Peace conference of 1861

Peace conference of 1861

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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
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 held in Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C., formally the District of Columbia and commonly referred to as Washington, "the District", or simply D.C., is the capital of the United States. On July 16, 1790, the United States Congress approved the creation of a permanent national capital as permitted by the U.S. Constitution....

, in February 1861 that was meant to prevent what ultimately became the Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

. The success of President Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, serving from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. He successfully led his country through a great constitutional, military and moral crisis – the American Civil War – preserving the Union, while ending slavery, and...

 and the Republican Party
Republican Party (United States)
The Republican Party is one of the two major contemporary political parties in the United States, along with the Democratic Party. Founded by anti-slavery expansion activists in 1854, it is often called the GOP . The party's platform generally reflects American conservatism in the U.S...

 in the national elections of 1860
United States presidential election, 1860
The United States presidential election of 1860 was a quadrennial election, held on November 6, 1860, for the office of President of the United States and the immediate impetus for the outbreak of the American Civil War. The nation had been divided throughout the 1850s on questions surrounding the...

 led to a flurry of political activity. In much of the South
Southern United States
The Southern United States—commonly referred to as the American South, Dixie, or simply the South—constitutes a large distinctive area in the southeastern and south-central United States...

, elections were held to select delegates to special conventions
Ordinance of Secession
The Ordinance of Secession was the document drafted and ratified in 1860 and 1861 by the states officially seceding from the United States of America...

 empowered to consider secession
Secession is the act of withdrawing from an organization, union, or especially a political entity. Threats of secession also can be a strategy for achieving more limited goals.-Secession theory:...

 from the Union. In Congress
United States Congress
The United States Congress is the bicameral legislature of the federal government of the United States, consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Congress meets in the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C....

, efforts were made in both the House of Representatives
United States House of Representatives
The United States House of Representatives is one of the two Houses of the United States Congress, the bicameral legislature which also includes the Senate.The composition and powers of the House are established in Article One of the Constitution...

 and the Senate
United States Senate
The United States Senate is the upper house of the bicameral legislature of the United States, and together with the United States House of Representatives comprises the United States Congress. The composition and powers of the Senate are established in Article One of the U.S. Constitution. Each...

 to reach compromise over the issues relating to slavery
Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work. Slaves can be held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation...

 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
The Commonwealth of Virginia , is a U.S. state on the Atlantic Coast of the Southern United States. Virginia is nicknamed the "Old Dominion" and sometimes the "Mother of Presidents" after the eight U.S. presidents born there...

 and Kentucky
The Commonwealth of Kentucky is a state located in the East Central United States of America. As classified by the United States Census Bureau, Kentucky is a Southern state, more specifically in the East South Central region. Kentucky is one of four U.S. states constituted as a commonwealth...

 playing key roles.


In December 1860 the final session of the Thirty-sixth Congress met. In the House, the Committee of Thirty-Three
Corwin amendment
The Corwin Amendment is a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution passed by the 36th Congress, 2nd Session, on March 2, 1861, in the form of House Resolution No. 80...

 (composed of one member from each state), led by Ohio
Ohio is a Midwestern state in the United States. The 34th largest state by area in the U.S.,it is the 7th‑most populous with over 11.5 million residents, containing several major American cities and seven metropolitan areas with populations of 500,000 or more.The state's capital is Columbus...

 Republican Thomas Corwin
Thomas Corwin
Thomas Corwin , also known as Tom Corwin and The Wagon Boy, was a politician from the state of Ohio who served as a prosecuting attorney, a member of the Ohio House of Representatives, the United States House of Representatives, and the United States Senate, and as the 15th Governor of Ohio 20th...

, was formed in order to reach a compromise to preserve the Union. In the Senate, former Kentucky Whig
Whig Party (United States)
The Whig Party was a political party of the United States during the era of Jacksonian democracy. Considered integral to the Second Party System and operating from the early 1830s to the mid-1850s, the party was formed in opposition to the policies of President Andrew Jackson and his Democratic...

