An Ex-President Tries to Save the Union

Six months after John Brown’s execution, Abraham Lincoln was nominated for president by the Republican Party. Brown was indirectly responsible for disposing of his chief opponent, Senator William Seward. The senator had been in Europe when Brown seized Harpers Ferry. On Seward’s return to America, he was dismayed to find voters blaming him for the reckless foray.

The New York Herald’s attack on Seward on the day the Harpers Ferry story broke convinced Democrats they could drive Seward out of politics. He was up for reelection in the Senate as well as running for president. The Democrats followed up the Herald’s blast with a pamphlet, The Rise and Progress of the Bloody Outbreak at Harpers Ferry, which accused Seward and Republicans in general of creating—and in some cases justifying—Brown.

Southern newspapers, almost all Democratic, quickly took up the cry, pointing as evidence to the way so many Republican editors and politicians were frantically backing away from Brown. The Herald continued its assault, claiming that a Brown accomplice had visited Seward in 1858 and told him exactly what Brown planned to do at Harpers Ferry. Seward vehemently denied any connection to Brown and called Harpers Ferry an act of rebellion and treason. He even said Brown’s execution was “necessary and just.” Trapped by his need to retain his abolitionist supporters, Seward also called Brown’s fate “pitiable.” These statements did not do him much good with northern voters who dreaded a civil war. Lincoln, on the other hand, had made several statements deploring abolitionists and their tactics. With no taint of radicalism about him, he easily won the nomination in Chicago.1

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The drama in the nominating stage of the 1860 election was all on the Democratic side. Their success in linking Republicans with John Brown made it a near certainty that the new party would win no votes in the South and would lose quite a few in the North. This meant that the Democrats were the nation’s only hope of electing a president who could hold the two seething sections of the nation together.

Their convention met in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 23, 1860. In the aura of the John Brown–stirred hysteria gripping the nation, sensible men should have urged another site. The city and the state were still the headquarters for secessionist thinking, even though their patron saint, John Calhoun, had been dead for almost ten years. Everyone knew the leading candidate, Stephen Douglas, was still locked in a ferocious feud with President James Buchanan over Kansas. Maneuvering in the background was Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, who had a convoluted scheme to make a proslavery man president.

In the foreground stood the chairman of the convention, balding Caleb Cushing of Massachusetts, as oily—and brilliant—a character as ever slithered through American politics. His chief claim to fame (or better, power) was engineering the presidential nomination of fellow New Englander Franklin Pierce for president in 1852. Ostensibly, Cushing went to Charleston in search of a compromise. But he was already on record as believing that the separation of North and South was inevitable.

Cushing did nothing to block or dissuade Jefferson Davis, who demanded a “black code” for the federal government that would legalize slavery in all the territories. The chairman may have been covertly involved in Davis’s plan to break up the convention and create a third party, which would produce a winner without an electoral vote majority. That event would throw the final decision into Congress in a repetition of 1824, which had enabled John Quincy Adams to become president. Davis was hoping to wangle Senator Joseph Lane of Oregon, a pro-Southerner like Buchanan, into the White House.

Other Southerners trumped Davis with a demand that the party’s plank include a declaration that slavery was “right.” When Stephen Douglas and his mostly northern backers demurred, fifty-one delegates from the eight cotton states walked out. In 1948, hard-core segregationists would take a similar walk; the party’s leaders simply declared them ex-Democrats and resumed the convention without them, nominating President Harry S Truman for another term. Cushing refused to rule that the walkouts had left the party. To win the nomination, Douglas would still have to win two thirds of the total number of delegates, rather than two-thirds of the delegates who remained.

