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Give Peace a Chance: As secession fever spreads through the South, political patriarchs try to avert war—-but at what price?

With the results of the bitter 1860 election in the books, a nation turned its anxious eyes and ears to the new president-elect, hoping for words that might prevent secession and war. But Abraham Lincoln instead adopted a policy of “masterly inactivity,” an impregnable public silence designed to incite as few people as possible. For the next four months, he would venture no assurances to anyone.

Into the resulting void marched (or rather hobbled) an ancient former president—John Tyler, the last public official any American expected would play a role in the current crisis.

As an accidental president two decades earlier, the pro-slavery Virginian could count few accomplishments save for validating the law of succession by becoming the first vice president to replace a dead chief executive. Now 70, he re-emerged onto the national stage to support compromise even as states of the Deep South began to leave the Union and Kentuckian John J. Crittenden’s compromise plan flamed out in the U.S. Senate.

On January 19, 1861 (the same day Georgia became the fifth state to secede), Tyler convinced Virginia to authorize a last-ditch effort to preserve the Union, calling for a national peace conference that would meet in Washington “to consider and, if practical, agree on some suitable adjustment” to national policies. The idea presumptuously ignored the reality that America’s voters had already chosen to “adjust” policy by electing Lincoln. And it was from the outset a case of too little, too late. Nonetheless the proposal won quick approval in the Old Dominion, which still harbored strong pro-Union sentiments. Other states agreed to send delegations, some reluctantly: Progressives in Massachusetts, for example, opposed ceding “one hair’s breadth” to slavery.

To no one’s surprise, Tyler was named one of Virginia’s five peace commissioners. Sounding little like a conciliator, he thereupon warned his fellow Southerners that if the conference failed, “the conqueror will walk at every step over smouldering ashes and beneath crumbling columns.” Such warnings inspired émigré writer Adam Gurowski to nervously brand the forthcoming peace conference a “Southern plot.”

At noon on February 4, ironically the very same day the Confederate States of America officially declared itself a separate nation, the Washington Peace Conference gaveled into session at a former Presbyterian church recently annexed as a “Dancing Hall” by the adjacent Willard’s Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. (To one of its many famous visitors—Nathaniel Hawthorne—bustling Willard’s, the largest hotel in the country, could “be much more justly called the centre of Washington and the Union than either the Capitol, the White House, or the State Department.” Nowhere else, the novelist claimed, could be found such “illustrious men” enveloped in a “constant atmosphere of cigar smoke” and fueled by mint juleps, gin cocktails and brandy smashes.) To invoke gravity, the city’s mayor lent the convention a portrait of George Washington.

The convention’s 131 delegates from 21 states, many well past their political prime, fit right into Willard’s storied ambience and did not lack for spunk. At their first session, they provocatively elected Tyler not chairman but “president”—almost as if the 30-day countdown to Lincoln’s inauguration had not commenced, and his very presidency remained in doubt. In a way, it did.

Lincoln himself said nothing publicly about the gathering—unwilling to emerge from his self-imposed cocoon even when his home state of Illinois agreed to send a delegation. Only to his friend Orville Browning did Lincoln confide that “no good results would come out of it.” In fact, Lincoln predicted “increased excitement” was certain to “follow when it broke up without having accomplished any thing.”

The very notion of such an independent, unelected convention might have alarmed him had not its “venerable old” delegates, in the New York Tribune’s description, seemed “no more fit to be intrusted with…guidance than a bull is fitted to keep a china shop.” To one critic, Tyler had faded into a “tottering ashen ruin.” Virginia’s James A. Seddon, elected convention manager, called to mind “a man who has been in his grave a full month.” Critics promptly dubbed the gathering the “Old Gentlemen’s Convention”—a reunion of “political fossils,” laughed the New York Herald—and published derisive columns even when one of its feebler delegates dropped dead. The convention responded by barring the press from its acrimonious debates, which lasted the rest of the month.

