The Committee of Thirteen was a select committee of U.S. Senators formed in December 1860 to craft a compromise agreement between the slaveholding and non-slaveholding states to stem the secession movement and save the Union.
When the Republican Party assembled in Chicago from May 16 to May 18, 1860, to nominate a candidate for the U.S. presidency, they adopted a platform that would prohibit the extension of slavery in the United States, impose high tariffs to protect northern industry, and provide free land to homesteaders in the West. Southern states were so alarmed by these pro-Northern policies that several of them began threatening to secede from the Union if the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won the election. Only four days after Lincoln won the election, South Carolina was the first state to act on November 10, calling for a state convention to consider secession.
Special Senate Committee
On December 6, 1860, Kentucky Senator Lazarus Whitehead Powell proposed that
the grievances between the slaveholding and non-slaveholding States, be referred to a special committee of thirteen members; and that said committee be instructed to inquire whether any additional legislation within the sphere of federal authority and duty, be necessary for the protection and security of property in the States and Territories of the United States; and if so, that they report by bill.
Following a week of deliberation, the full Senate established the committee, which met for the first time on December 18, one day after South Carolina’s secession convention convened. The Committee of Thirteen comprised seven Democrats, five Republicans, and one Constitutional Unionist. The members were:
- William Bigler (Pennsylvania)
- Jefferson Davis (Mississippi)
- Stephen Douglas (Illinois)
- Robert M. T. Hunter (Virginia)
- Lazarus W. Powell (Kentucky)
- Henry M. Rice (Minnesota)
- Robert Toombs, (Georgia)
- Jacob Collamer (Vermont)
- James Rood Doolittle (Wisconsin)
- James W. Grimes (Iowa)
- William Seward (New York)
- Benjamin Wade (Ohio)
- John J. Crittenden (Kentucky)
The appointees diminished their chances of achieving a satisfactory “plan of adjustment” to save the Union almost immediately by approving a motion made by Jefferson Davis that the committee would not endorse any proposal unless supported by majorities of both the Republican and the Democratic members. Over the next two weeks, the committee entertained proposals from Crittenden, Davis, Douglas, Seward, and Toombs. The most notable of these was the Crittenden Compromise (which the full Senate later defeated).
Hamstrung by the self-imposed restriction requiring endorsement by majorities of both major parties, the committee could not agree on a compromise that might stem the secession movement and save the Union. On December 31, 1860, the members submitted the following report to the full Senate:
The Committee of Thirteen appointed by the order of the Senate on the 20th inst. have agreed on the following resolution and report the same to the Senate: Resolved, That the committee have not been able to agree upon any general plan of adjustment and report that fact to the Senate together with the journal of the Committee.
By that time, South Carolina had seceded from the Union (December 20, 1860). As was the case with a similar committee in the House of Representatives known as the Committee of Thirty-three, the Senate Committee of Thirteen could not find enough common ground to prevent the dissolution of the Union and the onset of civil war in the United States.