 John J. Crittenden
John J. Crittenden
John Jordan Crittenden was a politician from the U.S. state of Kentucky. He represented the state in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate and twice served as United States Attorney General in the administrations of William Henry Harrison and Millard Fillmore...

, 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
Lame duck (politics)
A lame duck is an elected official who is approaching the end of his or her tenure, and especially an official whose successor has already been elected.-Description:The status can be due to*having lost a re-election bid...

 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
Pacific Ocean
The Pacific Ocean is the largest of the Earth's oceanic divisions. It extends from the Arctic in the north to the Southern Ocean in the south, bounded by Asia and Australia in the west, and the Americas in the east.At 165.2 million square kilometres in area, this largest division of the World...

, 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
North Carolina
North Carolina is a state located in the southeastern United States. The state borders South Carolina and Georgia to the south, Tennessee to the west and Virginia to the north. North Carolina contains 100 counties. Its capital is Raleigh, and its largest city is Charlotte...

, Robert H. Hatton
Robert H. Hatton
Robert Hopkins Hatton was a lawyer, politician, United States Congressman, and Confederate officer during the American Civil War.-Biography:...

 of Tennessee
Tennessee is a U.S. state located in the Southeastern United States. It has a population of 6,346,105, making it the nation's 17th-largest state by population, and covers , making it the 36th-largest by total land area...

, J. Morrison Harris of Maryland
Maryland is a U.S. state located in the Mid Atlantic region of the United States, bordering Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia to its south and west; Pennsylvania to its north; and Delaware to its east...

, and John T. Harris
John T. Harris
John Thomas Harris was a nineteenth century politician, lawyer and judge from Virginia. He was the first cousin of John Hill....

 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
New Mexico Territory
thumb|right|240px|Proposed boundaries for State of New Mexico, 1850The Territory of New Mexico was an organized incorporated territory of the United States that existed from September 9, 1850, until January 6, 1912, when the final extent of the territory was admitted to the Union as the State of...

 as a slave state. This latter proposal would result in a de facto extension of the Missouri Compromise
Missouri Compromise
The Missouri Compromise was an agreement passed in 1820 between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in the United States Congress, involving primarily the regulation of slavery in the western territories. It prohibited slavery in the former Louisiana Territory north of the parallel 36°30'...

 line for all existing territories below the line.

A fourth avenue towards compromise came from the state of Virginia. Former president John Tyler
John Tyler
John Tyler was the tenth President of the United States . A native of Virginia, Tyler served as a state legislator, governor, U.S. representative, and U.S. senator before being elected Vice President . He was the first to succeed to the office of President following the death of a predecessor...

, 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
James Buchanan
James Buchanan, Jr. was the 15th President of the United States . He is the only president from Pennsylvania, the only president who remained a lifelong bachelor and the last to be born in the 18th century....

 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
John Letcher
John Letcher was an American lawyer, journalist, and politician. He served as a Representative in the United States Congress, was the 34th Governor of Virginia during the American Civil War, and later served in the Virginia General Assembly...

 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.

The Convention

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
Montgomery, Alabama
Montgomery is the capital of the U.S. state of Alabama, and is the county seat of Montgomery County. It is located on the Alabama River southeast of the center of the state, in the Gulf Coastal Plain. As of the 2010 census, Montgomery had a population of 205,764 making it the second-largest city...

. At the same time that John Tyler, selected to head the Peace Convention, was making his opening remarks in Washington, his granddaughter in Montgomery was ceremonially hoisting the flag for the convention in Montgomery. No delegates were sent by the Deep South states, or by Arkansas
Arkansas is a state located in the southern region of the United States. Its name is an Algonquian name of the Quapaw Indians. Arkansas shares borders with six states , and its eastern border is largely defined by the Mississippi River...

, Michigan
Michigan is a U.S. state located in the Great Lakes Region of the United States of America. The name Michigan is the French form of the Ojibwa word mishigamaa, meaning "large water" or "large lake"....