Jokes aside, Lincoln’s New England friend Amos Tuck spoke for many concerned Northerners when he noted with alarm that the conference was “a body unknown to the Constitution and the laws.” Echoing those fears, Connecticut’s Roger Baldwin branded the convention “a revolutionary proceeding” lacking “sufficient cause or justification.” And Attorney General Edwin Stanton worried the conference would try to impose “a provisional Govt. which was to take possession of the Capital and declare itself the nation.”

Other political wise men countered that as long as the conference debated without advancing a concrete plan, border states were likely to remain within the Union. Their elected representatives would continue occupying their seats in Congress, guaranteeing a quorum for the approaching, all-important session at which the presidential electoral vote would finally be officially counted. To many, Lincoln’s victory there was by no means yet assured. “Good nature and masterly inactivity,” chuckled a delegate from Massachusetts, “is the policy till Lincoln is inaugurated.” As Indiana Governor Oliver Morton assured Lincoln, “time wears out revolutions.” Morton tried to prove his point by instructing his state’s peace conference delegates to seek adjournment until after inauguration day. The motion failed.

Most in attendance seemed resigned to finding ways to save both the Union and slavery—even if it produced just the kind of “house divided” against which Lincoln had long warned. But what likely doomed the outcome more than old age, sectional divisions or Lincoln’s indifference were arithmetic and the clock. Fully a third of the states sent no representatives at all, including seven from the Lower South. California and Oregon had no time to dispatch delegations cross country, and Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin pointedly declined to participate. Those notables who ultimately limped into Washington—political veterans like antislavery Pennsylvanian David Wilmot, Maryland’s Reverdy Johnson and Virginia’s sickly James Seddon—could not overcome the prevailing wisdom that they had launched their efforts far too late in the post-election cycle. Nor did they easily find common ground during the coldest month of that long secession winter.

The electoral votes were counted as scheduled February 13, and without incident as “perfect quiet” reigned on Capitol Hill. All of Washington seemed to exhale as Lincoln’s victory was finally validated. No less relieved was Lincoln himself, in Ohio en route to the capital when he received word. But as he remained hundreds of miles away, Washington’s journalists continued to speculate wildly that deliberations at the Willard might yet save the country (or bind Lincoln) before he arrived to take the oath.

For the next 10 days, however, delegates could reach agreement on almost nothing. Matters had stalemated when, early on Saturday morning, February 23, a servant quietly delivered a note to Seddon. The Virginian read it silently, then passed it to Missouri’s Waldo Porter Johnson. The message: “Mr. Lincoln is in this hotel.”

“How the devil did he get through Baltimore?” Johnson blurted out. Fellow delegate Lucius Crittenden, who overheard, believed the incident proved a Baltimore assassination threat against Lincoln was both genuine and serious—and that Southern peace conference delegates had been aware of, perhaps even complicit in it.

Meanwhile, after a brief rest at the Willard to refresh himself from his overnight dash into the capital—in disguise, some whispered—Lincoln plunged into the daunting task of restoring his prestige and control. A mere nine days remained before his swearing in.

That evening at 9, the president-elect invited peace conference delegates to his parlor (a motion to instruct Tyler to call Lincoln in first was shouted down). Ohio delegate Salmon P. Chase handled the introductions with formality bordering on ostentation. Here, at long last, with Tyler leading the procession, the compromise advocates came face to face with the uncompromising new leader who was irrevocably pledged to prevent the extension of slavery—sure to be a hallmark of any viable compromise proposal from the conference. Displaying none of Chase’s grandiosity, Lincoln showcased a lively wit and spectacular memory. One witness was astonished that, “in nine cases out of ten, Mr. Lincoln would promptly recall their entire name, no matter how many initials it contained.”

“You are a smaller man than I supposed,” he playfully greeted Virginia’s William C. Rives, quickly acknowledging the contrast to his “giant intellect.” Introduced to James B. Clay of Kentucky, son of his lifelong hero, he declared, “Your name is all the endorsement you require. From my boyhood the name of Henry Clay has been an inspiration to me.” And to an old House colleague, Virginia’s George W. Summers, he proclaimed, “You cannot be a disunionist, unless your nature has changed since we met in Congress.”