After dozens of ballots, Douglas was still far short of the necessary figure. The infuriated northern Democrats—a clear majority—abandoned Charleston for Baltimore, where they reconvened. The cotton-state delegates followed them, triggering a wild battle about who should and who would not be seated. This led to another walkout—this time by 110 southern delegates. Douglas’s backers then named him the party’s “official” nominee.2

The Democracy, as Andrew Jackson had called it, was no longer a party. It was a mélange of anger and ideology cartwheeling toward dissolution. The southern delegates convened a rump convention over which Cushing, showing his convictions (or lack of them), presided. They nominated Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge for president and Senator Lane for vice president. Breckinridge was already vice president under Buchanan. Their platform was proslavery in every imaginable respect. It now seems likely that secessionists, with the help of the pliable Cushing, were in control of this breakaway group from the start.3

Despairing moderates from the North and South nominated a third ticket, whose platform consisted of little more than a call to obey the Constitution. They named former Whig Senator John Bell of Tennessee and Edward Everett of Massachusetts as their candidates. Everett was a famous orator and former governor and senator, who often attacked abolitionists as a menace to the Union.

The election was vigorously conducted, with parades and bonfires and speeches. The Bell-Everett parades featured a huge bell, which was clanged to warn people that the Union was in mortal danger. Douglas was the only candidate who campaigned in the South as well as the North, exhausting himself with day after day of speeches in his roaring over-the-top style.4

On November 6, Abraham Lincoln won the election with a clear majority in the electoral college. He carried every northern state except New Jersey, but he got only a handful of votes in the South, probably from nostalgic ex-Whigs. His three opponents polled almost a million more votes, a clear signal that the Republicans were by no means a majority party. The Democrats still controlled both houses of Congress. Lincoln would have to work with them to implement any policy. But in the South, where John Brown had reignited Thomas Jefferson’s nightmare of a race war, the Republican victory only deepened the panic.5

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In Port Gibson, Mississippi, two days after Lincoln’s election, an orator declared that a “black Republican” president meant that the South was on its way to “the bloody scenes on St. Domingo, the destruction of the white race, and the relapsing into barbarism of the black race.” He was joined by a chorus of speakers and writers in other states. In New Orleans, the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church predicted a repetition of the horrors that “converted St. Domingo into a howling waste.” The sermon was published and sold 100,000 copies. An editorial in the Montgomery, Alabama, Advertiser declared that government by abolitionists could have only one horrific outcome: “Look at St. Domingo.”6

In South Carolina, huge rallies led by marching bands and thousands of men waving palmetto leaves called for secession from a government run by the “bigoted blackguards of the New England states.” Andrew Pickens Calhoun, son of the famous senator, predicted that Lincoln’s antislavery rhetoric would invite a repetition of Santo Domingo. On December 20, 1860, little more than six weeks after Lincoln’s election, a Charleston convention voted to secede, 169 to 0. In another forty days, state after state from the Deep South joined the procession—Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.7

In some states, such as Alabama and Georgia, the decision was far from unanimous. But there was little doubt that a majority of the voters backed secession. The only state to put the decision to a ballot was Texas, where secession won by 3 to 1. Senator Judah Benjamin of Louisiana, one of the first Jewish-Americans to win high office, described the Deep South’s mood as a “wild torrent of passion . . . a revolution of the most intense character.”8

Joy was the prevailing emotion in celebrations after the conventions voted. No one seemed to worry about a war. There was an almost universal opinion that the Yankees were cowards who would flee at the first glimpse of a southern bayonet. If any bloodshed occurred, it would not be enough to fill “a lady’s thimble,” according to one South Carolinian. On February 8, delegates from the seceded states met in Montgomery, Alabama, and declared that they were the Confederate States of America. The following day they elected Jefferson Davis as their president. Next came a constitution, which provided no federal supreme court and declared that their congress could never pass a law “denying or impairing the right of property in Negro slaves.”9

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In Texas, Colonel Robert E. Lee was stunned and dismayed by the swiftness of the Union’s collapse. He was even more dismayed when friends began resigning from the U.S. Army to join the army of the new confederacy. Kentuckian Albert Sidney Johnson, another West Pointer who had won distinction in the Mexican War, had been in command in distant San Francisco. He had tried to stay neutral, but someone in the Buchanan administration abruptly removed him. It may have been a Democrat who wanted him to join the new confederacy. Virginian Joseph Johnston, a West Point classmate and close friend of Lee, struggled to stay neutral as chaos swirled around him in Washington, DC, where he was serving as the army’s quartermaster general.10

Lee still hoped that the politicians could find a formula to lure the seceded states back into the Union. He deplored the extremists on both sides and trusted there was “wisdom and patriotism enough” somewhere to rescue the situation. “I cannot anticipate so great a calamity to the nation as the dissolution of the Union,” he told a niece in one of his many letters. At the same time he admitted he sympathized with his fellow Southerners. He resented “the aggressions of the North, their denial of equal rights of our citizens to the common territories of the commonwealth.”

