February 4, 1861 – The Peace Convention called by the Virginia legislature in January assembled at Washington.
The convention included 131 delegates from 21 of the 34 states. Arkansas joined the seven seceded states in not participating. California and Oregon did not join due to distance; Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota declined because their Republican leaders distrusted the conference’s intentions.
Delegates from other northern states participated, but they had been appointed by Republican leaders who expected them to oppose any proposal that would expand slavery beyond where it already existed. Border states also participated, which threatened to divide the lower and upper South. Senator William H. Seward of New York, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state-designate, persuaded many fellow Republicans to take part as a conciliatory gesture.
Former President John Tyler presided over the convention. He called for the delegates to put patriotism above party and resolve the sectional dispute diplomatically and constitutionally. He said that “the eyes of the whole country are turned to this assembly, in expectation and hope.”
The delegation began with the Crittenden compromise plan as the starting point of discussions, even though it had already been rejected by Congress, and Republicans would not agree to any compromise that could potentially expand slavery. Nevertheless, the convention’s goal was to agree upon compromise proposals, then submit them to Congress for approval, and then to the states for ratification. Critics who believed this conference was futile called it the “Old Gentlemen’s Convention.”
On February 15, debate began on the various ideas drafted by a committee. Eleven days later, the delegates began voting on these proposals. Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois joined with convention delegates Senator John Bell of Tennessee and former Treasury Secretary James Guthrie of Kentucky to urge President-elect Lincoln to support peace.
The Peace Convention delegates submitted their conclusions to Congress on February 27. These included six proposed constitutional amendments:
- Slavery would be banned north of the 36-30 geographical line; territories south of that line could permit slavery without congressional interference, and those territories could become states that either allowed or banned slavery depending on what their state constitutions permitted
- No further territory would be acquired except through a treaty and consent from four-fifths of the Senate
- Congress could not interfere with slavery in states or territories where it was permitted
- Congress could not interfere with enforcement of the Constitution’s fugitive slave provisions
- The foreign slave trade would be permanently abolished
- Federal compensation should be given to slaveholders who lost runaways in some cases
The delegates had defeated these measures by one vote due to Republican opposition, but they submitted them to Congress nonetheless. On the Senate floor, the two Michigan senators released a statement opposing their state’s participation in the Peace Conference, calling it “a step toward obtaining that concession which the imperious slave power so insolently demands.”
Congressional deliberation over the Peace Conference’s findings continued into March, but most people were not optimistic that they would resolve the sectional crisis. Charleston (Missouri) Courier editor George Whitcomb described the situation:
“Men at Washington think there is no chance for peace, and indeed we can see but little, everything looks gloomy. The Crittenden resolutions have been voted down again and again. Is there any other proposition which will win, that the South can accept? If not—there comes war—and woe to the wives and daughters of our land; beauty will be but an incentive to crime, and plunder but pay for John Brown raids. Let our citizens be prepared for the worst, it may come.”
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 4362-73
- Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 13
- Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 2167
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 31-32, 37, 41-42
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 256
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 44
- 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
- Wikipedia: Crittenden Compromise