Peace Conference of 1861: Background & Aftermath

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  • 0:00 Prelude to War
  • 1:46 The Peace Conference of 1861
  • 5:23 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

How much do you know about the start of the Civil War? You may be familiar with the issue of secession, but did you know that delegates from the states tried to stop the Civil War from happening?

Prelude to War

In November of 1860, a single event changed the United States forever. Voters elected Abraham Lincoln into the White House. You're probably thinking, 'Well, of course this changed the U.S. forever,' but did you know that Lincoln's impact on the nation started before he was officially sworn in as president? Lincoln was not popular with Southern voters. He was a Republican. At the time, the Republican Party was notorious for their anti-slavery ideas. Clearly that type of thinking was not going to fly in the Deep South where the economy rested almost entirely on the backs of hundreds of thousands of slaves.

Within days of Lincoln's presidential victory, South Carolina was already preparing to secede, or separate itself, from the Union. President James Buchanan, as Lincoln wasn't sworn into office until 1861, and Congress knew they had to do something. There had to be a way to stop the Southern states from seceding. When Congress went into session at the beginning of December, Buchanan charged the Senate and the House with a not-so-simple task: make the threat of secession go away.

The House and Senate immediately went to work, forming special committees in each house of the legislature to try to find some sort of compromise that would prevent the Union from falling apart. Unfortunately, there seemed to be no true compromise, no way to convince the South to stay. By December 20, 1860, South Carolina officially declared it was leaving the United States, inspiring six other states to follow in the coming month. Despite the seemingly hopeless situation, a number of politicians from Virginia attempted one last-ditch effort to reach an agreement.

The Peace Conference of 1861

This last-ditch effort was the Peace Conference of 1861. Organizers of the event thought it would be a good idea to bring leaders directly from the states, and to try to broker an agreement outside of Congress. On February 4, 1861 delegates from 21 Northern and Southern states met at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC to try to find an acceptable compromise. On the same day, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas met to discuss forming the Confederate States of America. Delegates present at the peace conference knew that war was a probability, and that the threat of disunion was very real. For nearly a month, the delegates went back and forth on ways to prevent further secession and war. After weeks of effort, they came up with a seven-point plan that appealed to states in both the North and South.

Of the seven points, two were a way to maintain the status quo. First, the delegates agreed to respect the agreement made by the Missouri Compromise. Slavery was allowed below the compromise line but prohibited above the line. Second, Americans would continue to follow the laws laid out by the Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1850. These two points were a way to maintain balance and continuity. For the delegates, maintaining the Missouri Compromise line was a no-brainer. The terms of the compromise were simple and easy to follow. While the South directly benefited from the second point, it was not a great concession by the North. After all, those states had already agreed to the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act nearly a decade prior.

A third point of the agreement also hinged on the Fugitive Slave Act, stating that the U.S. government would be responsible for paying slave owners for any damages they incurred when trying to recover a fugitive slave. This was a concession made by the North to appease the South. In effect, it just bolstered the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act and guaranteed that the government would prevent slaveholders from losing money.

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