The final session of the Thirty-sixth U.S. Congress assembled on the 3rd, just as southern states looked to leave the Union. Part of their reason for seceding was because Republicans controlled Capitol Hill for the first time. But the Republican Party was still made up of a dysfunctional combination of former Whigs, northern Democrats, and Know-Nothings, which hindered effective leadership at this crucial time.
As the session began, Senators James Chesnut, Jr. and James H. Hammond of South Carolina were the only members to have vacated their seats. The remaining southern congressmen were still in Washington representing their states as they tried to work out a compromise to this growing sectional crisis.
The day after President James Buchanan’s annual message was read into the congressional record, the House of Representatives formed “a committee on the State of the Union.” The 33 members (one from each state) were tasked with considering “the present perilous condition of the country” and recommending ways to end it. Committee members ranged all across the political spectrum, from fire-eating southern secessionists to diehard northern abolitionists.
Within a week, this House Committee of Thirty-three had received some 23 bills and resolutions designed to preserve the Union. Committee members themselves came up with over 30 proposals. One suggestion was to strengthen the Fugitive Slave Act by compensating slaveholders who were unable to capture their runaways. Another was to extend the Missouri Compromise line of 36-degrees, 30-minutes west to the Pacific Ocean; territories north of the line would bar slavery while slavery south of the line would be decided by popular sovereignty (allowing territorial voters to decide for themselves). Another proposal would require future presidents and vice presidents to be from opposite sides of the Missouri line.
President-elect Abraham Lincoln paid close attention to these compromise proposals. He feared his fellow Republicans might waver on their pledge to oppose any effort to expand slavery into the territories. He therefore worked with his Illinois operatives on Capitol Hill to exert his influence on Congress in a way no president-elect before him had ever done. To Senator Lyman Trumbull, Lincoln wrote:
“Let there be no compromise on the question of extending slavery. If there be, all our labor is lost, and, ere long, must be done again. The dangerous ground—that into which some of our friends have a hankering to run—is Pop. Sov. (i.e., popular sovereignty). Have none of it. Stand firm. The tug has to come, & better now, than any time hereafter.”
Lincoln also wrote to Congressman William Kellogg: “Entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery. The instant you do, they have us under again; all our labor is lost, and sooner or later must be done over.” For Lincoln, slavery’s expansion was off the table, but he was willing to compromise when it came to the Fugitive Slave Act: “You know I think the fugitive slave clause of the constitution ought to be enforced—to put it on the mildest form, ought not to be resisted.”
A couple days later, Lincoln wrote to Congressman Elihu B. Washburne: “Prevent, as far as possible, any of our friends from demoralizing themselves, and our cause, by entertaining propositions for compromise of any sort, on ‘slavery extention (sic).’ There is no possible compromise on it, but which puts us under again, and leaves all our work to do over again.”
Lincoln especially warned against Democrats’ efforts to push popular sovereignty or resurrect the defunct Missouri Compromise: “Let either be done, & immediately filibustering and extending slavery recommences. On that point hold firm, as with a chain of steel.”
The firmness of Republicans like Lincoln to keep slavery contained was met by equal firmness from southern Democrats to leave the Union. Led by Senators Louis T. Wigfall of Texas and James L. Pugh of Alabama, two-thirds of the Federal representation of seven southern states (seven senators and 23 representatives) signed a manifesto to their constituents. It declared in part:
“The argument is exhausted. All hope of relief in the Union, through the agency of committees, Congressional legislation, or constitutional amendments, is extinguished, and we trust the South will not be deceived by appearances or the pretence of new guarantees. The Republicans are resolute in the purpose to grant nothing that will or ought to satisfy the South… the honor, safety, and independence of the Southern people are to be found only in a Southern Confederacy… the sole and primary aim of each slaveholding State ought to be its speedy and absolute separation from an unnatural and hostile Union.”
This document did much to push moderates in the South toward secession and moderates in the North away from supporting compromise.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), The Coming Fury (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1961, Kindle Edition), Loc 2282-90, 2957
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 1218-29
- Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. Simon & Schuster (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row (Patricia L. Faust, ed.), 1986.
- Holzer, Harold, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter of 1860-1861 (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, Reprint Edition, 2008), p. 144, 146, 149, 155, 158-59
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 8-13, 15, 17-18
- 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. 252, 254
- Schweikart, Larry and Allen, Michael, A Patriot’s History of the United States. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.