Mark Tooley is the president of the Institute of Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. This year marks his first visit to the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, VA. His latest book is The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War.
I don’t remember learning about the Washington Peace Conference in high school.
Even history and civil war buffs don’t know about it or, if they do, they know very little about it! Most history books devote only a few paragraphs. James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, one of the best overall histories about the Civil War, [has] only two and half pages. It’s a neglected and forgotten topic. There hasn’t been a book about it specifically since the 1950s.
Why is it important?
It’s very important for several reasons. It was the last major attempt to avert disunion and the Civil War. In effect, it was the opportunity for the North and South to present their closing arguments before the war was to begin. It took place during the so-called Secession Winter of 1861. A half dozen or so states have already seceded in the Deep South. The Upper South is deliberating what they are going to do. Abraham Lincoln has been elected but not yet inaugurated. There’s terrible uncertainty. It’s not clear that even if the Union does break up that it’ll be just North-South. It could shatter into four or five new confederations geographically or otherwise.
The Peace Conference began as the brainchild of an aging statesman who had been in retirement for 16 years, former President John Tyler. His ideas were endorsed by the governor and legislature in Virginia, who invited the other states in the Union in an attempt to salvage the Union and avoid open conflict. They all gathered in February 1861 at the historic (and still existing) Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. There were over a hundred statesmen who were older and had been on the national stage for decades. Newspapers started referring to it as the “Old Gentlemen’s Convention.”
It’s possible that the delegates saw similarities between their Peace Conference of 1861 and the 1787 Constitutional Convention led by George Washington and other Founding Founders. However, would it correct to say that the delegates failed because they were not like their predecessors?
Very much so. Many of the delegates there had a grandiose understanding of what their gathering was and how it would be remembered. The self-appointed notetaker [Lucius Chittenden] – and we owe him great thanks – compared himself to James Madison taking notes at the Constitutional Convention. He and many others thought of [the Conference] on that magnitude. Your point is good in that John Tyler probably met George Washington as a boy and knew many of the other Founding Fathers as a young man. In his mind, Tyler must have had Washington as a model when he took the chair at the Washington Peace Conference.
But the caliber and breadth of experience of the delegates was nowhere near what the Constitutional Convention had had. By this point, most of the greats of the governing generation that followed the Founding Fathers like Webster, Calhoun, and Henry Clay had passed from the scene. People that were there, this “second tier,” just didn’t have the same level of greatness. The new leadership generation that emerged after the Civil War had not yet taken the fore. So the delegates are the type of people who are sort of locked between in the historical cracks.
John Tyler also had meetings with the lame duck president James Buchanan. How did their differences hamper the success of the Peace Conference?
James Buchanan was a major character in my book, even though he was not technically a delegate. He was fairly involved behind the scenes as a major cheerleader for the Conference. He and John Tyler had known each other for decades as “frenemies:” friends or adversaries depending on the issue. They were both Democrats, but Tyler especially had not trusted Buchanan very much. James Buchanan struck many people as very self-serving and not very deep on his commitment.
They were unified momentarily on the Peace Conference and he paved the way for John Tyler. Buchanan opposed secession but he didn’t think he had any Constitutional power to prohibit it. Between the Lincoln election and inauguration, there was a great leadership vacuum in Washington and the nation. At least for a few weeks in 1861, John Tyler tried to fill that vacuum. If the Conference had worked out better, perhaps he’d be remembered appreciatively in that role.
What role did religious institutions play at the Conference?
Each day of the Conference was opened in prayer, almost in each case by the pastor of a major church in Downtown Washington. It was an age of public piety. Interestingly, the building in which they met at the Willard Hotel had been a Presbyterian church up until the previous year. That would have been typical for these statesmen as the major meeting places of their day.
The two largest denominations – the Baptists and the Methodists – formally had their schism in the 1840s over slavery. They divided North-South. The Presbyterians had a similar division. The Lutherans would divide during the War. John Calhoun, who was deceased before the Conference, had known that the breakup of the denominations paved the way for the breakup of the nation.
As you were researching for the book, was there anything about these figures that surprised you?
There were lots of surprises in that it’s all new information that most histories don’t give attention to. A major character in my book is General Winfield Scott, [who was] obviously not a delegate. He was very much engaged in trying to ensure the security of Washington during the convention, leading up to Lincoln’s inauguration, and beyond. In many ways, Winfield Scott did fill the leadership vacuum. He was confident that the inauguration would take place. It’s not often remembered … There were many rumors about attempts to disrupt the electoral vote count physically or by some political stratagem. Winfield Scott played a major role in making sure that Lincoln’s election was ratified into law.
I was aware of Lincoln’s arrival into Washington through Baltimore with the aid of the Pinkerton detectives, but not about what happened next.
Near the conclusion, I describe Lincoln’s arrival at the Willard Hotel. [Historians] often omit that he checked into the hotel and immediately met with delegates of the Peace Conference. Their exchange revealed the state at large both politically and geographically and how the Peace Conference was just simply not going to succeed.