Washington Peace Conference

February 4, 1861 - February 27, 1861

Proposed by Virginia and chaired by former U.S. President John Tyler, the Washington Peace Conference was an unsuccessful eleventh-hour attempt to save the Union and avoid the American Civil War.

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Background

On November 6, 1860, American voters elected Republican Abraham Lincoln as the sixteenth President of the United States. Alarmed by what they considered to be extremist views held by Lincoln and Radical Republicans, Southerners began escalating their threats to leave the Union. On November 10, only four days after Lincoln’s victory, South Carolina was the first state to act, calling for a state convention to consider secession. On December 3, 1860, when the second session of the 36th Congress convened, President James Buchanan sent the legislature a message requesting an “exploratory amendment” to deal with the secession crisis. Congressmen from both houses responded with a flurry of proposals to save the Union.

Committee of Thirty-three

On December 4, 1860, the House of Representatives formed a select committee to entertain ideas to avert disunion. Known as the Committee of Thirty-three, the group consisted of one representative from each state. The Senate soon followed suit, voting on December 18 to create its own select committee, known as the Committee of Thirteen. By mid-January 1861, both committees reported back to their respective bodies of Congress that they were unable to find enough common ground to prevent the dissolution of the Union, and the onset of civil war seemed imminent.

Eleventh-hour Attempt to Avoid Civil War

Toward the end of January, the Virginia legislature and other state dignitaries, including Governor John Letcher and former U.S. President John Tyler, made an eleventh-hour attempt to stave off hostilities. They invited representatives from the individual states to send delegates to a conference outside of the dominion of the federal government, in hopes of finding solutions to the nation’s sectional differences.

State Representation

On February 4, 1861, delegates from Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia convened at the Willards’ Concert Hall, adjacent to the Willard Hotel, in Washington, D.C. During the following days, representatives from Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Tennessee, and Vermont joined them. Seven states from the Deep South (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas) had already seceded from the Union and chose not to participate. In addition, Arkansas, California, Michigan Minnesota, Oregon, and Wisconsin did not send delegates. In total, twenty-one states (fourteen free and seven slave-holding) participated in the conference, and thirteen states did not.

Delegates

Many of the delegates who represented their states at the Washington Peace Conference were elderly men who qualified as senior statesmen. Fueled by derisive press accounts, critics publicly referred to the meeting as the “Old Gentleman’s Convention.” Delegates to the conference from their respective states included:

Baldwin, Roger S. Connecticut
Battell, Robbins Connecticut
Cleveland, Chauncey F. Connecticut
McCurdy, Charles J. Connecticut
Pratt, James T. Connecticut
Treat, Amos S. Connecticut
Bates, Daniel M. Delaware
Cannon, William Delaware
Houston, John W. Delaware
Ridgeley, Henry Delaware
Rodney, George B. Delaware
Cook, Burton C. Illinois
Logan, Stephen T. Illinois
Palmer, John M. Illinois
Turner, Thomas J. Illinois
Wood, John Illinois
Ellis, E. W. H. Indiana
Hackleman, Pleasant A. Indiana
Orth, Godlove S. Indiana
Slaughter, Thomas C. Indiana
Smith, Caleb B. Indiana
Curtis, Samuel R. Iowa
Grimes, James W. Iowa
Harlan, James Iowa
Vandever, William Iowa
Adams, Henry J. Kansas
Conway, M. F. Kansas
Stone, J. C. Kansas
Ewing, Jr. Thomas Kansas
Bell, Joshua F. Kentucky
Butler, William O. Kentucky
Clay, James B. Kentucky
Guthrie, James Kentucky
Morehead, Charles S. Kentucky
Wickliffe, Charles A. Kentucky
Coburn, Stephen Maine
Fessenden, William P. Maine
Foster, Stephen C. Maine
French, Ezra, B. Maine
Morrell, Lot M. Maine
Morse, Freeman H. Maine
Perry, John J. Maine
Somes, Daniel E. Maine
Bradford, Augustus W. Maryland
Crisfield, John Maryland
Dent, John F. Maryland
Goldsborough, William T. Maryland
Howard, Benjamin C. Maryland
Johnson, Reverdy Maryland
Roman, J. Dixon Maryland
Allen, Charles Massachusetts
Boutwell, George S. Massachusetts
Chandler, Theophilus P. Massachusetts
Crowninshield, Francis B. Massachusetts
Forbes, John M. Massachusetts
Goodrich, John Z. Massachusetts
Waters, Richard P. Massachusetts
Buckner, Aylett H. Missouri
Coalter, John D. Missouri
Doniphan, Alexander W. Missouri
Hough, Harrison Missouri
Johnson, Waldo P. Missouri
Chamberlain, Levi New Hampshire
Fowler, Asa New Hampshire
Tuck, Amos New Hampshire
Alexander, William C. New Jersey
Frelinghuysen, Frederick T. New Jersey
Olden, Charles New Jersey
Price, Rodman M. New Jersey
Randolph,, Joseph F. New Jersey
Stockton, Robert F. New Jersey
Stryker, Thomas J. New Jersey
Vroom, Peter D. New Jersey
Williamson, Benjamin New Jersey
Bronson, Greene C. New York
Corning, Erastus New York
Dodge, William E. New York
Field, David D. New York
Gardiner, Addison New York
Granger, Francis New York
James, Amaziah B. New York
King, John A. New York
Noyes, William C. New York
Smith, James C. New York
Wadsworth, James S. New York
Wool, John E. New York
Barringer, Daniel M. North Carolina
Davis, George North Carolina
Morehead, J. M. North Carolina
Reid, David S. North Carolina
Ruffin, Thomas North Carolina
Backus, Franklin T. Ohio
Chase, Salmon P. Ohio
Ewing, Thomas Ohio
Groesbeck, William S. Ohio
Hitchcock, Reuben Ohio
Horton, Valentine B. Ohio
Wolcott, C. P. Ohio
Wright, John C. Ohio
Franklin, Thomas E. Pennsylvania
Loomis, A.W. Pennsylvania
McKennan, William Pennsylvania
Meredith, William M. Pennsylvania
Pollock, James Pennsylvania
White, Thomas Pennsylvania
Wilmot, David Pennsylvania
Ames, Samuel Rhode Island
Arnold, Samuel G. Rhode Island
Browne, George H. Rhode Island
Duncan, Alexander Rhode Island
Hoppin, William W. Rhode Island
Anderson, Josiah M. Tennessee
Carruthers, Robert L. Tennessee
Cullom, Alvin Tennessee
Hawkins, Isaac R. Tennessee
Hickerson, William P. Tennessee
Jones, George W. Tennessee
Martin, Thomas Tennessee
McKinney, R. J. Tennessee
Milligan, Samuel Tennessee
Stephens, William H. Tennessee
Totten, A. W. O. Tennessee
Zollicoffer, F. K. Tennessee
Baxter, H. Henry Vermont
Chittenden, L. E. Vermont
Hall, Hiland Vermont
Harris, B. D. Vermont
Underwood, Levi Vermont
Brockenbrough, John W. Virginia
Rives, William C. Virginia
Seddon, James A. Virginia
Summers, George W. Virginia
Tyler, John Virginia

