In a city where the sine qua non of life is failure, it is amazing that political miscarriages don’t receive more studious treatment. But in The Peace That Almost Was, Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, offers us a splendid treatment in this meticulously researched account of the last, best attempt to prevent the disunion of a nation less than a century old.
The statesmen who gathered at the behest of former president John Tyler in the Willard Hotel during the final weeks of James Buchanan’s term found themselves in the uncomfortable position that results when one realizes that one’s parents really do not have all the answers and that, every so often, the family must rely on its young for succor.
The parents in this case were the Founders, whose soaring locution “all men are created equal” was emerging from the realm of abstraction in the form of our first openly antislavery president, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, the Southern attendees well understood, meant to press this practical point on the national stage, lending the peace conference a fatalistic tinge. Already, six Deep South states had seceded and were holding their own convention to establish the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America.
The February 1861 conference opened with a prayer led by Senate chaplain (and later pastor and spiritual counselor to President Lincoln) Phineas Gurley. Outside observation was barred, as was the taking of formal minutes. Slavery, of course, was discussed—almost to the exclusion of every other topic, and ultimately formed the core of each of the proposed compromises. The final proposal was rejected in the Senate—it failed to reach the House of Representatives—and a few days after the conference, John Tyler was back in Richmond, taking his seat at the Virginia secession convention, denouncing the peace effort as a “worthless affair.”
But blaming a metaphysical force for the failure of men is not very satisfying. Indeed, as Tooley demonstrates, the 131 members from 14 free and 7 slave states who participated in the conference operated in good faith, sadly aware of what was at stake. Tyler, himself a good Virginian who once quipped of his own state that “her destiny good or evil is with the South,” now declared that the assemblage was tasked with “snatch[ing] from ruin a great and glorious confederation, to preserve the government and reinvigorate the Constitution,” a responsibility his peers took seriously. And yet, as another Virginia delegate, James Seddon, remarked to his Massachusetts counterpart George Boutwell:
It is no use for us to attempt to deceive each other. You have one form of civilization, and we have another. You think yours is the best for you, and we think that ours is the best for us.
What Seddon, a future Confederate cabinet member, was describing was less fact than philosophic point. But modern readers, at a comfortable distance from the causes precipitating the Civil War, would do well to reflect on his pronouncement, for it contains both the failure and the lesson of any peace conference. The failure of the 1861 summit was based on a misunderstanding between representatives of two cultures headed toward collision. The truth is that there were insoluble differences between the contours of the Northern and Southern souls, and prolonging an artificial harmony between the two only shifted the burden of resolution to the future. America was at a point where the bonds of law were being ignored—or, from the Southern perspective, misunderstood—and war, not compromise or appeasement, was the only option for honest men. As Tooley points out, Winston Churchill called the Civil War the “noblest and least avoidable of all the great mass conflicts of which till then there was record.”
The lesson is that we should not shy away from Seddon’s clarity about cultural differences. And we should not fear affirming that there are many “cultures,” not all of which are created equal: Some are worth preserving, some worth destroying. During the Civil War, the principles of our Founding documents were in need of vigorous protection over and against the domestic order of the South, and Lincoln was clear-sighted enough to understand that, at a certain point, value judgments had to be made, regardless of the consequences.
David Bahr is an assistant editor at The Weekly Standard.