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Chapter 8:

  • The peace conference
  • -- demand for “a little bloodletting” -- plan proposed by the Congress -- its contemptuous reception and treatment in the United States Congress -- failure of last efforts at reconciliation and reunion -- speech of General Lane of Oregon.

While the events which have just been occupying our attention were occurring, the last conspicuous effort was made within the Union to stay the tide of usurpation which was driving the Southern states into secession. This effort was set on foot by Virginia, the General Assembly of which state, on January 19, 1861, adopted a preamble and resolutions, deprecating disunion and inviting all such states as were willing to unite in an earnest endeavor to avert it by an adjustment of the then existing controversies to appoint commissioners to meet in Washington on February 4 “to consider, and, if practicable, agree upon some suitable adjustment.” Ex-President John Tyler, along with William C. Rives, John W. Brockenbrugh, George W. Summers, and James A. Seddon—five of the most distinguished citizens of the state—were appointed to represent Virginia in the proposed conference. If they could agree with the commissioners of other states upon any plan of settlement requiring amendments to the federal Constitution, they were instructed to communicate them to Congress, with a view to their submission to the several states for ratification.

The “border states” in general promptly acceded to this proposition of Virginia, and others followed, so that in the “Peace Congress,” or conference, which assembled, according to appointment, on the 4th, and adjourned on the 27th of February, twenty-one states were eventually represented, of which fourteen were Northern, or “non-slaveholding,” and seven slaveholding states. The six states which had already seceded were of course not of the number represented; nor were Texas and Arkansas, the secession of which, although not consummated, was obviously inevitable. Three of the Northwestern states—Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota—and the two Pacific states—Oregon and California —also held afoof from the conference. In the case of these last two, distance and lack of time perhaps hindered action. With regard to the other three, their reasons for declining to participate in the movement were not officially assigned, and are therefore only subjects for conjecture. Some remarkable revelations were afterward made, however, with regard to the action of one of them. It appears from correspondence read in the [215] Senate on February 27, that the two Senators from Michigan had at first opposed the participation of that state in the conference, on the ground that it was, as one of them expressed it, “a step toward obtaining that concession which the imperious slave powers so insolently demand”1—that is to say, in plain terms, they objected to it because it might lead to a compromise and pacification. Finding, however, that most of the other Northern states were represented—some of them by men of moderate and conciliatory temper—that writer had subsequently changed his mind, and at a late period of the session of the conference recommended the sending of delegates of “true, unflinching men,” who would be “in favor of the Constitution as it is”—that is, who would oppose any amendment proposed in the interests of harmony and pacification.

The other Senator exhibits a similar alarm at the prospect of compromise and a concurrent change of opinion. He urges the sending of “stiff-backed” men, to thwart the threatened success of the friends of peace, and concludes with an expression of the humane and patriotic sentiment that “without a little blood-letting” the Union would not be “worth a rush.”2 With such unworthy levity did these leaders of sectional strife express their exultation in the prospect of the conflict, which was to drench the land with blood and enshroud thousands of homes in mourning!

It is needless to follow the course of the deliberations of the Peace [216] Conference. It included among its members many men of distinction and eminent ability, and some of unquestionable patriotism, from every part of the Union. The venerable John Tyler presided, and took an active and ardent interest in the efforts made to effect a settlement and avert the impending disasters. A plan was finally agreed upon by a majority of the states represented, for certain amendments to the federal Constitution, which it was hoped might be acceptable to all parties and put an end to further contention. In its leading features this plan resembled that of Crittenden, heretofore spoken of, which was still pending in the Senate, though with some variations, which were regarded as less favorable to the South. It was reported immediately to both houses of the United States Congress. In the Senate, Crittenden promptly expressed his willingness to accept it as a substitute for his own proposition, and eloquently urged its adoption. But the arrogance of a sectional majority inflated by recent triumph was too powerful to be allayed by the appeals of patriotism or the counsels of wisdom. The plan of the Peace Conference was treated by the majority with the contemptuous indifference shown to every other movement for conciliation. Its mere consideration was objected to by the extreme radicals, and although they failed in this, it was defeated on a vote, as were the Crittenden propositions.