Lee approved President Buchanan’s December message to Congress, in which he blamed the looming disaster on a disease in the public mind and urged the legislators to pass an “explanatory amendment” to the Constitution, affirming the right of property in slaves and an obligation to protect this right in the territories. “The propositions of the president are eminently right and just,” Lee told his oldest son, Custis. The lame-duck president’s message was as totally ignored as the departing tirade of his Democratic predecessor, Franklin Pierce.11

Colonel Lee’s temper visibly rose when some cotton-state politicians uttered threats against Virginia and other border states because they had not joined the march to secession. Even more disturbing was the discovery that several politicians from these seceded states wanted to know why Lee had not resigned his commission and joined the Confederate army. He exploded into uncharacteristic rage that left his fellow soldiers stunned and amazed. They were even more amazed by Lee’s reaction when they heard the news that Texas had seceded. “I shall never forget [Lee’s] look of astonishment . . . his lips trembled and his eyes [were] full of tears,” one friend later recalled.12

During these weeks, the colonel read Edward Everett’s The Life of George Washington, a somewhat sketchy but admiring portrait. “How his spirit would be grieved to see the wreck of his mighty labors,” Lee wrote in another letter. He refused to believe that his contemporaries would “destroy the work of [Washington’s] noble deeds.” Personally, he was ready to sacrifice “everything but honor” to save the Union. He had no doubt whatsoever that secession was treason. The Constitution had declared the union “perpetual” in its preamble.

Over the crackling telegraph came news that stirred hope. Virginia had gone to the polls and elected a convention to consider secession. By a two to one margin, they had chosen delegates opposed to rupturing the Union. On February 4, 1861, came a new surprise. Colonel Lee was relieved of command of the Second Cavalry and ordered to report to Washington, DC, by March 1. As Lee departed, one of his younger officers asked, “Colonel, do you intend to go South or remain North?”

“I shall never bear arms against the Union,” Lee replied. “But it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in defense of my native state.” He was apparently thinking of the threats Virginia had received from the cotton-states firebrands.13

Already it was obvious that many people were concerned about Colonel Lee’s role in the looming conflict. He probably suspected his summons to Washington had not a little to do with this large fact. At the beginning of the year, General Winfield Scott had sent a pamphlet to Texas advising his officers on how to deal with the crisis. He had ordered it shown to Lee’s commander, General David Twigs, and then to Colonel Lee.

The officer who delivered the document remarked good humoredly, “Ah! I know General Scott fully believes that God Almighty had to spit on his hands to make Bob Lee.” In Virginia, an Arlington neighbor put the issue more explicitly: “For some the question of ‘What will Colonel Lee do?’ was second only in interest to ‘What will Virginia do?’”14

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In Massachusetts, John Albion Andrew, the man who had helped the Secret Six escape prosecution for backing John Brown, had just been elected governor. He had only one thing on his mind: war. He wrote fiery letters to other New England governors, telling them that southern society would have to be totally reorganized to remove their slave-owning mindset. “We must conquer the South,” he declared. “To do this we must bring the Northern [public] mind to a comprehension of this necessity.”

Andrew decided to visit Washington to assess the situation there. He met with Charles Francis Adams, son of Old Man Eloquent. Adams was recoiling from the prospect of a civil war, but he feared the South was going to start one. He told Andrew that there was a good chance Southerners would seize the capital and prevent Lincoln’s inauguration. Adams introduced Andrews to Virginia Senator James M. Mason, who had headed the committee that investigated John Brown. Perhaps recalling Andrew’s role in advising John Brown’s backers, Mason told the governor that the South would never rejoin a Union in which Massachusetts, led by people like him, was a member.

Andrew retreated to the company of Republicans such as Senator Charles Sumner. He had recovered from his beating and was back in Congress, more South-hating than ever. On Christmas Eve, Andrew joined a Republican congressional conference, which concluded that the nation’s future depended on preserving the integrity of the Union—and destroying The Slave Power—“though it cost a million lives.” No one realized these words were a prophecy.15

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Another Virginian watched the rush to secession with mind and heart at least as troubled as Colonel Lee’s. In Sherwood Forest, his plantation in Charles City County on the lower James River, seventy-one-year-old ex-president John Tyler told a friend, “We have fallen on evil times. . . . Madness rules the hour and statesmanship . . . gives place to a miserable demagogism.” Unlike Lee, Tyler had been living in Virginia since he left the White House in 1845. In these fifteen years, he had seen the state’s slave population continue to grow. In his home country, blacks now outnumbered whites more than two to one.

This mounting imbalance was the root of the national crisis, as Tyler saw it. Virginia, he told his friend in the same letter, “will never consent to have her blacks cribbed and confined within proscribed and specified limits—and thus be involved in all the consequences of a war of the races in some 20 or 30 years. She must have expansion . . . But no more slave states has apparently become the shibboleth of Northern political faith.”

Few people, North or South, have so succinctly stated the hidden heart of the crisis between the two sections. No more slave states meant James Madison’s idea of diffusion as a step to the eventual elimination of slavery had become impossible as a way to calm the South’s fears.16

What to do? As an ex-president, Tyler’s devotion to the Union remained intense. He decided to risk his health—and his political reputation—by proposing a solution to the crisis. On December 14, 1860, he issued a call for a peace convention composed of delegates from twelve border states, six slave and six free. These states, he explained to his old friend Caleb Cushing, were the ones most interested in keeping the peace. “If they cannot come to an understanding, then the political union is gone.”17

Over the next few weeks, Tyler’s idea acquired weight as other proposals for compromise were voted down in Congress. Arkansas and Missouri had also elected for their conventions a majority of delegates opposed to secession. North Carolina and Tennessee voters rejected calling a convention, so strong was their Union sentiment.

In the North a surprising Tyler ally emerged—Senator William Seward. He had abandoned the irrepressible conflict and higher-law side of his persona and become an apostle of a peaceful solution. “Every thought we think,” he told president-elect Lincoln, “should be conciliatory.” A dubious Lincoln went along, but his reply, if John Tyler had read it, would have instantly terminated the peace convention. Lincoln told Seward that conciliation must not include a compromise “which assists or permits” the extension of slavery. Free soil for free (white) men was still the linchpin of the Republican Party.

Meanwhile, the politicians in Richmond turned John Tyler’s brainchild into a grotesque abortion. The legislature issued a call for a peace convention of delegates from all the states still in the Union. Tyler instantly saw that this idea would produce nothing but bedlam. With seven southern states in secession, the North would have a majority on every question. Tyler rushed a plea for his original idea to the Richmond Enquirer, which he bolstered with a searing description of what a race war would do to the nation.

Virginia’s legislature stuck to its call for all the states to send delegates. Tyler agreed to become one of Virginia’s five spokesmen and was soon in Washington, DC, with his wife, Julia. She was delighted to be returning to the scene of her first-lady triumphs. But Tyler grew more and more discouraged as Texas and Louisiana joined the cotton states in secession, and Arkansas, Tennessee, and Virginia warned President Buchanan that they would secede if the Federal government attempted to “coerce” the departed states. The nadir was a meeting with Buchanan in the White House at which the exhausted president whined that the South had rewarded all his efforts on their behalf with base ingratitude. Their seizure of federal forts along their seacoast had made him look inept and impotent.18

Things only got worse when the peace convention met in a hall next to Willard’s Hotel on February 4, 1861. There was no shortage of political skill and experience in the conclave. Among the 132 delegates were 6 former presidential cabinet members, 19 former governors, 14 ex-senators, and 50 ex-congressman. But almost all these men were near Tyler’s age, and many were in precarious health. The newspapers dubbed them “the Old Gentleman’s Convention.” Tyler was elected president. One reporter said he was an apt choice, calling him “a tottering ashen ruin.”19

There was some truth to those harsh words. Tyler’s health was not good; he suffered from a debilitating stomach disorder that caused severe indigestion and an almost continuous pain in his abdomen. Nonetheless, he opened the proceedings with a rousing speech, calling on everyone to join him in achieving “a triumph over party.” The convention immediately began failing to obey this noble injunction. The sessions were marred by bickering, irrelevant speech making and not a little sectional hostility.

Several times Tyler lost all control of the proceedings and sat helplessly while delegates shouted insults at each other. The problem was the one he had foreseen: too many delegates from too many states. Spokesmen from New York and Massachusetts had no interest in a compromise. They simply reiterated the Republican Party’s resistance to any extension of slavery, anywhere.

A private letter from Julia Tyler on February 13 gives a glimpse of how the hopes of both Tylers were sinking. She deplored the way New York and Massachusetts were trying to “defeat this patriotic effort at pacification.” The only consolation was the belief that even if the convention failed, Virginia would “have sustained her reputation” as a national leader. The Old Dominion would be able to “retire with dignity” and “join without loss of time her more southern sisters.”20

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When President-elect Abraham Lincoln arrived in Washington, DC, for his inauguration, ex-President John Tyler arranged a meeting with him. He brought along a delegation from the peace convention. A Virginia member, James A. Seddon, ignored Lincoln’s attempts at cordiality and dared him to explain why he had backed a murderer like John Brown and a mischief maker like William Lloyd Garrison, whose writings were spread through the South to inspire slave insurrections.

Lincoln’s cordiality vanished. “Mr. Seddon,” he said. “I will not suffer such a statement to go unchallenged, because it is not true. A gentleman of your intelligence should not make such assertions.”

A wealthy New York delegate, William E. Dodge, warned Lincoln that it was “for you to say whether the whole nation shall be plunged into bankruptcy . . . and the grass shall grow in the streets of our commercial cities.”

Lincoln’s voice remained cold. He told Dodge that his question seemed to ignore the fact that he was about to take an oath to preserve and defend the Constitution. “Not the Constitution as I would like it, but as it is.

Even more dismaying to Tyler, Lincoln insisted that he would not consider the Constitution preserved and defended until it was “enforced and obeyed in every part of every one of the United States.”21

The meeting resolved John Tyler’s growing doubts about the value of the peace convention. The ex-president changed from a unionist to a secessionist who stubbornly clung to a hope for ultimate peace. As he now saw it, Virginia’s best choice was departure from the Union. If she did it with the aplomb of a leader, there was a good chance that she would bring the rest of the slave border states—Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and Delaware—with her. Possibly even some free border states such as Pennsylvania would follow her lead. That would create a southern confederacy strong enough to discourage any northern attempt to resolve the crisis with bayonets. Once force was removed as an option, perhaps negotiation could achieve peace without bloodshed or permanent disunion.

This imaginary, improbable balance of power was the ironic remnant of John Tyler’s hopes for his peace conference. He watched, more or less passively, as the delegates, after additional days and nights of wrangling, produced a proposal for a constitutional amendment that would allow slavery to be extended to the Pacific coast along the 36′30 line of the old Missouri Compromise. South of the line any state could vote to legalize slavery if her citizens wanted it. The idea was not much different from proposals already presented and rejected by the Republican-dominated Congress.

Tyler dutifully sent this message up to Capitol Hill, where it was ignored by both Democrats and Republicans. The ex-president returned to Virginia and on February 28 gave a speech on the steps of Richmond’s Exchange Hotel, calling for immediate secession. To his consternation, nothing happened. The convention delegates and the voters who had sent them were still heavily pro-Union and were waiting to hear what President Lincoln had to say at his inauguration on March 4.22

Nine months later a weary ex-President Tyler died gazing into his wife’s eyes, after a massive heart attack. His last words were: “Perhaps it is best.”23

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