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The Peace Conference of 1861 was a meeting of more than 100 of the leading politicians of the antebellum United States held in Washington, D.C., in February 1861 that was meant to prevent what ultimately became the Civil War. The success of President Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party in the national elections of 1860 led to a flurry of political activity. In much of the South, elections were held to select delegates to special conventions empowered to consider secession from the Union. In Congress, efforts were made in both the House of Representatives and the Senate to reach compromise over the issues relating to slavery that were dividing the nation. The Washington Peace Conference of 1861 was the final effort by the individual states to resolve the crisis. With the seven states of the Cotton South already committed to secession, the emphasis for peacefully preserving the Union focused on the eight slaveholding states representing the Upper and Border South, with the states of Virginia and Kentucky playing key roles.
In December 1860 the final session of the Thirty-sixth Congress met. In the House, the Committee of Thirty-Three (composed of one member from each state), led by Ohio Republican Thomas Corwin, was formed in order to reach a compromise to preserve the Union. In the Senate, former Kentucky Whig John J. Crittenden, elected as a Unionist candidate, submitted six proposed constitutional amendments that he hoped would address all the outstanding issues. Hopes were high, especially in the Border States, that the lame duck Congress could reach a successful resolution before the new Republican administration took office.
Crittenden’s proposals were debated by a specially selected Committee of Thirteen. The proposals provided for, among other things, an extension of the Missouri Compromise line dividing slave from Free states to the Pacific Ocean, bringing his efforts directly in conflict with the 1860 Republican Platform and the personal views of President-elect Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln made known his objections, and the Compromise was rejected by the committee on December 22 by a vote of 7-6. Crittenden later brought the issue to the floor of the Senate as a proposal to have his compromise made subject to a national referendum, but the Senate rejected it on January 16 by a vote of 25-23.
A modified version of the Crittenden Plan, believed to be more attractive to Republicans, was considered by an ad hoc committee of fourteen congressmen from the lower North and upper South meeting several times between December 28 and January 4. The committee was chaired again by Crittenden and included other southern Unionists such as Representatives John A. Gilmer of North Carolina, Robert H. Hatton of Tennessee, J. Morrison Harris of Maryland, and John T. Harris of Virginia. A version of their work was rejected by the House on January 7.
In the House the Committee of Thirty-Three on January 14 reported that it had reached majority agreement on a constitutional amendment to protect slavery where it existed and the immediate admission of New Mexico Territory as a slave state. This latter proposal would result in a de facto extension of the Missouri Compromise line for all existing territories below the line.
A fourth avenue towards compromise came from the state of Virginia. Former president John Tyler, a private citizen of Virginia, still very much interested in the fate of the nation, had been appointed as a special Virginia envoy to President James Buchanan urging him to maintain the status quo in regard to the seceded states. Later Tyler was an elected delegate to the Virginia convention called to consider whether or not to follow the deep South states out of the Union. Tyler thought that one final collective effort should be made to preserve the Union and in a document published on January 17, 1861, called for a convention of the six free and six slave Border States to resolve the sectional split. Governor John Letcher of Virginia had already made a similar request to the state legislature which acted by agreeing to sponsor the convention while expanding the list of attendees to all of the states. Thomas Corwin agreed to hold off any final vote on his House plan pending the final actions of the Peace Conference.
This convention convened on February 4, 1861, at the Willard Hotel at the same time that the seven Deep South states that had already passed ordinances of secession were preparing to form a new government in Montgomery, Alabama. At the same time that John Tyler, selected to head the Peace Convention, was making his opening remarks in Washington, his granddaughter was ceremonially hoisting the flag for the convention in Montgomery. No delegates were sent by the Deep South states, or by Arkansas, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, and Oregon. Fourteen free states and seven slave states were represented. Among the representatives to the conference were James A. Seddon and William Cabell Rives from Virginia, David Wilmot from Pennsylvania, Reverdy Johnson from Maryland, William P. Fessenden and Lot M. Morrill from Maine, James Guthrie from Kentucky, Stephen T. Logan from Illinois, Alvan Cullom from Tennessee, and Thomas Ewing and Salmon P. Chase from Ohio. Many of the delegates came in the belief that they could be successful, but many others, from both sides of the spectrum, came simply as “watchdogs” for their sectional interests. Because many of the 131 delegates (which included “six former cabinet members, nineteen ex-governors, fourteen former senators, fifty former representatives, twelve state supreme court justices, and one former president”) qualified as “senior statesmen”, the meeting was frequently referred to derisively as the “Old Gentleman’s Convention”.
On February 6 a separate committee charged with drafting a proposal for the entire convention to consider was formed. The committee consisted of one representative from each state and was headed by James Guthrie. The entire convention met for three weeks, and its final product was a proposed seven point constitutional amendment that differed little from the Crittenden Compromise. The key issue, slavery in the territories, was addressed simply by extending the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific coast with no provision for newly acquired territory. This section barely passed by a 9-8 vote of the states.
Other features of the proposed constitutional amendment were the requirement that the acquisition of all future territories had to be approved by a majority of both the slave states and the free states, a prohibition on Congress passing any legislation that would affect the status of slavery where it currently existed, a prohibition on state legislatures from passing laws that would restrict the ability of officials to apprehend and return fugitive slaves, a permanent prohibition on the foreign slave trade, and 100% compensation to any master whose fugitive slave was freed by illegal mob action or intimidation of officials required to administer the Fugitive Slave Act. Key sections of this amendment could only be further amended with the concurrence of all of the states.
In failing to limit the expansion of slavery to all new territories the compromise failed to satisfy hard line Republicans. In failing to protect slavery in the territories up to the point where a territory drafted a state constitution for the approval of Congress the compromise failed to address the issue that had divided the Democratic Party into northern and southern factions in the 1860 presidential elections. The convention’s work was completed with only a few days left in the final session of Congress. The proposal was rejected in the Senate in a 28 to 7 vote and never came to a vote in the House. A less all encompassing constitutional amendment finally submitted by the Committee of Thirty-Three was passed by Congress, but this amendment simply provided protection for slavery where it currently existed, something that Lincoln and most members of both parties already believed was a state right protected by the existing Constitution. A bill for New Mexico statehood was tabled by a vote of 115 to 71 with opposition coming from both Southerners and Republicans.
With the adjournment of Congress and the inauguration of Lincoln as president, the only avenue for compromise involved informal negotiations between Unionist southerners and representatives of the incoming Republican government; Congress was no longer a factor. A final convention of strictly the slave states still in the Union scheduled for June 1861 never occurred because of the events at Fort Sumter. Robert H. Hatton, a Unionist from Tennessee who would later change sides, summed up the feelings of many shortly before Congress adjourned: