Washington Peace Conference (1861)

Updated: April 28, 2016

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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


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.

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.

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."

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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MLA Style

"Washington Peace Conference," Ohio Civil War Central, 2017, Ohio Civil War Central. 19 Oct 2017 <http://www.www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=931>

APA Style

"Washington Peace Conference." (2017) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved October 19, 2017, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=931

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