John Bicknell

The Peace That Thankfully Wasn’t


Mark Tooley’s The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War is one of those books just begging to be written.

It has been more than 60 years since anyone tackled the subject at length, and the wait was worth it. Tooley’s book is entertaining, informative and – most importantly – an object lesson on the limits of compromise.

Robert Gunderson’s Old Gentlemen’s Convention: The Washington Peace Conference of 1861, was until now the standard edition of the story. It has been surpassed.

Tooley’s tome is likely to replace Gunderson for two reasons.

First, it’s a much better read. His style is smooth and he keeps the narrative moving consistently, even when digressing to explain an arcane point (and there are a number of these). His reconstruction of the details of the debates is meticulous, comparable in their thoroughness to Pauline Maier’s in Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788, her epic study of the state-by-state ratification of the Constitution.

Even more broadly, though, Tooley takes full advantage of the avalanche of research on the antebellum era that has been done over the past six decades. Historians’ views of the war and its causes have been revolutionized in that time, a period that saw revolutionary change of its own that was not unrelated to the earlier conflict.

Gunderson’s version of events is of a different time. Tooley’s take is a modern interpretation that still manages not to get lost in modern PC sensibilities.

Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, devotes considerable attention to the role religion played in the debate, and it is a worthy addition to the story. As he points out, “Statesmen and polemists for both the North and South were freely resorting to religious rhetoric in justification of their causes, for which the churches provided ample ammunition.”

His examination of the role played by various clergy in the convention’s proceedings is among the highlights of a book that has many.

But it is the convention itself, and the looming national catastrophe its desperate delegates hoped to avoid, that is the heart of the story.

John Tyler, a former president of the United States, was chosen to preside at the convention, which met in what had been a Presbyterian church that was taken over as a meeting hall by the Willard Hotel. But the driving force was Sen. John J. Crittenden of Kentucky, like Abraham Lincoln a disciple of Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser. And it was to the idea of compromise, as much as to the Union, that Crittenden was devoted.

The “compromises” Crittenden proposed were breathtaking in their breadth. Most found their way into the convention’s final work that, ironically, would have been the 13th Amendment (instead of the actual 13th, which abolished slavery):

But these proposals to assuage the South by enshrining slavery in the Constitution proved unacceptable to the incoming president. Even as some of Lincoln’s more squeamish allies began to quiver at the prospect of secession and civil war, he stood fast.

Lincoln remained silent in public, but took a dim view of the proceedings in private, essentially arguing that to surrender to Southern demands at this late hour would negate the results of the election he and the Republican Party had just won.

Lincoln understood something that his hero, Clay, did not.

Compromise has its place, but there comes a point where compromise morphs into appeasement, then surrender.

Historians and journalists love to praise compromise as a virtue in itself. But the value of compromise is in the result.

Making a plea for agreement, delegate Frederick Frelinghuysen proclaimed that “if civil war is to come, if this land is to be deluged with fraternal blood, when that time comes there will not be a northern state represented here that would not give untold millions to be placed upon that record by the side of New Jersey” in his state’s support of compromise.

But Frelinghuysen was wrong. When war came, the North rose to the occasion, confident in the knowledge, as Lincoln had said at Cooper Union the year before, that “right makes might.” Perhaps most telling at the convention itself, a proposal to add to the Constitution an anti-secession provision declaring that the Union was indissoluble was defeated, 11-10. That vote, as much as anything else that happened in February 1861, proved that no compromise could resolve the question of slavery.

The “irrepressible conflict” that William H. Seward had identified in 1858 was just that. Some problems do not lend themselves to difference splitting. Sometimes you have to keep holding elections until one side wins, definitively. And sometimes, regrettably, you have to resort to arms.

As the (thankfully) failed attempt to “compromise” their way out of the coming civil war demonstrates, at least a few people – including the most important one — understood this in 1861. It’s a pity more don’t understand it today.