In January, the Virginia legislature had issued a call for a convention of states to settle the sectional crisis. That call was met by 21 of the 34 states, from which 131 delegates were sent to Washington. The “peace conference” opened on the 4th at Willard’s Hotel. None of the seven seceded states sent delegates; they were instead attending the southern states convention at Montgomery going on at the same time. Arkansas, although not yet seceded, abstained from sending delegates to this conference as well. California and Oregon did not join due to distance.
Wisconsin declined to send delegates, while the legislatures of Minnesota and Michigan declared that the seceded states were committing treason, and no compromises would be made with traitors. Some delegates from other northern states had been sent by Republican leaders to block any proposal that might expand slavery beyond where it already existed. Border state participation 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.
The delegates included former governors, judges, cabinet members, legislators, U.S. congressmen, and one U.S. president. Because most were nearing the end of their political careers, the press referred to this gathering as the “Old Gentleman’s Convention.” The New York Herald was harsher, claiming the delegates “are for the most part the emanations of the grog-shop and other low influences which direct the politics of their respective states. They are, moreover, many of them political fossils…”
Delegates from just 11 states were on hand when the convention began. Roll was taken, and a committee was set up to establish procedural rules. The next day, ex-President John Tyler was elected to preside over the convention. Tyler had been instrumental in setting up this gathering, but to some he was now nothing more than a “tottering ashen ruin.” He called on the delegates to “triumph over party” and hammer out some type of compromise. He reminded them that both North and South shared the legacy of the War for Independence, and he hoped that the states not attending would support the convention in spirit. Tyler said that “the eyes of the whole country are turned to this assembly, in expectation and hope.”
The convention’s goal was to adopt compromise proposals, submit them to Congress for approval, and then send them to the states for ratification. The delegates came under sharp criticism from the outset for opting to keep their proceedings secret. Senator John J. Crittenden’s compromise plan was used as the starting point for discussions, even though that had already been rejected by Congress, and Republicans refused to agree to any plan that could expand slavery. Northern representation at the conference doubled that of the South, making the southern delegates defensively resistant to any plan that hinted at not giving them all they wanted.
On the 15th, debate began on the various ideas that had been drafted by a committee. The heated exchanges during these debates showed that compromise would not be easy. During this time, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois joined with convention delegates John Bell of Tennessee and James Guthrie of Kentucky to urge President-elect Abraham Lincoln to support the outcome of this conference. But Republican leader Carl Schurz warned Lincoln that if the delegates proposed to extend slavery, “do not permit the cause of Liberty to sink ignominiously in the dust… do not fail us in this decisive hour.”
The delegates, many of whom had grown inflexible on their positions before the convention even began, remained deadlocked on the final plan for several days until the early morning of the 27th, when the Illinois delegation switched its vote against the plan to in favor. With just a week left in the congressional session, the delegates submitted their plan to Congress for yet another round of debate. The final result differed very little from Crittenden’s rejected plan; it consisted of a new thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution with the following points:
- The Missouri compromise line of 36 degrees, 30 minutes would be extended west to the Pacific Ocean. Slavery would be banned north of the line, while 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.
- State legislatures would be prohibited from enacting laws that would hinder enforcement of Federal fugitive slave laws.
- The foreign slave trade would be permanently abolished.
- Slaveholders would be fully compensated by the Federal government if they lost their slaves due to illegal interference with or intimidation of those trying to enforce Federal fugitive slave laws.
Some members of Congress had no interest in considering anything the convention had to offer. The senators from Michigan issued 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.”
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- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.