February 7, 1861
Was it a chance for peace, a waste of time or a secret mission for Abraham Lincoln?
In early February, 1861, Maine Governor Israel Washburn announced he was sending delegates to a peace conference between America's feuding states. Washburn's action was approved in a February 7 resolve of the Maine Legislature.
The Governor noted that Maine’s delegates – William Pitt Fessenden, Lot M. Morrill, Daniel E. Somes, John J. Perry, Ezra B. French, Freeman H. Morse, Stephen Coburn, and Stephen C. Foster – would be "subject at all times to the control of the legislature" as they traveled to the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., to bargain on the fate of the fracturing union.
Washburn probably had few illusions about the meeting. Republican leaders didn't believe the conference would achieve peace. In fact, many hoped it would fail.
In his book Lincoln and the Decision for War: the Northern Response to Secession, Russell McClintock wrote that northern Republicans were tired of negotiating with slavery supporters. But in early 1861, Abraham Lincoln was in a tricky spot. He’d been elected president, but not inaugurated. It wasn’t clear how big a country he’d actually lead. States in the Deep South were set to secede. However, slave states in the Middle South - Tennessee and Kentucky, for example - were wavering.
So Lincoln and other top Republicans decided to subvert the peace conference to their goals. The plan: send Republican delegates to talk, buy time and agree to nothing of value.
Such "moderation" could be viewed favorably in the Middle South, and states there might then stay in the Union. Also, Republicans could prevent additional sellouts to slavery supporters. Finally, the conference might keep a larger Union intact long enough for Lincoln to take over.
As expected, Southerners demanded compromises on slavery as soon as the conference opened. Republicans stalled. Weeks of debate followed. Finally, the conference offered a tangled compromise agreement to Congress. It failed, just as Republicans had planned. Congress adjourned.
But, only seven states in the Deep South initially seceded, and none from the Middle South. The rest watched as Lincoln became their President March 4, 1861.
- Laws of Maine: 1861, Available at the Maine State Archives
- Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession Russell McClintock, 2008, University of North Carolina Press, Available at the Maine State Library