White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, whose boss is well known for unique opinions about the Civil War, introduced his own hypothesis to the world last night when he blamedÂ the war on âthe lack of an ability to compromise.â
The Washington Post hasÂ already written about what historians think ofÂ Kellyâs thoughts,Â their assessments rangingÂ from âdangerousâ to âkind of depressing.â
But theÂ truth is, the panicky months before the Civil War were full of attempts to compromise with the rebellious South.
The most popularÂ proposal, by far, was a constitutional amendmentÂ that would have irreversibly immortalized slaveryÂ as a feature of the United States.
And while supporters of thisÂ compromise â up to and including Abraham Lincoln and most of Congress â did fail to pull it off, it wasnât for lack of trying.
TheÂ centralÂ difficultyÂ of bargainingÂ with secessionists, as Daniel W. Crofts writes in âLincoln and the Politics of Slavery,â is that so many secessionists were hysterical.
âWhite Southerners had heard endlessly that âBlack Republicansâ planned to destroy slavery and confer equal citizen rights on ex-slaves,â the College of New Jerseyâs emeritus history professor writes in his book. So whenÂ Lincoln was elected as the first Republican presidentÂ in late 1860,Â âan extensive mass panicâ followed.
âThe Government is in the hands of those who are unfriendly to Slavery,â a U.S. senator from Georgia warned Congress the next month, for example. He prophesied not just abolition â but slave uprisings,Â âmurderings, poisonings, and revoltsâ under Lincolnâs reign.
âWhich was absolute garbage,â Crofts told The Washington Post. âLincoln hated slavery,â the professor said â but the incoming president had no desire to upend the Southern slave economy, lest he fracture his young party or risk a war.
Nevertheless, fear spread. And as Southern statesÂ started to secede,Â Unionists in the north urged Lincoln to compromise.
PetitionsÂ descended on Washington fromÂ Boston, New York City and Philadelphia, Crofts writes. The largest daily newspaper in the world, the New York Herald,Â implored Lincoln toÂ strike âa Union compromiseâ that would putÂ an end to the notion that his partyÂ wanted to âexterminate the white race in the South and set the negro free.â
Lincoln, it turned out, was amenable.
A conspiracy to compromise
While fantasiesÂ of freedÂ slaves running rampant drove politics in the South in 1860, policymakers in Washington debated a relatively narrow issue: whether to allow slaveryÂ on the U.S. frontiers.
âThe right to take slaves to the territories was a defining symbol of Southern equality in the Union,â Crofts writes. But Republicans, Lincoln included, drew their line here; they would condone slavery where it existed, but not allow its expansion.
Thurlow Weed, the politically connected editor of the Albany Journal, spent the end of 1860 publishing essays that Crofts callsÂ âtrial balloonsâ for his friends in Washington â to test whether Lincoln might be open to compromise onÂ the frontier slavery issue.
âOur Fathers found Slavery so deeply seated â¦ that they could not form a Union without recognizing and tolerating it,âÂ Weed wrote in mid-December, according to Crofts. He advocated a widely circulated plan called the Crittenden Compromise, which wouldÂ allow slavery in new southern territories only.
Weed published this essay and then hopped on a train to Springfield, Ill., to ask president-elect Lincoln what he thought of the idea.
Lincoln didnât think much of it, Crofts writes: âHe would not bend an inch toward them on the territories.â
ButÂ the historian cites evidence that LincolnÂ offered WeedÂ a differentÂ sort of compromise in that meeting.
Itâs in a Dec. 26 letter to Lincoln from Sen. William Henry Seward of New York â a high-ranking member of the Republican PartyÂ with whom Weed often conspired.
Seward had been working with other senators toÂ head off the Southâs secession movement.Â He told the president-elect that hisÂ committeeâs proposal wasÂ modeled off âtheÂ suggestions made by you, through Mr. Weed, as I understand it.â
The first proposal: âThat the Constitution should never be altered, so as to authorize Congress to abolish or interfere with slavery in the States.â
Seward drafted a constitutionalÂ amendment thatÂ same week, which can now be seen at the National Archives.
Itâs short, written in immaculate cursive, and signed by outgoing presidentÂ James Buchanan.
And as Crofts notes, the world âslaveryâÂ does not appear on it even once:
âNo amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of people held to labor or service by the laws of said State.â
ButÂ slaves were exactly what was meant. TheÂ amendment would have assuagedÂ slave ownersâ fears byÂ foreverÂ forbidding the federal government from freeing them.
âIt would be a formula forÂ reuniting the country politically,â Crofts said, aimed not so much atÂ hardcore secessionists in the Deep South, butÂ to convince people in âborderâÂ states such as Virginia that Lincoln had no designs on their slaves.
âLincolnâs fingerprints are on this thing,â Crofts told The Post.Â Not only did he probably suggest its creation, but he spent the daysÂ leading up to his inauguration trying to rally Congress behind it.
The slavery amendment â it would have been the 13th â divided Congress almost as soon as it was introduced.
âA mass of humanity jammed the hallwaysâ of the Senate building in January to hear SewardÂ pitch his plan, Crofts writes. Two days later, Rep. Thomas Corwin of Ohio reportedÂ on hisÂ House committeeâs version of the amendment, which his fellow Republicans refused to support.
Two congressmen, Crofts writes, condemnedÂ the bill as a âconstitutional decree of perpetual bondage.â Another lectured Republicans that to âvote for compromiseâ was toÂ âsow, on soil now free, the seeds of whips, chains, theft, robbery, and murder.â
Corwin despaired of ever passing the amendment through CongressÂ â let alone of then convincing state legislatures to ratify it, Crofts writes.
TheÂ congressmanÂ warned Lincoln that âa long and bloody civil war must followâ if they failed.
AndÂ so, less than two weeks before his inauguration, just after dawn on Feb. 23, 1861, Lincoln arrived by train in WashingtonÂ andÂ gave the billÂ a very powerful push.
âQuid pro quoâ
So badÂ was secessionÂ fervor by thenÂ that Lincoln traveled incognito, Crofts writes,Â lest assassins kill him on the way.
On his second day in Washington, Crofts writes, Lincoln met privately with the slavery amendmentâs House champion, Corwin, and âgave him the go aheadâ toÂ initiate a vote.
The nextÂ weekÂ was filled with chaotic late-night sessions and nail-biter votes in both the House and the Senate.Â Crofts cites newspaper reportsÂ of insider political gossip to argue that âLincoln undoubtedly worked behind the scenes to get the amendment passed.â
The historianÂ even seesÂ signsÂ that âsome kind of quid pro quoâ might haveÂ won several last-minute votes for the bill, which needed a two-thirds majority in each chamber.
Take Sen. Lot M. Morrill of Maine, whoÂ complained aloud that the amendment would change the âwhole spritâ of the Constitution â then inexplicably came out in support of it hours later, Crofts writes.
Or Thomas Theaker, a lame-duck congressman who withheld his vote on Feb. 27, then voted for the billÂ in a redo theÂ very next day, and was subsequently appointed to a U.S. Patent Office board.
Whatever happened, it worked. A cheering crowd and a marine band marched to Lincolnâs hotel after the House passed the amendment on Feb. 28, Crofts writes.
âThe president-elect responded graciously by promising to overcome all current âmisunderstanding.â â
âI have no objectionâ
A few daysÂ later,Â after an extraordinary session that lasted nearly the entire weekend, the Senate passed the amendment by a single vote at 5:20Â a.m. Monday.
Eight hours later, the new president of the United States stood in front of the U.S. Capitol, took an oath andÂ gave his inaugural address to a splintering nation.
âI have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists,âÂ Lincoln promised in his opening lines.
And toward the end, in a passage Crofts said was âslipped inâ:
âI understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution â which amendment, however, I have not seen â has passed Congress.â
Lincoln quoted theÂ resolutionâs text â slavery everlasting, if not in so many words â andÂ gave this endorsement to the crowd:
âHolding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable,â he said.
War breaks out
And so it might have been, irrevocable, had not a war come first.
President Lincoln and Seward â who had drafted theÂ amendment as a senator and was now theÂ secretary of state âÂ sentÂ its text toÂ the governors of every state in the splintering Union, to await ratification by their legislatures, Crofts writes.
The newspapers sounded optimistic, for a while. The Louisville Journal wrote that theÂ compromise âwill go far toward satisfying the South.â
But the conflict was already spiraling out of control by them, and Lincolnâs attention was soon diverted toÂ a crisis at Fort Sumter, where the Civil WarÂ was launched in April.
KentuckyÂ had managed to ratify the slavery amendmentÂ by then, Crofts writes. Ohio and Rhode Island would do so in the bloody weeks to follow, but it was too late.
âBecause the amendment was designed to prevent a war, it became irrelevant once the war broke out,â Crofts writes. âBefore long, Northerners who never could imagine using armed force against the slave system found that war forced them to do just that.â
The Civil War made realÂ what had been a secessionist fantasy weeks earlier: It turned Republicans into abolitionists.Â And in the final year of the war, the South nearly defeated, Lincoln pushed for a very differentÂ 13th AmendmentÂ than the one he first endorsed.
ThisÂ one was actually ratified,Â and it abolishedÂ slavery forever â the antithesis of an abandoned compromise.