Virginia had strong ties to both the South and the Union. If the southern states were to form a viable nation, they desperately needed Virginia to be a part of it. But Governor John Letcher was not yet ready to suggest that his state leave the Union. In an address to the state legislature, Letcher expressed his belief that the Union could not be saved, adding: “It is monstrous to see a Government like ours destroyed merely because men cannot agree about a domestic institution (slavery).”
But Letcher still hoped that the Federal government might offer some guarantees to keep Virginia from seceding. He proposed to form a commission to determine whether the northern states might accept legislation that would strengthen fugitive slave laws, protect interstate slave trading, support Federal laws against those attempting to foment slave uprisings, allow slavery in the District of Columbia to continue, and influence the incoming president not to appoint Federal officials who were hostile to slavery. Letcher excluded New England from the rest of the North because he felt it would be futile to try to get those states to approve this program.
Letcher declared that he would oppose any Federal coercion attempts. And he would also oppose any Federal effort to coerce the South by sending troops through Virginia. Letcher would consider this an act of invasion and oppose it by force if necessary. The governor also recommended holding a national convention where delegates from all the states could gather and settle their differences once and for all.
Former U.S. President John Tyler, a Virginian, joined with Governor Letcher in calling for a national convention. President James Buchanan had asked Tyler to use his influence to keep Virginia in the Union, and the convention was seen as the last, best way to do it. On the 17th, Tyler wrote a letter asking the Virginia legislature to act upon this recommendation.
State lawmakers complied two days later and invited the states “to unite with Virginia in an earnest effort to adjust the present unhappy controversies in the spirit in which the Constitution was originally formed and consistently with its principles.” The “National Peace Conference” would start on February 4 in Washington. Tyler had initially suggested inviting six northern and six border states to the conference, but this was expanded to include all states.
At the same time, the legislature approved an election of delegates to a state convention that would consider secession. That body would assemble on February 13. The legislature concluded with a declaration that if “the unhappy differences existing between the two sections of the country shall prove to be abortive,” then Virginia should follow her fellow southern states out of the Union. Although there was strong Unionist sentiment in western Virginia, the legislature spoke for most Virginians by implying that if the “unhappy differences” were not settled in a way that favored the South, Virginia would secede.
Northern conservatives and border state politicians largely supported the idea of a conference and began appointing delegates. Not surprisingly, Tyler was appointed one of Virginia’s five representatives, and he was later elected chairman. In the U.S. House of Representatives, the Committee of Thirty-three had just ended its efforts by submitting a proposed constitutional amendment. Committee Chairman Thomas Corwin agreed to wait and see the results of the conference before holding a vote on the so-called “Corwin amendment.”
With the chances for conciliation rapidly dwindling, North and South anxiously waited to see what the conference could accomplish when it opened in February.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), The Coming Fury. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1961.
- 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.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.