Not that Lincoln remained unchallenged. When a Pennsylvania delegate insisted compromise “must be done sooner or later,” Lincoln tartly replied, “Perhaps your reasons for compromising the alleged difficulties are correct, and that now is the favorable time to do it; still, if I remember correctly, that is not what I was elected for!”

Unconvinced, Rives warned that “the clouds” hanging over the Union had grown “very dark,” and that compromise “now depends upon you.” But Lincoln shot back, “I cannot agree to that. My course is as plain as a turnpike road. It is marked out by the Constitution. I am in no doubt which way to go. Suppose now we all stop discussing and try the experiment of obedience to the Constitution and the laws. Don’t you think it would work?”

To this, James Seddon protested in his “sepulchral voice” that it was “not of your professions we complain. It is of your sins of omission—of your failure to enforce the laws—to suppress your John Browns and your Garrisons, who preach insurrection and make war upon our property!”

“I believe John Brown was hung and Mr. Garrison imprisoned,” Lincoln calmly replied. “You cannot justly charge the North with disobedience to statutes or with failing to enforce them. You have made some which were very offensive, but they have been enforced, notwithstanding.”

Finally, it was the turn of delegate William Dodge, perhaps irritable at ceding his lodgings to make way for Lincoln. “It is for you sir,” the New Yorker declared, “to say whether the whole nation shall be plunged into bankruptcy; whether the grass shall grow in the streets of our commercial cities.”

“Then I say it shall not,” Lincoln answered. “If it depends upon me, the grass will not grow anywhere except in the fields and in the meadows.”

The president-elect ended the hour-long session with a final warning against any compromise that extended slavery. The South, he insisted, “must be content with what it has. The voice of the civilized world is against it.” So, he insisted, was the voice of God. “Those who fight the purposes of the Almighty will not succeed. They have always been, they always will be, beaten.” It was perhaps the most dramatic and revealing moment of the entire conference—and it had occurred not on the convention floor, but in Lincoln’s parlor upstairs. Republican delegates left the reception “encouraged and strengthened,” secessionists “discouraged and depressed,” sensing perhaps that they had met their match.

Lincoln’s personal interactions with delegates, so long ignored by historians, continued on and off for days. He welcomed the 77-year-old Army commander John Wool—another dissatisfied delegate—to hear additional warnings of the dire consequences should compromise fail. And he welcomed Illinois delegate Stephen Logan, the onetime law partner he regarded as “almost a father.” Lincoln showed him a draft of his forthcoming inaugural address, inviting his opinion of the phrase, “All the power at my disposal will be used to reclaim the public property and places which have fallen”—a clear reference to the standoff at Fort Sumter. Logan implored Lincoln to temper the bellicose language. “I have great respect for your opinions,” Lincoln replied, “but the statements you think should be modified were carefully considered by me—and the probable consequences, as far as I can anticipate them.” If there was “patriotism enough in the American people,” he argued, “the Union will be saved; if not, it will go down, and I will go down with it.”

In the end, Lincoln compromised after all. The words “All the power at my disposal” became the more benign “The power confided in me”—though it did little to stanch the crisis.

Matters at the peace conference came to a head the night of February 26, when moderate Upper South delegates made one final appeal for Lincoln’s support. Among them was Charles S. Morehead, a former Kentucky governor who once served with Lincoln in the House. No longer a Lincoln ally, Morehead conceded the president-elect greeted the group “very kindly.” But the atmosphere quickly chilled. After Lincoln modestly drawled that he had been “accidentally elected President of the United States,” Morehead tartly concurred, pointing out that more voters had opposed than favored him. At this, Lincoln bristled that if he were indeed “a minority President he was not the first, and that in all events he had obtained more votes than we could muster for any other man.”

Trying a different approach, Lincoln endeavored to charm his visitors with a funny story. Asked to pledge not to coerce the South—by which delegates meant agreeing in advance not to reinforce Southern forts or collect revenues—Lincoln recalled an old man who had once asked him to bring a lawsuit. It seemed a good case at the start, but when his client heard the arguments piling up against him in court, he whispered, “Guv it up.” “Now,” Lincoln said, “wouldn’t this be ‘guvin’ it up’”?

