The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War.
By Mark Tooley
(Thomas Nelson Press, 297 pages, $26.99)
Thucydides begins his immortal Peloponnesian War with the embassies of rival city-states of Corinth and Corcyra addressing the Athenian assembly, each side making its case for an alliance. The father of history tells us candidly that of all the speeches he records in his epic study of the war that ensues between Athens and Sparta, many are those he has only heard about. He posits the addresses of envoys by what he believes the rational actor would have said given the circumstances.
Author Mark Tooley has a decided advantage over Thucydides: He has the written records of the month-long Washington Peace Conference of 1861. All the participants in this gathering at the Willard Hotel were deeply aware that this was the last best hope to avert civil war. Tooley references speech after speech of delegates North and South and, significantly, delegates from states that regarded themselves as Western or Border states.
Mark Tooley is well suited to write this groundbreaking book. His long time service in Washington, in and out of government, give him a sense of the interplay of the political and social forces at work then as now. Also, as President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), Tooley understands the significant role played by the clergy of the capital city. Too many of our purely secular historians leave out this needed dimension in understanding our nation’s past.
Virtually every one of the men in Tooley’s book is keenly conscious of the precipice yawning before the assembled “Old Gentlemen.” Yes, they are mostly elderly. They have chosen former President John Tyler as their chairman. Tyler is accompanied by his much younger wife, Julia Gardner Tyler. This book gives merited attention to the women’s ideas and experiences.
The vivacious Mrs. Tyler is clearly in her element, glad to be back in Washington after sixteen years. She hails from a distinguished New York family. But her sympathies are all with the slaveholding South.
The delegates know that Secessionists have already sought to sever seven states from the Union. Virginia and North Carolina seem on the verge of leaving. What have they come to discuss? The remaining Slave States want guarantees that their “peculiar institution” of slavery will be protected by the incoming Republican administration. They demand the right to take their slave “property” into the national territories. They want, in short, President-elect Lincoln to disavow the Chicago Platform on which he was elected and give in to their demands.
Lincoln is off stage through most of this book, traveling by train from Springfield to the nation’s capital. There is surely drama enough in his approach to the District of Columbia. Rumors of war circulate through the muddy streets of Washington. It is even considered a “provocation” by Southerners remaining in Congress to have a military parade in honor of Washington’s Birthday, February 22nd.
At 75, Gen. Winfield Scott is weighed down with his medals, his sword, and his 350 pounds. But he is hale enough to ensure the counting of the Electoral Votes proceeds without incident in the Capitol.
Gen. Scott has more than his regular soldiers and U.S. Marines to rely upon, however. When threats are made to violently disrupt the formal election of Abraham Lincoln as President, Vermont militia volunteers, dressed in plainclothes, mingle with the crowd in the Capitol building. Several rooms off the main House Chamber are secured, presumably to serve as a temporary arsenal should these 1861-era Minutemen be called upon to defend the Republic.
It’s no spoiler to say the Washington Peace Conference failed. Its main result was to recommend compromise on the issue of slavery, a compromise that was wholly unacceptable to Lincoln and the newly elected Republicans. “The tug has to come & better now, than any time hereafter,” he told Republicans who began to waver in December 1860, with the first wave of state secessions. From this position, Lincoln never retreated. His position throughout the crisis of the Secession Winter of 1860-61 remained the same: He would not bargain for the office the Republicans had fairly won.
One of the most dramatic episodes Mark Tooley captures is the news of the earlier than expected arrival of the President-elect in the Willard Hotel. The news is brought in a message to one of Virginia’s leading delegates, James Seddon. Seddon will soon find service in Richmond as the Confederacy’s Secretary of War.
But for now, he is tasked with telling other Peace delegates what news his slave has brought him: “Lincoln is in the hotel.” That slave was described by conference recorder Lucius Chittenden of Vermont as “scarcely darker than Seddon himself.” This dignified figure had free rein to enter and leave the assembly of delegates.
That the news of Lincoln’s arrival was brought to the delegates by an enslaved person is but one of the innumerable ironies and historical gems Mark Tooley has uncovered in this highly readable work.
Tooley’s narrative nails down at all four corners the hardy perennial myth that the Civil War was fought over economic issues or States Rights, or any issue other than slavery. For weeks on end, the Northern and Southern delegates to this Peace Conference discussed nothing else.
Thucydides had to surmise — shrewdly — what the Hellenic envoys to the Athenian assembly would have said in 432 B.C. It was their last attempt to avoid what would become the greatest war the ancient world had known.
Mark Tooley, thanks to his careful digging through the documentary record, knows what the conferees of 1861 said. And now we know. Like Thucydides, Tooley has given us a work to last “as a possession for all time.”