As it seemed more and more likely that there could be no compromise between North and South, members of Congress made impassioned speeches either for or against maintaining the Union. On the 10th, Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi 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 to force 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!…”
Republican William H. Seward, soon to become President-elect Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, addressed the Senate two days later. He declared: “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.” Seward added, “I do not know what the Union would be worth if saved by the use of the sword.”
Lincoln had advised Seward not to offer any compromise that might violate the Republican platform, but Seward did not take his advice. Instead, he 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. This would break the Republicans’ pledge to oppose any effort to expand slavery. Seward also called for a national convention to consider constitutional amendments to prevent any future secession attempts.
The Senate gallery, filled to capacity, listened closely to Seward’s oration, and he concluded with a warning to those who wished to dissolve the Union: “Woe! Woe! to the man that madly lifts his hand against it. It shall continue and endure; and men, in after times, shall declare that this generation, which saved the Union from such sudden and unlooked for dangers, surpassed in magnanimity even that one which laid its foundations in the eternal principles of liberty, justice and humanity.”
Initially, Seward’s pleas were applauded. The New York Times commended the speech for being “free from every taint of partisan or sectional bitterness.” Although Lincoln was “not overpleased with Seward’s oration, and not at all with any effort to abandon the Republican platform,” he acknowledged to Seward, “Your recent speech is well received here; and, I think, is doing good all over the country.”
But the speech was strongly disliked by abolitionists and southerners. An editorial in the National Anti-Slavery Standard ran the headline “Senator Seward’s Surrender,” and stated that the speech made it “a settled thing that all the demands the slaveholders have had the impudence to make… are to be granted, if they will be graciously pleased to pardon Abraham Lincoln for being elected and the North for having chosen him.” Boston businessman Charles Russell Lowell said the speech was “more worthy of a political dodger than a statesman.” Southerners bristled at Seward’s call for a national convention to stop secession because any such convention would be dominated by the more populous North and would therefore destroy states’ rights.
On the 14th, the House Committee of Thirty-three announced that it could not reach a compromise, just like the Committee of Thirteen in the Senate. The full House approved the committee’s majority report, submitted by Committee Chairman Thomas Corwin of Ohio. This proposed a constitutional amendment “whereby any power to interfere with Slavery in the States is forever denied to Congress, until every State of the Union, by its individual action, shall content to its exercise.” 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.
However, more northerners were becoming convinced that compromise was impossible. For Charles Francis Adams, the end of the House committee ended the “queer struggle” to work out a plan “sufficiently conciliatory to bridge over the chasm of rebellion.” Conversely, more southerners were becoming convinced that secession was the best solution to the crisis.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Kindle Edition 2008, 1889.
- Holzer, Harold, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter of 1860-1861. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, Reprint Edition, 2008.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.