Last-Ditch Compromise Efforts

By month’s end, most compromise efforts had been exhausted. The Senate had defeated John J. Crittenden’s proposal, while the House of Representatives had rejected a plan similar to Crittenden’s. The proposals submitted by the delegates of the National Peace Conference were still under consideration, but nobody seemed excited about them. The so-called Corwin amendment was still pending as well. In the meantime, states of the Deep South had formed a new Confederacy, and most northerners expressed either relief that they had left or indignation at their defiance of the Federal government.

One of the major points of contention involved southerners’ insistence that they be allowed to take their slaves into the western U.S. territories. President-elect Abraham Lincoln rigidly adhered to the Republican Party platform which pledged not to interfere with slavery where it already existed, but would not allow slavery to expand any further. The small number of northern abolitionists, such as Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, called for the immediate end to slavery everywhere.

Early this month, Sumner met with President James Buchanan to find out why Buchanan had not accepted Massachusetts’s offer to send troops south to prevent secession. When Buchanan assured Sumner that no troops were needed, Sumner asked, “What else can Massachusetts do for the good of the country?” Buchanan replied, “Adopt the Crittenden propositions.” Sumner asked, “Is that necessary?” Buchanan said, “Yes.” Sumner responded, “Massachusetts has not yet spoken directly on these propositions; but… such are the unalterable convictions of her people, they would see their State sink below the sea and become a sandbank before they would adopt those propositions acknowledging property in men.”

Later this month, Sumner backed off a bit by offering a major concession: “I take this occasion to declare most explicitly that I do not think that Congress has any right to interfere with slavery in a State.” This principle was consistent with both historical congressional legislation and the Republican Party platform. However, southerners still objected to the Republicans’ opposition to expanding slavery into the territories. And many believed that Sumner was being disingenuous because he did not declare support for this principle until after nearly every reconciliation attempt had failed. Others thought that Sumner’s seeming change of heart was simply too little, too late.

Democratic Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio argued that anti-slavery agitators were the cause of the sectional crisis. He proposed amending the Constitution to divide the U.S. into four sections, with each section having its own legislature in addition to the U.S. Congress, which would represent all four. Secession would only be permitted if all four legislatures approved it, and each section would have the power to veto legislation in the U.S. Congress. Presidents and vice-presidents would be limited to one six-year term unless two-thirds of the Electoral College approved otherwise. These proposals went nowhere.

On the 27th, the House of Representatives defeated measures calling for a constitutional convention to address the sectional differences and adopting the Crittenden compromise plan. Also rejected was a proposal by the Committee of Thirty-three to admit the New Mexico Territory into the Union as a slave state. Republicans opposed the New Mexico bill by a three-to-one margin, but it did help keep the Upper South in the Union for the past two months.

The House did approve measures to appease the South, including a pledge to faithfully enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and a call for northern states to repeal personal liberty laws. Both of these received support from Secretary of State-designate William H. Seward and President-elect Abraham Lincoln. But the measures did not persuade any Confederate states to return to the Union. In a more ominous move, Congress also approved the Navy Department’s request for seven heavily armed steamers to supplement the U.S. naval fleet.

The House then considered a proposed constitutional amendment:

“No amendment of this Constitution, having for its object any interference within the States with the relations between their citizens and those described in second section of the first article of the Constitution as ‘all other persons,’ shall originate with any State that does not recognize that relation within its own limits, or shall be valid without the assent of every one of the States composing the Union.”

Congressman Thomas Corwin of Ohio, hoping to garner more Republican support, proposed to replace this text with that of his “Corwin Amendment,” which stated:

“No Amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of the State.”

The Corwin Amendment failed to garner the necessary two-thirds majority on two votes (121 in favor to 68 opposed, then 123 in favor to 71 opposed). The next day, the House called another vote on the measure as proposed by the Committee of Thirty-three. This time it reached the two-thirds majority, 133 to 65. Two-fifths of House Republicans supported this measure, along with Seward and Lincoln.

Some celebrated this amendment as a “harbinger of peace.” Others opposed its redundancy since Congress had no legal right to interfere with slavery anyway. Republican Owen Lovejoy of Illinois asked, “Does that (amendment) include polygamy, the other twin relic of barbarism?” Democrat John S. Phelps of Missouri sarcastically replied, “Does the gentleman desire to know whether he shall be prohibited from committing that crime?” The amendment went to the Senate for consideration.

Also on the 28th, a special Senate committee issued a report endorsed by three of its five members urging passage of the Crittenden compromise plan as modified by the delegates to the Peace Conference. The two opponents, both Republicans, issued a minority report recommending no action on the compromise plan until a national convention could be assembled. Efforts to resolve the sectional dispute continued into March, but the odds that it would be settled in a way to preserve the Union were not good.


  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Vallandigham, Clement L. (John C. Rives ed.), “The Great American Revolution of 1861. The Congressional Globe: Containing the Debates and Proceedings of the Thirty-sixth Congress: Also of the Special Session of the Senate. Washington, DC: Congressional Globe Office, 1861.

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