Much Talking, Little ListeningBy JAMIE MALANOWSKI
Feb. 24 – March 1, 1861
In this long and ominous secession season, Washington has whipsawed between turbulence and torpor, between the pressing urge to do something and the prudent dictum to wait for the new man. This week, with that new man finally present on the scene, and his installation in office imminent, there has been a sudden cascade of activity, a dash to solve the problem that has been festering now for months. Most of what transpired this week, however, was sound and fury signifying nothing, the usual result of too much talking and too little listening.
From their roosts in Willard’s Hotel, the old pigeons of the peace convention completed their monument to ineffectiveness. Assembled more in the hope than the belief that the Solons of yesteryear could solve the country’s most wrenching problem by summoning the wisdom and resolve that their sons do not possess, these shells of their former selves spent three weeks in Willard’s parlors, striking self-satisfied postures of defiance and concern. In the end, they voted out the same set of responses to the crisis that had been in front of America since before Christmas — agreements and bargains highly similar to those Senator John Crittenden has devoted months of his life to creating.
And indeed, they barely did that, voting against proposal after proposal until the colorful Commodore Robert Stockton of New Jersey — hero of the Battle of Baltimore in 1812, pirate hunter, entrepreneur, filibustero and former senator — sent the delegates into a recess with a final cri de coeur, “The country is in jeopardy and we are called upon to save it,’’ he said. “Politics should not be thought of in view of the question of disunion. By what measure of execration will posterity judge a man who contributed toward the dissolution of the Union? Shall we stand here and higgle about terms when the roar of the tornado is heard that threatens to sweep our government from the face of the earth? . . . In the days of Rome, Curtius threw himself into the chasm when told by the oracle that the sacrifice of his life would save his country. Alas! Is there no Curtius here?’’
When the conference reconvened, it approved by a 9-8 vote a plan that was promptly submitted to the Congress, where a Senate committee all but sneered at the proposals in defeating them 28 to 7, and the House declined to even consider them. All those weeks spent talking, and in the end, no one listened.
In fairness, the House had a packed agenda (in the other body, Senators Cameron and Hale were occupying the floor in order to mock the folly of appropriating funds to support the Smithsonian Institution). One group was pushing a bill that would call for a constitutional convention to discuss the issue of secession (a late-arriving idea that might have done some good when President Buchanan first floated it in November). Another group of moderates led by Rep. Dan Sickles of New York tried to get the Crittenden Compromise back on the floor, perhaps hoping that Lincoln might like the idea more as president than he did when he had the plan killed at Christmas. To head off Sickles this time, Rep. Tom Corwin introduced a constitutional amendment that would prevent any federal interference with slavery in the places where it already existed. Even though this measure had Lincoln’s lukewarm approval, radical Republicans stopped this idea with a procedural roadblock.
So nothing was accomplished on Tuesday. On Wednesday, chaos erupted. Like a child who would spend an afternoon repeatedly stacking blocks and then smashing the stacks, the House called bill after bill to a vote, only to defeat each seriatim. First the call for a constitutional convention lost. Then the Sickles plan lost. Then Corwin managed to get the introductory resolutions to his amendment passed, but then lost on the next round when he failed to win approval by the three-quarters majority amendments require.
On Thursday, a stunning reversal, as Republicans pulled off a parliamentary maneuver and got the amendment back on the floor. Just when it seemed that it would once again fall short of achieving the necessary three-quarters majority, arms were twisted and seven members switched votes either in favor or to abstain, and the amendment passed.
Now it sits in the Senate, awaiting its turn on the legislative queue with the unstoppable, unsinkable, unquenchable Crittenden Compromise, which has been resurrected in the upper chamber. The thinking is that the hard reality of a Confederate government in Montgomery might at long last soften the unyielding radical Republican line, but so far the abolitionists show no movement. “This is not a question of compromise,’’ said Sen. Zachariah Chandler of Michigan. “This is a question of whether we have, or have not, a government. . . . We are told that six states have seceded, and that the Union is broken up; and all we can do is send commissioners to treat with traitors with arms in their hands; treat with men who have fired upon your flag; treat with men who have seized your custom-houses, who have erected batteries upon your navigable waters and who now stand defying your authority. Sir, I will never submit to this degradation. I would rather join the Commanches.’’
“God forbid, I hope not,’’ quipped Senator Louis Wigfall of Texas. “They have already suffered much from their contact with the whites.’’ The waggish Wigfall is an ardent secessionist who continues to sit in the Senate and make secessionist speeches while collecting a federal salary, even though his state seceded some weeks ago. Perhaps this is more evidence of his lively wit.