, Wisconsin
Wisconsin is a U.S. state located in the north-central United States and is part of the Midwest. It is bordered by Minnesota to the west, Iowa to the southwest, Illinois to the south, Lake Michigan to the east, Michigan to the northeast, and Lake Superior to the north. Wisconsin's capital is...

, Minnesota
Minnesota is a U.S. state located in the Midwestern United States. The twelfth largest state of the U.S., it is the twenty-first most populous, with 5.3 million residents. Minnesota was carved out of the eastern half of the Minnesota Territory and admitted to the Union as the thirty-second state...

, California
California is a state located on the West Coast of the United States. It is by far the most populous U.S. state, and the third-largest by land area...

, and Oregon
Oregon is a state in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. It is located on the Pacific coast, with Washington to the north, California to the south, Nevada on the southeast and Idaho to the east. The Columbia and Snake rivers delineate much of Oregon's northern and eastern...

. Fourteen free states and seven slave states were represented. Among the representatives to the conference were James A. Seddon and William Cabell Rives
William Cabell Rives
William Cabell Rives was an American lawyer, politician and diplomat from Albemarle County, Virginia. He represented Virginia as a Jackson Democrat in both the U.S. House and Senate and also served as the U.S. minister to France....

 from Virginia, David Wilmot
David Wilmot
David Wilmot was a U.S. political figure. He was a sponsor and eponym of the Wilmot Proviso which aimed to ban slavery in land gained from Mexico in the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848. Wilmot was a Democrat, a Free Soiler, and a Republican during his political career...

 from Pennsylvania, Reverdy Johnson
Reverdy Johnson
Reverdy Johnson was a statesman and jurist from Maryland.-Early life:Born in Annapolis, Johnson was the son of a distinguished Maryland lawyer and politician, John Johnson . He graduated from St. John's College in 1812 and then studied law...

 from Maryland, William P. Fessenden
William P. Fessenden
William Pitt Fessenden was an American politician from the U.S. state of Maine.Fessenden was a Whig and member of the Fessenden political family...

 and Lot M. Morrill
Lot M. Morrill
Lot Myrick Morrill was an American statesman who served as the 28th Governor of Maine, in the United States Senate and as Secretary of the Treasury....

 from Maine
Maine is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and south, New Hampshire to the west, and the Canadian provinces of Quebec to the northwest and New Brunswick to the northeast. Maine is both the northernmost and easternmost...

, James Guthrie from Kentucky, Stephen T. Logan
Stephen T. Logan
Stephen Trigg Logan was an American lawyer and politician.He practiced law with Abraham Lincoln from 1841 to 1843. He served as Illinois circuit court judge and in 1847 was elected to the Illinois Constitutional Conevention. He also served in the Illinois House of Representatives...

 from Illinois
Illinois is the fifth-most populous state of the United States of America, and is often noted for being a microcosm of the entire country. With Chicago in the northeast, small industrial cities and great agricultural productivity in central and northern Illinois, and natural resources like coal,...

, and Thomas Ewing
Thomas Ewing
Thomas Ewing, Sr. was a National Republican and Whig politician from Ohio. He served in the U.S. Senate as well as serving as the Secretary of the Treasury and the first Secretary of the Interior.-Biography:...

 and Salmon P. Chase
Salmon P. Chase
Salmon Portland Chase was an American politician and jurist who served as U.S. Senator from Ohio and the 23rd Governor of Ohio; as U.S. Treasury Secretary under President Abraham Lincoln; and as the sixth Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.Chase was one of the most prominent members...

 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
Corwin amendment
The Corwin Amendment is a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution passed by the 36th Congress, 2nd Session, on March 2, 1861, in the form of House Resolution No. 80...

 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
Fort Sumter
Fort Sumter is a Third System masonry coastal fortification located in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. The fort is best known as the site upon which the shots initiating the American Civil War were fired, at the Battle of Fort Sumter.- Construction :...

. Robert H. Hatton, a Unionist from Tennessee, summed up the feelings of many shortly before Congress adjourned:
We are getting along badly with our work of compromise – badly. We will break, I apprehend, without any thing being done. God will hold some men to a fearful responsibility. My heart is sick.

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