With the failure of these efforts, which occurred on the eve of the inauguration of Lincoln, and the accession to power of a party founded on a basis of sectional aggression, and now thoroughly committed to its prosecution and perpetuation, expired the last hopes of reconciliation and union.

In the course of the debate in the Senate on these grave propositions, a manly and eloquent speech was made on March 2, 1861, by the Hon. Joseph Lane, a Senator from Oregon, who had been the candidate of the Democratic state-rights party for the vice-presidency of the United States, in the canvass of 1860. Some passages of this speech seem peculiarly appropriate for insertion here. General Lane was replying to a speech of Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, afterward President of the United States:

Mr. President, the Senator from Tennessee complains of my remarks on his speech. He complains of the tone and temper of what I said. He complains that I replied at all, as I was a Northern Senator. Mr. President, I am a citizen of this Union and a Senator of the United States. My residence is in the North, but I have never seen the day, and I never shall, when I will refuse justice as readily to the South as to the North. I know nothing but my country, the whole country, [217] the Constitution, and the equality of the States—the equal right of every man in the common territory of the whole country; and by that I shall stand.

The Senator complains that I replied at all, as I was a Northern Senator, and a Democrat whom he had supported at the last election for a high office. Now, I was, as I stated at the time, surprised at the Senator's speech, because I understood it to be for coercion, as I think it was understood by almost everybody else, except, as we are now told, by the Senator himself; and I still think it amounted to a coercion speech, notwithstanding the soft and plausible phrases by which he describes it—a speech for the execution of the laws and the protection of the Federal property. Sir, if there is, as I contend, the right of secession, then, whenever a State exercises that right, this Government has no laws in that State to execute, nor has it any property in any such State that can be protected by the power of this Government. In attempting, however, to substitute the smooth phrases “executing the laws” and “protecting public property” for coercion, for civil war, we have an important concession: that is, that this Government dare not go before the people with a plain avowal of its real purposes and of their consequences. No, sir; the policy is to inveigle the people of the North into civil war, by masking the designs in smooth and ambiguous terms.3

1 See letter of Hon. S. K. Bingham to Governor Blair of Michigan, in Congressional Globe, second session, Thirty-sixth Congress, Part II, p. 1247.

2 See Congressional Globe, ut supra. As this letter, last referred to, is brief and characteristic of the temper of the typical so-called Republicans of the period, it may be inserted entire:

Washington, February 11, 1861.
my dear Governor: Governor Bingham and myself telegraphed you on Saturday, at the request of Massachusetts and New York, to send delegates to the Peace or Compromise Congress. They admit that we were right, and that they were wrong; that no Republican State should have sent delegates; but they are here, and can not get away; Ohio, Indiana, and Rhode Island are caving in, and there is danger of Illinois; and now they beg us, for God's sake, to come to their rescue, and save the Republican party from rupture. I hope you will send stiff-backed men, or none. The whole thing was gotten up against my judgment and advice, and will end in thin smoke. Still, I hope, as a matter of courtesy to some of our erring brethren, that you will send the delegates.

Truly your friend,

P. S.—Some of the manufacturing States think that a fight would be awful. Without a little bloodletting, this Union will not, in my estimation, be worth a rush.

The reader should not fall into the mistake of imagining that the “erring brethren,” toward whom a concession of courtesy is recommended by the writer of this letter, were the people of the seceding, or even of the border, states. It is evident from the context that he means the people of those so-called Republican states which had fallen into the error of taking part in a plan for peace, which might have averted the bloodletting recommended.

3 Congressional Globe, second session, Thirty-sixth Congress, p. 1347.

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