Even if this proposed amendment passes the Senate, it will not become part of the Constitution until it is ratified by three-quarters of the states. At present, this would include the seven seceded states. It is ironic, of course, that it is these seven states that the amendment was most written to appease, and it is these seven who clearly no longer have an interest. The challenge is not to find phrases that would soothe South Carolina’s feelings. She is gone. She and her sisters are not open to terms of reconstruction. Washington talks and talks and talks, but the ears that need to hear these proposals are open to hearing no more. They have absconded to Montgomery (Wigfall excepted).
Things may change, of course. The great momentum for secession has abated. The passions felt in Charleston in December are viewed more coolly in the upper south today. No one knows what the future holds for the Confederate States of America, if whether a year from now it will still consist of the same seven states, sitting on an underpopulated shelf on the underside of North America, or if will it swell in size, population and wealth with the addition of some or all of the other slave states. Will the Confederate States become a glorious slaveholding Caribbean empire, or a small collection of ill-coordinated states, full of unhappy unionists and unquiet slaves, bordered on the south by a hostile Mexico and on the north by an unfriendly U.S.A.? In that case, perhaps the existence of a slave amendment might pave the way for reconciliation.
Ultimately, the decision of the Virginia Secession Convention in Richmond, now having met for 14 days of debate with no end in sight, will go a long way towards defining that future path. Virginia — gigantic, rich, influential, home to Mount Vernon, Monticello, Williamsburg and other shrines of the Revolution — will undoubtedly set the example for other upper south states who are unsure about departing the union.
The debates in Richmond have been colored by a particular skepticism. Largely absent are the heated justifications of slavery and the recitations of wrongs that have been staples of the other secession conventions. Here, the practicality of disunion is being judged. The departed states, it is pointed out, would like a resumption of the international slave trade, which the upper south states, who profit from the internal slave trade, do not. The departed states, it is noted, want to end the tariff and raise money through direct taxation, something that would affect Virginia, with her large population and varied industries, particularly harshly. Raising a new army, building a new navy, creating a new diplomatic corps, all will cost the departing states many millions.
Which of the upper south states will join the confederacy and help Virginia bear those costs? “Delaware assuredly will not,’’ noted delegate Samuel Moore of Rockbridge. “Maryland is bankrupt the moment she attempts it. She has built her railroad to the Ohio River — she is dependent upon the proceeds of that road to pay the interest of her debt. We cannot count upon her then. Can we count upon Kentucky? Or Tennessee?’’
So far the Richmond skeptics seem to be holding the ultras at bay, but the close of the Peace Convention did nothing to help their cause; departing Willard’s as something less than the national savior he had expected himself to have become, ex-President Tyler assumed his seat the Secession Convention muttering about Northern stubbornness and describing the convention’s recommendations “a poor, rickety, disconnected affair, not worthy of your acceptance.’’ Nor have moderates received much help from Mr. Lincoln. Some delegates met with the president-elect and implored him to make some gesture in favor of peace. Foreswear the use of troops against secessionists, one delegate, former Senator William Rives, urgently advised; your agreement to do that might tip the balance, while your refusal will all but guarantee Virginia’s secession.
“Mr. Rives!’’ said an emphatic Lincoln, jumping from his chair. “If Virginia will stay in, I will withdraw the troops from Fort Sumter.’’
It was a stunning offer, but ultimately hollow;it wouldn’t appease anyone in Virginia who wanted to go, and held no appeal for anyone who wanted to stay. And while the offer does provide an unguarded glimpse into Lincoln’s state of mind, ultimately his remark joins the Peace Convention’s stillborn proposals to an uninterested Congress, and Congress’s menu of impotent entreaties to the departed slaveholders as examples of people speaking without benefit of listeners who mattered.
Regardless, by next week, all of this week’s talking will have ceased, and every ear will be attuned to the voice of one man. For four months, secession has challenged the existence of the American republic, and people north and south have anxiously waited to hear how that man — not citizen Lincoln, or president-elect Lincoln, but a duly inaugurated, legally sworn-in 16th president of the United States Lincoln — will respond. The gauntlet of secession has been thrown in the old union’s face. Next week its new president will at long last respond.
Sources: To learn more about these events, please see “The Emergence of Lincoln,’’ by Allan Nevins (Charles Scribner’s and Sons, 1950); “Lincoln President Elect,’’ by Harold Holzer (Simon and Schuster, 2008); and “Days of Defiance,” by Maury Klein (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997).
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that two-thirds’ majority is required for ratification; it is three-quarters, and has been corrected.
Jamie Malanowski has been an editor at Time, Esquire and Spy, and is the author of the novel “The Coup.”