 

Organizing

On the first day of the conference, the delegates chose John C. Wright of Ohio to serve as president pro tem and established a committee on organization. The next day, upon nomination by the committee on organization, the delegates selected former President Tyler as president of the convention and Crafts J. Wright as secretary.

Meeting with Lincoln

The delegates met throughout most of the month of February. During that time, they wrangled over numerous proposals, most of which resembled measures already rejected by Congress. On February 24, a small group of delegates met with President-elect Lincoln in his suite at the Willard Hotel, hoping to secure his support for compromise. Lincoln, however, remained intractable on the Republican position of opposing the extension of slavery in the territories. Members of the convention made a final appeal for Lincoln’s support on February 26, but to no avail.

Proposed Constitutional Amendment

On February 27, the convention delegates narrowly adopted a series of recommendations similar to the Crittenden Compromise, which the Senate had rejected on January 16, 1861, and then adjourned. Specifically, the delegates recommended a constitutional amendment consisting of the seven sections summarized below.

  • Section 1 reestablished the prohibition of slavery north of the Missouri Compromise line, but sanctioned the institution where it already existed south of the line. This section also endorsed the principle of popular sovereignty regarding the admission of new states south of the Missouri Compromise line.
  • Section 2 barred the United States from acquiring new territories without the concurrence of a majority of senators representing all slave-holding states, and a majority of senators of all free-soil states.
  • Section 3 prohibited Congress from interfering with slavery in states where it existed, and it banned the slave trade in the District of Columbia.
  • Section 4 reaffirmed the intent and enforcement provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law.
  • Section 5 prohibited the importation of slaves into the United States.
  • Section 6 established that key components of the Constitution regarding slavery (including the convention’s proposed amendment) could not be “amended or abolished without the consent of all the States.”
  • Section 7 ensured that the federal government would compensate slave owners for the loss of fugitive slaves “in all cases where the marshal or other officer, whose duty it was to arrest such fugitive, was prevented from so doing by violence and intimidation from mobs or riotous assemblages, or when after arrest such fugitive was rescued by like violence or intimidation.”

Aftermath

On the same day that the conference adjourned, Senator Lazarus W. Powell of Kentucky introduced the proposed amendment in the U.S. Senate, where it was overwhelmingly defeated by a vote of twenty-eight to seven. After several days of political maneuvering, on March 1, the House refused even to entertain the convention’s proposal. Thus, the last attempt to achieve a negotiated solution to the sectional differences dividing the nation was thwarted, paving the way to four years of civil war.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Washington Peace Conference
  • Coverage February 4, 1861 - February 27, 1861
  • Author
  • Keywords washington peace conference
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 27, 2021
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 11, 2021
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