January 10, 1861 – Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi warned his colleagues to take action before the country drifted toward war.
In the North, mass meetings took place in Chicago supporting the Federal government. A sharp distinction between supporting the U.S. and abolishing slavery was drawn in Rochester, New York, when U.S. supporters broke up a meeting of abolitionists. Some abolitionists preferred disunion to a nation that tolerated slavery. Wendell Phillips delivered a speech at the Congregational Society in Boston, proclaiming himself a disunion man, hailing the southern secession as beneficial to the North, and expressing hope that all slave states would leave the Union.
The legislatures of New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania adopted resolutions supporting the U.S., with New York backing its support with force if necessary. New York Governor Edwin D. Morgan ordered state authorities to impound all weapons and ammunition stored in private warehouses awaiting shipment to Georgia. Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown retaliated by ordering the seizure of several northern vessels in his state.
As North and South became more polarized, the congressmen of 14 middle states that allowed slavery (i.e., the “border” or “mid-South” states) met to discuss compromise ideas. Meanwhile, former Secretary of War John B. Floyd urged southerners to oppose Federal coercion to remain in the Union.
Members of Congress also made impassioned speeches in favor of either compromise or disunion. Senator Davis declared:
“Senators, we are rapidly drifting into a position in which this is to become a Government of the Army and Navy in which the authority of the United States is to be maintained, not by law, not by constitutional agreement between the States, but by physical force; and you will stand still and see this policy consummated?”
Davis said that if northern intolerance toward the southern way of life compelled the southern states to secede, there would be no hostilities as long as the Federal government did not try forcing those states to return. Republican Lyman Trumbull of Illinois accused Davis and his fellow southerners of being the aggressors by trying to leave the Union and taking Federal property (i.e., forts and arsenals) with them. Trumbull said:
“He (Davis) talks as if we Republicans were responsible for civil war if it ensues. If civil war comes, it comes from those with whom he is acting. Who proposed to make civil war but South Carolina? Who proposes to make civil war but Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia, seizing by force of arms, upon the public property of the United States?… They are making war, and modestly ask us to have peace by submitting to what they ask!…”
Two days later, Republican William H. Seward, President-elect Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state designate, addressed the Senate: “The alarm is appalling; for the Union is not more the body than liberty is the soul of the nation… A continuance of the debate on the constitutional power of Congress over the subject of slavery in the Territories will not save the Union. The Union cannot be saved by proving that secession is illegal or unconstitutional.” He expressed dread toward war and added, “I do not know what the Union would be worth if saved by the use of the sword.”
Seward proposed admitting Kansas as a free state, allowing slavery to continue where it already existed, and dividing all national territory into two states covering the Rocky Mountains and the western deserts. The lower half (to be called New Mexico) would allow slavery, and the upper half (unnamed) would be free. Seward also called for a Federal convention to consider amendments to stop secession; this angered southerners because such a convention would be dominated by the more populous North, and it confirmed many southerners’ belief that Republicans sought to destroy states’ rights.
On the 14th the House Committee of Thirty-three announced it could not reach a compromise, just like the Committee of Thirteen in the Senate. The House committee submitted a majority report and two minority reports; the full House approved the majority report but it did nothing to settle the question of whether to allow slavery in the territories, which was a key point in any potential compromise between Republicans and southern Democrats.
Submitted by Committee Chairman Thomas Corwin of Ohio, the majority report proposed a constitutional amendment protecting slavery where it existed and barring any future constitutional amendments regarding slavery unless approved by the slaveholding states. Corwin also proposed repealing northern laws obstructing enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act while granting jury trials to fugitive slaves. This “Corwin Amendment” remained one of the final compromise ideas still under consideration in Congress.
Meanwhile, many southerners had already decided that secession would be the best solution to the crisis. Jefferson Davis wrote to South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens on January 18:
“I hope we shall soon have a Confederacy, that shall be ready to do all which interest or even pride demands, and in the fullness of a redemption of every obligation… We have much of preparation to make, both in military and civil organization, and the time which serves for our preparation, by its moral effect tends also toward a peaceful solution…”
The following week, Naval Commander John A.B. Dahlgren ordered the removal of ammunition from the Washington Navy Yard in case of a secessionist attack.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 1240-51, 3838
- Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 9-11
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 21-22, 24-29
- White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012) Q161