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The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War
mark tooley
thomas nelson 2015, $24.99

This study of an important event that took place just before the Civil War started helps us in addressing two key historical questions: 1) At what point, if any, was Abraham Lincoln morally justified in fighting the Confederacy? and 2) Could an agreement have been reached that would have prevented the Civil War?

The Peace That Almost Was focuses on a key effort in the attempt to avert a war: the Washington Peace Conference—“one of the most dignified assemblages of men ever gathered together in this country,” a major newspaper noted—that met in the weeks before Lincoln took office. The conference was proposed by ex-president John Tyler and requested by the Virginia legislature, which urged state governments to authorize delegates. A slaveholder who wished to maintain the Union, Tyler chaired the parley, but later denounced its proposals as inadequate for the South and thus favored secession at the Virginia state convention.

Tooley's account nicely brings to life the conference's moods, reactions around the country to its proceedings, and its mix of conciliators and zealots. Some attendees grasped the looming conflict's immensity. Though he opposed the Republican party from the outset, ex-New York congressman Francis Granger told Southern colleagues that the president-elect was more reasonable than his party's principles. He trusted Lincoln's honesty and “his Kentucky blood” (presumably meaning his border-state roots and thus a regard for the whole Union). Lincoln could be expected to follow “cool, dispassionate” counsel. Yet Granger also raised the prospect that the Lower South's secession had already made a ruinous war likely. The “northern mind,” he warned, was not provoked “by slight scratches, but strike the rowel deep, and there is a purpose in it that nothing can conquer or restrain. The people of the North will carry that purpose into execution, with a power as fierce as that of the maddest chivalry of South Carolina.”

One way or another, it came down to protecting slavery. David Field of New York explained that he “would sacrifice all I have; lay down my life for the Union,” meaning that he would do all he could to prevent war, but he added, “I will not give these guarantees to slavery. If the Union cannot be preserved without them, it cannot long be preserved with them.” Pennsylvania congressman and delegate David Wilmot was just as blunt, claiming it was wrong to “bind posterity” on the great issue, to “entrench slavery behind the Constitution.”

Principled words indeed. But what might Southerners conclude from such refusals? If the North insisted slavery was “the sum of all villainies,” admonished Virginia jurist John Brockenbrough, “then we may as well separate. We cannot live together longer.” As Missouri's John Coalter would later recall saying: “If you abhor slavery, how long before you abhor slaveholders? This, we represented to them, was the very point which had roused the southern mind.”

The conference finally adopted several arguably peripheral constitutional amendments such as forbidding acquisition of new U.S. territory without approval by a majority of both slave-state and free-state senators, guaranteeing federal compensation for fugitive slaves when failure to return them was due to anti-slavery violence or intimidation, and restoring and perpetuating the Missouri Compromise line that once satisfied both regions but had been struck down by the Dred Scott decision. In the Senate, the more adamant Republicans and Southerners combined to reject the proposals overwhelmingly; in the House of Representatives, the necessary two-thirds support for authorizing debate didn't materialize.

Tooley nonetheless judges that the peace conference was not a complete failure. He agrees with moderate Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky, who had proposed similar measures on his own, that it: 1) held out enough hope to Southerners while it lasted, he writes, to delay secession by more cautious states like Virginia; and 2) helped to prevent secession in the border states, which never took that step.

At least as important, though, is that the under-appreciated dignity and honor in political compromise, in not demanding one's whole ideal, is on eloquent display here, deepening our understanding of the secession crisis and enriching an otherwise simplistic sense of it. As Virginia's former senator William Rives urged: “There are occasions, sir, in the history of nations, when men should rise far above the rules of special pleading. This is one of them.” The reader might well concur, might even imagine attempting it under these dire circumstances.

David B. Frisk, a resident fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute, is the author of If Not Us, Who? William Rusher, National Review, and the Conservative Movement.

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