What Abraham Lincoln can teach us about ugly politics

America has been sharply divided before, and there was an effort to bridge that chasm that may have lessons for us today.

The Washington Peace Conference convened in early February 1861 at the legendary Willard Hotel (where term "lobbyist" supposedly began) in Washington, D.C. to avert further disunion and Civil War. Six Deep South states had already seceded since Lincoln's November election to the presidency. The Upper South and Border States were awaiting his inauguration in March before deciding whether to stay or quit.  

That is, if in fact Lincoln was inaugurated.

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Rumors swirled throughout Washington about plots to prevent his presidency, with political stratagem or even violence. Congress in February would need to ratify the Electoral College vote. The presiding officer would be Vice President John Breckinridge of Kentucky, an opposing candidate to Lincoln in the 1860 election who would later serve as a Confederate general leading an attack on the nation's capital in 1864.

 

The Electoral College vote was just one of several crises unfolding 156 years ago this month as 131 delegates from 21 states convened in the back of the Willard Hotel on F Street, just two blocks from the White House. Lame-duck President James Buchanan tearfully implored them to find a national solution that he himself had failed to identify. The peace delegates were led by stately, elderly former President John Tyler, a slave-owning Virginia patrician old enough to have known some Founding Fathers.

With mentors like Thomas Jefferson and a James Madison in mind, Tyler had proposed the Peace Convention as a last ditch attempt to save the republic.

Tyler's beautiful much younger wife, who brought their latest toddler to Washington for the convention, told her mother that all of Washington now looked to her husband as the nation's savior. Many did, especially survivors of an older age when grand compromises between north and south, slave and free, were successfully negotiated. Newspapers called this gathering the Old Gentlemen's Convention, citing the dozens of white-headed old congressmen, cabinet members, judges, and governors who filled its ranks.  

Most delegates were old Whigs and Democrats who resented and did not fully understand the new Republican Party or its ostensibly rustic standard bearer who was elected promising that slavery would not spread into Western territories. The younger delegates were wary Republicans suspicious the Peace Conference was a southern Democrat plot to subvert the 1860 election, and who tried to stall until Lincoln was safely in office.

Republican delegates were led by Ohio anti-slavery statesman Salmon Chase, soon to become Lincoln's Treasury Secretary. The chief pro-slavery orator was diminutive but fiery future Confederate War Secretary James Seddon, a Virginian with plantations and slaves in Louisiana. His dignified slave, called possibly the most distinguished looking man in the room, attended him during the convention—the only black man whose presence is recorded at the closed event. If only we knew his thoughts as the fate of his enslaved race was negotiated!

As delegates debated, aging but still formidable General Winfield Scott ensured Washington's security, which included surrounding the U.S. Capitol with troops during the peaceful Electoral College vote, prompting accusations that Scott had become dictator. A military parade honoring George Washington's Birthday was cancelled and resurrected on the same day by dithering President Buchanan, who was concerned that southern delegates might see the martial display on Pennsylvania Avenue outside their hotel as intimidation.

Many delegates were surprised on their final Saturday across three weeks when informed that President-elect Lincoln, having evaded a possible assassination plot in Baltimore, had checked into their hotel. Their presence was requested with him upstairs that night. Lincoln greeted each with charm and humor but tension built as southerners and Democrats demanded to hear his solution. He firmly and articulately pledged to uphold and defend the Constitution, impressing many critics as more imposing than anticipated.

The next morning on Sunday, Lincoln attended St. John's Episcopal Church in his first public appearance in Washington. Delegates on Monday began their final deliberations on constitutional language that would protect slavery in perpetuity where it existed while allowing it to spread into the Southwest territories, in defiance of the Republican pledge. The amendments were approved but only narrowly after intense last minute lobbying.  

President Tyler thanked the delegates, but his dream of consensus for compromise was dashed. Now finally realizing how polarized the nation had become, he quickly left for Richmond, Virginia, where he publicly denounced the Peace Convention he had organized as a failure thanks to northern intransigence.

The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly rejected the proposals, and the U.S. House of Representatives didn't even vote on them. Civil War began in six weeks.

Most histories dismiss the Washington Peace Conference as a failure. But it offers important if not easily reassuring instruction. Some political differences are so starkly at odds, because they are rooted in culture and religion, that they cannot be neatly negotiated in a grand compromise. Instead resolution can only be achieved through long term confrontation and battle.

In 1861 that battle became violent and bloody. America can be grateful that our polarization today is nowhere near the Civil War. Our differences will be waged on the battlefields of debate and ballot boxes. It will be confrontational and often ugly, seeming to test the limits of our democracy.  

But our republic has survived far worse in the Civil War and other struggles. Lincoln's greatness was rooted in his confidence that our government of consent by the governed, based on the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, would endure.

We should recall Lincoln's confidence in American democracy as we wade through today's political warfare. Now as then, our country on the other side of the smoke may evolve into a new national consensus that tests us while also making us stronger.

Mark Tooley, author of The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War, is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy.


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