path to disunion and war.

By John Marszalek  | January 31, 2011; 9:40 AM ET
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