Undaunted, Morehead insisted that simply by withdrawing federal troops from the South, Lincoln could guarantee peace and harmony—which only reminded Lincoln of yet another tale. “It is from Aesop’s Fables,” he drawled, “and doubtless in your schoolboy days you have read it.” The tale concerned the lovesick lion who proposed to a young woman. Her fearful parents demanded the beast first consent to have his claws and teeth removed so as not to injure their “frail and delicate” daughter. The trusting lion submitted, but as soon as his “claws were cut off and his tusks drawn…they took clubs and knocked him on the head.” The moral was clear enough: Lincoln was one lion who would not let himself be defanged and clubbed into submission by the peace conference.

Rives suddenly rose from his seat to fume that Lincoln’s refusal to declare directly against coercion would almost guarantee his state’s secession. At that, Lincoln supposedly “jumped up” from his own chair, advanced toward the Virginian, and shouted: “Mr. Rives! Mr. Rives! If Virginia will stay in, I will withdraw the troops from Fort Sumter.” Clearly taken aback, Rives could only mumble that he had no authority to make such an agreement, but would do everything in his power to “promote the Union.”

It was not enough for a deal—but it signaled a breakthrough of sorts, as the next day’s session would reveal. Lincoln’s dare had been rejected, and he now realized he could stop opposing compromise because Southerners would never accept it. Deal as “liberally as possible,” Lincoln instructed Illinois delegate John Palmer, but make no “concession in the face of a menace.”

After a fatigue-driven hiatus, the peace conference had re-convened two days earlier, with Northerners joining militant Southerners to defeat new proposals from border state moderates aimed at ending the deadlock. But the recent meeting with Lincoln broke the logjam. In a climactic vote early February 27, after yet more haggling on language defining slave territory, Illinois switched from “no” to “yes” on re-establishing the Missouri Compromise line that once divided free from slave states. This enabled a final, if watered-down, compromise package to pass the conference by a vote of 9 to 8. Illinois’ Thomas J. Turner quickly but unconvincingly assured Lincoln that the delegates had made the decision “of our own volition.” More stuff and nonsense came from Tyler’s delegation, which boasted, “Virginia steps in to arrest the country on its road to ruin”—though it voted against most of the plan. The truth is that with Congress set for adjournment in just 72 hours and with headcounts indicating that anything the conference forwarded would be overwhelmingly rejected, Lincoln felt secure in allowing delegates and legislators to take the blame for the inevitable collapse of compromise—making sure that none of his own core beliefs on slavery extension were seriously jeopardized.

The peace conference rushed Congress its proposed 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which read much like the recently defeated Crittenden Compromise. Section 1 prohibited slavery north of the Missouri Compromise line, but guaranteed it would remain perpetual “in all the present territory south of that line,” though leaving enforcement to common law. Under Section 2, no future territory could be acquired, even by treaty, without separate majority votes by free- and slave-state senators alike. Section 3 barred Congress from ever regulating or abolishing slavery where it existed, but banned the slave trade in the District of Columbia. Section 4 stiffened the fugitive slave laws by offering compensation to masters unable to recover their runaways, and Section 5 reiterated the ban on the foreign slave trade.

Lincoln’s private secretaries John G. Nicolay and John M. Hay judged the result to be “as worthless as Dead Sea fruit.” But Senator Crittenden promptly substituted the new proposals for his own, and rushed the measure to the Senate floor. With a two-thirds vote required to send it to the states for ratification, and with remaining Southern senators as opposed to compromise as were Northern abolitionists, the resolution never stood a chance. It was defeated in the Senate by a lopsided vote of 28 to 7. The House refused even to consider it.

After a month of fruitless work, peace conference delegates dispersed, some—like John Tyler and James Seddon—destined for service in the Confederacy. Its rooms suddenly vacated, Willard’s threw open its doors to Republicans swarming into town not to argue policy but to celebrate Lincoln’s inauguration. The last effort to compromise had failed. “And,” as Lincoln sadly observed in his Second Inaugural Address, “the war came.”

Historian Harold Holzer is a columnist for America’s Civil War and is co-editor of The New York Times: The Complete Civil War, 1861-1865 (Black Dog and Leventhal, 2010).